Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Yogurt and the Church

Note: after I posted this, I surfed over to Father Stephen's blog (part of my daily blog reading), and found he had written an excellent article that covers the same topics (in greater detail and wisdom, not doubt). Funny how that works sometimes. You'll certainly want to take a look at his take on this topic.


When I was at University, there was a general animosity between those who majored in sciences and those who majored in arts. There was also animosity between those in sciences and engineering. We (science majors) were fighting a war on two fronts, see. I remember a friend once telling me this joke:
"What's the difference between yogurt and engineers?"
"Yogurt has culture."

I've been considering the question of culture recently. As far as I can tell, there are three basic approaches to the question of culture as it relates to the Church:

1. The Culture follows the Church. This would be the general approach of the "Religious Right": the Dobson-listening, Promise-keeping, Abortion-protesting people. These people believe it's the place of the Church to lead the Culture. In American evangelicalism, this is generally the "conservative" group.

2. The Church follows the Culture. This is the general view of the "liberal" branch of Evangelicalism. This is the approach that publishes gender-neutral Bible "translations", builds seeker-friendly mega-churches with classes on self-esteem, and ordains clergywomen.

3. The Church transcends the Culture. This is those who want to go between the horns of the dilemna. I suppose most genuine awakenings, renewals, and revivals started out this way; although they tend to settle eventually into one of the first two approaches.

I want to briefly argue that the correct approach is the third one: that it is most Biblical. However, there are traps there too.

I suppose it's obvious that the second approach is fundamentally incongruous with a literal view of Scripture. That is, it's not possible to follow the culture around us and Scripture at the same time. If you want to accept the values of the culture around us, you need to reject the values of the Scripture. There's no other way: society says we ought not to speak against various sexual perversions; Scripture explicitly does so. By American culture's standards, the Bible is certainly hate speech. You can't possibly reconcile Scripture to culture's values.

And perhaps I better point out that it's not only the liberals who choose culture over Scripture: conservatives do it too. Scripture certainly shoots liberal sacred cows; but conservative sacred cows are no safer. Scripture condemns the love of money as surely as it condemns homosexuality. Scripture condemns murder (whether through abortion or through "pre-emptive strikes") as surely as it condemns sexual promiscuity.

If you try to listen to both the culture and the Scripture, you'll end up having to choose between them. You can't choose both. If you choose to accept the culture's values and reject Scripture; that's your problem---it's not really any of my business. But I can't go along with you on that.

Now, the first approach (The Culture follows the Church) has as many problems. That is, there are equally intractable problems which eventually surface when we try to lead the culture. Fundamentally, the problems come to this: you can't expect people to act contrary to their nature. Unbelievers are children of wrath by nature (Ephesians 2:3). That is, they don't gradually develop into that: they are born that way. So, in fact, are believers. But the quickening of the one born of God is fundamentally lacking in the unregenerate. I remember once telling a class in a Christian school where I was teaching: "Let's suppose you were able to outlaw homosexuality. Let's further suppose you were able to actually enforce it, so that no man or women would engage in it any more. What do you think would happen? Those gay men would get girlfriends... they were fornicating before, they'll be fornicating afterwards. You would not actually have accomplished anything."

There is a certain level of morality in every person, and government fundamentally exists to legislate morality. Even the degenerate culture around us will balk at some things. But watch closely: those boundaries will be pushed too. TV and movies have succeeded in making homosexuality acceptable; they're already working on polygamy. I honestly expect society to eventually condone pedophilia; but they haven't yet. There are still some things they won't do, although that list appears to be shrinking constantly.

To expect the world that hated the Lord Jesus and crucified Him to bow to the demands of Scripture is foolish. They hate God, why would they choose to obey Him? "And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper" (Romans 1:28, NASB). It is not that the unregenerate were ignorant of God (at least, not at the start); but that "they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer". They knew who He was, and chose to forget.

And lest we forget: the Lord Jesus will eventually deal with culture. But that's our hope, not our present reality. We are waiting for the Son of God from Heaven, or ought to be.


I think the third approach is most Biblical. That is, the truth of Scripture transcends culture. It really doesn't matter what the culture around us says: we need to accept what the Word of God says. Conversely, we can't expect the culture around us to conform to our standards. Rather, we are to guard against being conformed to its: "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2, NASB).

Does this mean we are to have no affect on the world around us? Not exactly. What it means is, we are to care about the individuals. The Lord Jesus didn't come to fix a culture: He came to seek and save sinners. Similarly, we are to look for the individuals. The culture as a whole is not our concern. We are neither to imitate it, nor demand it imitate us.

It is certainly possible that we'll affect enough individuals that we'll achieve a sort of critical mass in the culture, and the culture will change. But that's no measure of success: gross injustice is entirely possible in an overtly "Christian" culture; slavery (for example) flourished in the "Christian" culture of ante-bellum America. Conversely, a "Christian culture" can be full of unregenerates who are members of the national church: reformed Europe comes to mind.

But there needs to be the honest concern and care for the individual. Cultures won't burn in Hell, people will. So I completely reject the idea that we are to "reach our culture for Christ". It's nonsense: the Lord Jesus saves sinners, not cultures.

