Sunday, July 09, 2006

Richard Niebuhr, John Travolta & Martin Luther King

Last Sunday, I spoke about Daniel 1 and how Christians should interact with culture. Due to the way we had to put the message notes together this week, I ended up adding a lot of detail that may have just flown past you. (In other words, shame on me for not putting it up on the PowerPoint. Sigh.)

So, I'm here to remedy that!

Back in the 1950's, Richard Niebuhr wrote a classic book entitled Christ & Culture about how the church (and individual believers) interact with society: government, the arts, pop culture, social structures, etc. I had to read this book back in seminary and while it's an excellent study, it's not going to set the publishing world on fire with its' scintillating prose and/or page-turning storyline. It's a book of theology & philosophy that can, even for the best of scholars, function as a sleeping pill. (I am, of course, the perfect example of this. The falling asleep, that is... not the "best of scholars" part.)

Which is sad, because what Niebuhr has to say is important. So, in the interest of informing you while keeping you awake, I'm going to attempt to summarize some of his major points - the ways in which followers of Jesus can choose to interact with culture. (Note: this will obviously be filtered through my own perceptions & preconceived notions about such things, so don't blame Niebuhr for the stuff that doesn't make sense and/or isn't actually what he wrote.)

The Attack Dog Of Jesus

Niebuhr calls this "Christ Against Culture" - these are the folks who choose to tear up other people in the name of Jesus. It's "us versus them" as far as they are concerned - a godless, reckless & evil world against the church. It's this kind of viewpoint that spawns behavior like the folks from Westboro Baptist Church (not, btw, a Southern Baptist church) in Topeka, KS... picketing the funerals of the Sago Mine disaster victims and U.S. servicemen killed in Iraq, claiming that their deaths are America's punishment for allowing homosexual behavior.

The Church In A Plastic Bubble

Some of you are too young to remember John Travolta playing a young boy with an immune deficiency disease (this was the 70's, prior to AIDS) in a TV called "The Boy In The Plastic Bubble." That's OK - it's an apt metaphor for an alternate (and all too common) expression of "Christ Against Culture". Rather than rush to battle, these folks flee in retreat... hiding behind a wall of Christian books & CD's & films. While marginally "safer" from theologically difficult questions and/or difficult people, this ostrich-like behavior often ends up with us sheltered by Petra's "rose-colored stained glass windows" watching "while the world goes to hell in a shopping cart." (That lyrical quote is from a long-defunct band, Prodigal. And yes, I realize it is ironic for me to quote CCM bands when I'm castigating folks for living in the church bubble.)

Funhouse Mirrors

Niebuhr mentions another possible response - "Christ of Culture." This crew of folks reads the Bible (and thinks about Jesus) through the lens of particular cultural expressions... a devotion to the poor & downtrodden leads to interpreting every Biblical passage as if Jesus' primary mission was to end poverty. Political oppression suggests liberation theology (which I'll be happy to discuss with you some other time, but right now it'll just be "rabbit-chasing"); American materialism puts a funhouse mirror up to the Scriptures & ends up as prosperity theology (aka "name it & claim it", aka "health & wealth gospel".)

While the Bible is meant to be read in context of our particular situation, we can do great violence to the truth while dressing our paper doll Jesus in the clothes we've cut out of our cultural background. Bad idea, campers, bad idea.

Hollywood Stuntmen

I'm impressed when someone rides a horse... any horse. (I'm scared to death of them!) So when a stuntman manages to ride standing with his left leg on one horse & his right leg on a second horse, color me blown away. Of course, it's hard for me not to think about what might happen if the horses decided to go opposite directions. Ouch.

Which brings us to "Christ & Culture in Paradox" - Niebuhr's grouping for those who believe that culture (particularly government) and Christianity have separate but equally legitimate spheres of influence. Which, as far as it goes, is all fine & good. It helps make sense of Jesus' admonition for us to "render Caesar what is Caesar's" or Paul's teachings on obeying the government. But what happens when a government (or some cultural entity) campaigns for and/or mandates behavior that is evil?

In the "real world", far from the theoretical land of philosophy, this means we have to pick & choose. So when Martin Luther King decides to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, what happens to a number of white clergymen who decided to join him? They lose their jobs. The spheres are not as separate as we'd like to think.

Salt & Light

Salt makes food taste better. Light shows you what's really going on. Excellent images for the final response we're going to look at: "Christ Transforming Culture."

Honestly, this is what I believe we should be doing as followers of Christ. Rather than snarling at the world as if Jesus was holding our leash, or breathing the rarified air of our own alternative culture, we can make a difference, a Kingdom difference, in the world in which God placed us. It doesn't require us to reinterpret Jesus in light of whatever philosophy floats our boat, or to attempt to compartmentalize our lives in order to be "good Christians & good citizens."

What it does require of us is summarized nicely in Romans 12:1-2 (The Message):

So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life-your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life-and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

As we are "changed from the inside out", we can make the same thing happen in the culture around us. Instead of picketing movies we don't like, we can influence the making of films that reflect Scriptural truth. Instead of slavishly buying anything from a Christian publisher/record label, we can reward quality music with our attention & our hard-earned dollars, regardless of who wrote it and/or performed it. Instead of attempting to wall off our beliefs from our politics or our work or our recreation, we can examine our lives & decisions in the light of Jesus Christ - and make sure that our highest loyalty is to Him.

And when we live that way - shot through with the grace & love that He modeled in His life, death & resurrection - we can see the world transforming as His power flows through us.

A couple of notes:
  1. I fully realize that Niebuhr had five "points" - but for my purposes, I'm only treating four of them. Look, this isn't a graduate seminar - if you want the details, go buy the book! :-)
  2. When I enthusiastically call for the transformation of culture ('cuz I think that's in the Bible), I'm not saying that I think mankind can create some kind of heaven on earth. Take a look at the history of utopian societies for a quick lesson in how lousy we are at the whole "perfect life" business. But, as followers of the One who created this earth & these people, I don't think we're supposed to sit around and fiddle while Rome burns, either.

This article originally appeared in the 7/10/06 issue of the Grapevine, the newsletter of NewLife Community Church.


Chris Lewis said...

Another great post, Mark. Throughout my time in college, I saw far too many "counter-cultural" Christians, who were counte cultural to the point of either retreating into their own circles, or were in-your-face, hard-sell Christians to the point of being repellent. Picture a guy I know who joined up with my employer to work in the summer camp program. His first day there, we go to lunch, and one of my co-workers sits down with us. This guy whips out his Bible, turns to the guy who just sat down, no introduction or anything, and says, "I'd like to share a Bible verse with you." Since then, this guy, who's a good enough guy, has annoyed me a good deal due to his in-your-face style (esp. since he converted away from Catholicism and spreads lies about the Church.)

Either of these, of course, is not what God intends for us to do...I am pleased with the quiet witness of my Church's religious men and women who go into the far reaches of the world and work with the sick and the starving, never ramming their theology down these people's throats. The majority of earnest Christians in all denominations that I have met have been quiet witnesses- folks who subscribe to St. Francis's adage, "preach the gospel throughout the world; use words when necessary."

To quote another song, by Grover Levy, "if you want to lead me to Jesus, you better find a better way - cause your life is speaking so loud I can't even hear a word you say."

Anonymous said...

Although it probably isn't very productive to argue over nomenclature, I think of Fred Phelps and his church as an example of "Christ of Culture."

Although he is definately against parts of culture, he isn't trying to avoid culture (like the bubble boy). Instead he has re-read his ideal of culture into the Bible and attempting to promote it. There is a fine line between someone seeking to transform culture and re-write Christ in its image.