Christ and Culture

During the week of October 12th one of my colleague pastors, Jasyon Downer  posed this question “Should Christianity be culturally relevant?” on his facebook wall.  It sparked some interest among the group of persons who usually interact around theological and socio-political issues on social media.  Below are a few samples of the responses.  Quite fortuitously this morning I came across excerpts from a new book from one of my favorite authors, Phillip Yancey in which he tackles that very questions.  The excerpt is reproduced below.  The excerpt was sent out as a newsletter from Faith Gateway and can be viewed in full here.

Dudley McLean Yoder points out ” Some elements of culture the church categorically rejects (pornography. tyranny, cultic idolatry). Other dimensions of culture it accepts within clear limits (economic production, commerce, the graphic arts, paying taxes for peacetime civil government). To still other dimensions of culture Christian faith gives a new motivation and coherence (agriculture, family life, literacy. conflict resolution, empowerment). Still others it strips of their claims to possess autonomous truth and value, and uses them as vehicles of communication (philosophy, language. Old Testament ritual, music). Still other forms of culture are created by the Christian churches (hospitals, service of the poor, generalized education).”

Sean Major-Campbell The fact is religion has always operated in context. Christianity in contexts where polygamy is practiced, has blessed such unions. Polygamy is Biblically recognized mode of marriage anyway.

Leroy Ezeonyeukwuugwu Montaque Jayson Downer If it is not, it is not Christianity as the New Testament teaches. To the Jew, become a Jew and to Gentiles, a Gentile so that you can win some. It now answers why though we have so many churches per square mile, we are getting more alienated from society. Read Gleaner and Observer post having to deal with anything church and you’ll read how Jamaicans see the church.
Dudley McLean Fr. Emile Mersch, S.J.

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Document Information
Chapter4 of Fr. Mersch’s book on the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ.
Larger Work:
Morality and the Mystical Body
Pages: 61-96
Publisher & Date:
P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1939
Jesus Christ, according to Saint Thomas, is a first principle in the order of those who have grace. He is the Chief, and all their supernatural life and activity derive from His influx on His members. So this life and this activity have in Him their first norm, as they have their origin in Him. It is then from Him that we must learn what Christians are and how they ought to act, since it is by causes that we may best know effects. But, in Jesus Christ, what is first is what He is, His person, His reality. What he has done, wished and ordered, I comes second and has value only because of His personal! dignity. Operari sequitur esse, says the Scholastic adage. This is the logical and supernatural concatenation: the conduct of a Christian should be regulated by the life of grace which is given to him, by the precepts of Christ, and by the life of Christ. And all of this: Christian life, commandments and examples of the Saviour, is derived from what the Saviour is in Himself.

The Christological dogma, that is to say, the doctrine of the Church concerning the person of Jesus, is, consequently, the first foundation of the science which studies Christian actions: Christian morality is essentially theological.

Jesus himself showed little concern for secular politics, calling Herod “that fox,” stonewalling Pontius Pilate with his lack of self defense, and leaving us with the enigmatic rule, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

The apostle Paul, in contrast, used the full privilege of Roman citizenship.He confronted culture with the new message of Jesus while simultaneously showing respect for political authority. He testified before imperial officials and at times relied on the Roman military to protect him from his religious enemies. When arrested, he appealed his case up the ladder of the Roman justice system, where he got a final hearing with a tragic end.

In short, the New Testament presents government as necessary, even ordained by God, but certainly no sponsor or friend to faith. Jesus, Paul, and most of the twelve disciples died as martyrs, after all, and the early Christians faced periodic waves of persecution from Roman emperors.

Two centuries later Christians viewed with thanksgiving and relief the conversion of the emperor Constantine, who granted Christianity protected status. Soon it became the official state religion. Over the next millennium in Europe, church and state interplayed like dancing partners, sometimes locked in tight embrace and sometimes flinging each other across the ballroom floor. The global spread of Christianity introduced new church/state variations in places like Africa and the Americas.

During the Eisenhower era of the 1950s, about the time “In God We Trust” was added to U.S. coins, theologian H. Richard Niebuhr published a book that became a classic. Christ and Culture describes five different approaches to how religion and government, or church and state, might relate to each other. Niebuhr called one approach “Christ above culture,” referring to times when the church wielded the real power. Europe’s Holy Roman Empire perfected this model: royalty kneeled before the pope, not vice versa.

