I've attempted to write this post several times over the last couple days. I keep getting into topical dead-end; so this time, I intend to just say what I want to say, and then shut up. That's hard for me.
My good friend of several years, Chuck, called me out in the comments from last time, commenting on the difference between "culture" and "the world". He's right of course, but I wanted to speak a little to that point, as well as (hopefully) completing my train of thought from the other day.
First, I choose to use the word "culture" to indicate the way the world thinks. The current characteristics of it. The Scripture takes a longer view when it uses the term "world": it is speaking about the system that "lies in the evil one"; the system that began when Adam and Eve were evicted and went out to start a new life. This is the world: the system that is contrary to God. Sometimes the world is a very cruel place: there are things like genocide, war, and crime. But at other times, it puts on a happier face: there are times of relative peace and prosperity. There are philanthropists and moralists and "good" people.
But behind it all, the same world system is driving: it's driving for autonomy. The great illusion of the Evil One is happiness without God: autonomy and self-sufficiency.
Scripture typically uses Babylon as a type of the world: as the focal point of the world system, its aims, its methods, and its eventual end. Babylon, which stood on the plain of Shinar, is first noticed in Scripture in Genesis, where the people gathered in defiance of God's command to "fill the earth" and built a tower "lest we be scattered". We know the story. A few chapters later, in Genesis 14, the king of Shinar was among the kings that attacked Sodom, whom Abram went out to fight. In that same story, Melchizedek refers to God as "Possesor of Heaven and Earth". The juxtaposition between Amraphel king of Shinar and the Possesor of Heaven and Earth is very interesting.
Shinar--Babylon---is always lurking in Scripture. It finally comes out in the open as the Great Whore in Revelation, and is destroyed. But there are a couple interesting points to make about Babylon. First, it was God that sovereignly granted Babylon authority over the earth (Jeremiah 28:14, Daniel 2:37--38). Babylon didn't seize power, God put them in charge. "The Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, And bestows it on whom He wishes, And sets over it the lowliest of men" (Daniel 4:17, NASB). Second, Babylon is described in various ways throughout Scripture, but the most striking description is probably in Revelation 18:1--20. There, Babylon is described as a great commercial power. Babylon is characterized by wealth and commerce.
The "culture" of Babylon is multi-faceted throughout Scripture: it was a religious center, a military power, and a commercial power. But I think there is a stark warning for Christians in the Revelation: there, at the end when God will finally destroy Babylon, it is characterized by wealth and trade. I say this somberly, because in American culture, there is frequently the idea that Christianity and capitalism go together. It is certainly true that the "left wing" culture of today is overtly anti-Christian; but the apparent friendship between the Church and the right-wing in America is an unholy alliance at best. To be "made rich" by Babylon is not a light thing. It is harder for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom...
There is a sense (as Chuck pointed out) where culture is amoral, or even good. As he reminded us, regional cooking is culture. Fashions are culture. Haircuts are culture. It is not at all my intention to suggest that we cut ourselves off completely from the culture around us. But it's my intention to point out that God's eternal word is not defined nor bound by the culture around us. Culture is not irrelevant, but it's sure temporary.
Ever since Adam was evicted, we've been a restless race. I'm reminded of Reuben (yes, this is certainly out of context) in Genesis 49, who was "impetuous as the waters". Men wage wars against one another, then sign treaties and gang up together on someone else. Fashion changes daily: fads fade seemingly overnight. Nothing is here for very long. Perhaps that's because we live such very short lives. And it seems worse in American society, where apparently no one reads history. These people honestly think they came up with some of these ideas...
The word of God, by contrast, is settled in Heaven forever. God, who "changes not", seems to move ponderously sometimes. In fact, He doesn't, but it can seem that way. And the Scripture has this annoying habit of just ignoring the culture.
We try to make up for that, of course, by trying to read culture into Scripture. Scripture says "But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet." (1 Timothy 2:12, NASB) and we try to change it: "That was just the culture of the day!" Was it? Paul gives two reasons for the ban, neither cultural.
This is an uncomfortable verse, but it's not the only one. How about "Husbands, love your wives and do not be embittered against them." (Colossians 3:19, NASB). In our culture, it is a person's right to resent and complain about his or her spouse. Scripture says no. Our culture says, a man might eventually stop loving his wife; Scripture forbids us from letting that happen.
There are many more examples: many more places where the Scripture forbids something we consider perfectly acceptable, perhaps even a God-given right.
So the question is, are we to allow culture to dictate to Scripture? Or do we recognize the place Scripture has as the Word of God, a place that transcends culture?
On the other side, we see culture pressed as Scripture when it's nothing of the sort. It seems laughable to me, but a good deal of "conservative evangelicals" seem to think we all ought to live like it's 1950. Not the historical 1950, of course; but the 1950 of fond nostalgia: a 1950 when people called mum "ma'am" and dad "sir"; when women only wore dresses, and men all had short hair; and when "Communist" was an insult and everyone went to church.
But Scripture just doesn't support that. Scripture makes a lot of comments about how we ought to behave, some even about how we ought to dress. But it's silent about so many things we think are important. There's not a single verse to suggest women are sinning if they wear trousers. Not one. There's no suggestion in Scripture that tattoos are evil for Christians, or that classical music is inherently less worldly than metal. Tobacco is not mentioned once in Scripture. And gambling's only ever mentioned in a positive light, so far as I can see.
These things are cultural: not Scriptural. We need to be so very careful not to confuse them; or worse: to reverse their roles.
I started out saying "culture is not irrelevant". Let's consider that a moment. I see no value in reacting against the culture: it's no better than imitating it. I'm sure you know some of the same Christians I've met (or at least some very like them): who seem to think wearing clothing 13+ years out of style is inherently holy. (Of course, the obvious fact that they condemned that same style 13 years ago seems never to occur to them...) We're not called to thumb our noses at the culture, but to transcend it.
Before I quit, I want to make one more point. The Christian life is a life of separation, or ought to be. Not from sinners, but from the evil in the world. The world is insidious: it's subtle. There are obvious evils out there, but those aren't the ones that are likely to catch you unawares. No Christian man, driving home from work, spontaneously decides to have an affair or dabble in homosexuality. These things are the thicker end of the wedge: you get to that point only once the thin edge has been inserted and it's been kicked a few times.
Christian young people aren't going to go from singing hymns to lining up for a Cradle of Filth concert. They just won't do it. But they might end up at that Cradle of Filth concert after years of gradually becoming comfortable with more and more immorality in their entertainment. I went to an opera a couple years ago: La Boheme. It is a beautiful opera, with some of the most gorgeous music I've ever heard. It's a story that centers on lust, adultery, and fornication. In a word, it's filthy. Now, I don't speak Italian, and had no idea what the songs meant until I saw it subtitled in the theater. But the point is, it's every bit as wicked as some of those "dirty" songs my mother wouldn't let me listen to when I was a teenager: in fact, it's much worse. But it's opera. It's respectable.
The Word of God doesn't care about respectable.
So there's a danger in allowing the culture's ideas of "acceptable" into our thoughts. We need to let the Word of God renew our minds.