Please note, this is not to say that culture doesn't matter. If nothing else, we can't very well reach people whose language we don't speak. Culture matters, but our reaction to it must be transcendent, not combative or imitative.

Perhaps that's a good place to pause for now.

7 comments:

KingJaymz said...

When we talk on the phone, sometimes you give me the impression that we are far apart on certain things. We are certainly like-minded here. I'm looking forward to part 2.

Chuck said...

Bravo, as always (or should I say, "ole!"). You are a matadores excellentes in biblical reasoning.

I use the word "culture" in a more innocuous sense, i.e. local color, custom, etc., with the godless, unredeemable aspect of it "the world."

Tickled to see you're reading Fr. Stephen. Turns out my wife is a friend of a friend of his, and we hope to make his acquaintance someday soon.

Chuck said...

...sorry, I meant "among matadores...". Didn't mean to imply you had multiple personalities (I should give up Spanish).

I really like the last couple of paragraphs in the article.

clumsy ox said...

I use the word "culture" in a more innocuous sense, i.e. local color, custom, etc., with the godless, unredeemable aspect of it "the world."

Chuck, I have trouble distinguishing a clear line of delineation between "the world" and "culture". I can see the distinction in concepts, but have trouble saying exactly where one ends and the other begins.

On the one end of the "culture" spectrum is something as innocuous as fashion: taper-leg pants were cool when I was in high school in the 80s, but they're not so much any more. I see no real moral impact from that.

On the other hand, there is a Zeitgeist that we cannot be ignorant of. I think this is where Francis Schaeffer shone brilliantly: he had a finger on the pulse of the culture, and was able to see opportunities for the Gospel to which the larger Church was blind.

But again, Schaeffer was brilliant in not compromising Scripture to fit in with the culture.

The thing is, there's a ditch on both sides of the road. On the one extreme, you have Christians enslaved to the culture around us. On the other, you have the Christians you and I might know a little better, who ignore the culture entirely.

I'm just rambling now...

I do enjoy Stephen's blog. I'm too "brethren" to be comfortable with the "Fr.", but he's clearly someone who loves the Lord; and it shines out brightly in his writing.

Chuck said...

Your point is well-taken, and I realize the "jag" I've taken of late seems waist-deep in this world's slop. As Darby said (and yes, I still esteem him!), "a man is as defiled contending with the world as embracing it," or something to that effect.

Here's what I mean more precisely: "innocuous culture" involves colloquialisms, pace of life, agrarianism vs. consumerism... Shan being into the weaving arts, etc. It's day-to-day life, where we all live, colored by the customs of our native locality. You've learned a lot about eastern-style barbecue cooking, for example, which reflects a certain cultural milieu. Only an orthodox Jew has a real problem with that; a Christian certainly does not.

That kind of culture is, I believe, part of the "all things" sanctified for the believer's use; things which make our temporal sojourn rich while we serve and wait on the Lord. When I study nature, I see God-ordained variety.

There is a music group called Starflyer 59 whose honesty about their craft I appreciate: "we're not a Christian band; we're a band comprised of Christians." So it is in my profession, and I daresay yours. All of these conventions are vehicles through which we share the power of the world to come through the gospel.

Christianity takes on a flavor due to the "soil" it is planted in. There's good and bad to it, of course, but the Lord knows the hearts involved. Diversity keeps the church from becoming a monolithic monster.

I have a Ukrainian friend who is a faithful, godly believer in the Lord. His outlook and mannerisms still reflect his culture; but what is so cool is that we share Christ in common, and He binds us together.

"The world" is everything that disregards God and His Christ, including man's sinful nature. And it is a powerful, sinister, uniting principle that is eradicating certain cultural distinctives for the purpose of building the Anti-Christ's fast-approaching government.

That probably didn't help, but that's vaguely where I'm coming from.

clumsy ox said...

I realize the "jag" I've taken of late seems waist-deep in this world's slop.

In fact, I've been greatly enjoying your blog and our conversations, as there is a refreshing sense of "this stuff is real". It's easy enough to cloister ourselves into some ethereal Christianity, cut off from the world. But the Scripture reveals a God whose interest is not merely in the salvation of sinners (as wonderful as that is), but who also intends to "set His King on His holy hill of Zion".

Sadly, Dispensationalists (of which I am one) have allowed their heavenly/earthly dichotomy to blind them to the fundamental truth they once defended: that God has a plan for both. Reformed tradition may have erred in denying it in doctrine; but Dispensationalists have denied it in practice.

That kind of culture is, I believe, part of the "all things" sanctified for the believer's use; things which make our temporal sojourn rich while we serve and wait on the Lord. When I study nature, I see God-ordained variety.

I have no problem with that statement. In fact, it's a message that needs to be heard more by many Christians.

I remember you saying to me several years ago, "Death to self isn't Christianity, it's Buddhism". I think that's exactly the balance I'm looking for.

Chuck said...

10-4, good buddy.

And to reaffirm your main thesis, we are indeed crucified to this world, and it to us.

Our life is hid with Chrsit in God, and we are to set our mind on things above.

Now, how that works itself out down here is a sight to behold!