At the other end of the spectrum, Anabaptists and other splinter groups separated themselves from the surrounding culture; “Christ against culture,” Niebuhr labeled their approach. The dissenters’ refusal to take oaths, to doff their caps to authorities, and to serve in the army and on juries infuriated their governments, and as a result European countries cruelly persecuted them. North America served as a haven for many of these groups, including Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, and Hutterites.

John Calvin’s model, adopted by Puritans in America, calls for Christ to transform culture, bringing society in line with Christian values as far as possible. Around the same time, Lutherans developed a doctrine of Christ in paradox with culture. On earth we are subject to two kingdoms, said Martin Luther: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. (Of course, sometimes the government may ask Christians to do what goes against their convictions, bringing the two kingdoms into conflict: in Luther’s homeland many of Hitler’s soldiers used the excuse, “We were obeying the secular kingdom.”)

Finally, a fifth group identifies Christ with culture. This approach may take many forms, such as the ethnic groups (like Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats) who blend religion and culture. Niebuhr used the Social Gospel movement as an American example: as they work to reform society, these folks tend to absorb the culture around them, and in time the distinctives of their faith may disappear.

Reading Niebuhr’s book in my college days left me feeling enlightened but as confused as ever. All five approaches seemed to have something to contribute, and in fact I could point to biblical examples of each one, especially in the Old Testament.

Kings such as David and Solomon virtually combined church and state. Prophets often denounced the surrounding culture — yet even as the prophet Elijah was violently opposing Ahab’s regime, a “devout believer in the Lord” named Obadiah ran Ahab’s palace while sheltering God’s true prophets on the side. Amos and Hosea thundered against the state; Isaiah acted as a kind of court prophet. Daniel held high office in two different pagan governments and Nehemiah led a detachment of Persian cavalry.

Theologian John Howard Yoder pointed out that Christians will never wholeheartedly embrace or reject culture, but rather we must discriminate among its various parts. We will categorically reject some elements (pornography, tyranny, human trafficking), accept others within limits (commerce, transportation, taxes), and provide a new motivation to others (family life, education, peacemaking). We will use some aspects of culture (music, art, language), albeit in our own way, and we will heartily promote certain activities (hospices, care for orphans, homeless shelters, soup kitchens).

Is there one best way for Christians to relate to politics and culture, especially in a democracy where we have a rightful voice?

Should we withdraw into a counterculture and devote our energies to the kingdom of God, or should we actively work to transform society? And if we choose the second path, can we do so in a way that does not drown out our core message of love and grace? As Lesslie Newbigin posed the question, “Can one who goes the way of the Cross sit in the seat of Pilate when it falls vacant?”

With all the God-talk in politics today, younger voters may be surprised to learn that evangelicals’ love affair with politics is a recent phenomenon. During my childhood, conservative churches did little “meddling” in politics, emphasizing instead personal behavior and preparation for the next life. In Niebuhr’s term we were mostly Christ-against-culture, and only in the 1980s did anyone start talking about a Moral Majority. In the next decades a clear pattern emerged, as many polls attest: the more vocal Christians became in the political arena, the more negatively they were viewed. Not long ago a huge majority of the uncommitted still viewed Christians favorably. Now, as I have mentioned, a diminishing minority of young “outsiders” have a favorable impression of Christianity and only 3 percent have a good impression of evangelicals.

Have Christians obscured the good news by their efforts to restore morality to the broader culture?

The state has one overriding concern, that of controlling bad behavior: how to keep citizens from killing each other, breaking into houses, cheating customers at the market, and yielding to a sexual license that would undermine families. The modern world faces a dilemma. On important issues, society badly needs moral guidance. Religion seems an obvious resource, yet one rejected by much of secular society. Already the media treat opinion polls as the primary arbiter of such matters as sexual behavior, abortion, the death penalty, and assisted suicide. In nations with a religious consensus, church and state can work hand in hand to encourage moral values they both agree on. For example, in more religious times the British king issued a proclamation for the “Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness, and Immorality.”

The world has changed, however. Diverse societies now contain many different religions — Yugoslavia ruptured into seven countries over its inability to deal with this very predicament.

President Obama irked some Christians when, on a visit to Turkey, he said that although the United States has a large Christian population, “we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”

Fair enough, but if Christians comprise a majority, as they do in the U.S., shouldn’t they have a strong influence in determining those ideals and values?

Excerpted with permission from Vanishing Grace, copyright 2014 Zondervan.  You can click on the image below to order the book.

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