RELEVANT’S Burning Issues: Culture

Posted on April 23, 2008


The May_June 2008 edition of Relevant Magazine posted 7 burning issues: Injustice, Homosexuality, Faith, Politics, Culture, Consumerism, and War.

CULTURE: How Do We Influence It Without Being Consumed by It?

1. Shane Claiborne: Part of what I think we have to do is not just figure out how we interact with the culture, but create a new culture where we bring one another to life and call each other to the best of who God wants us to be. So it’s not “how much secularism can I get away with?” but “How can I be set apart in a way that celebrates the distinctiveness of who we are as people in this world who are resident aliens?”…One of the biggest questions for the Church today is not “Are we culturally relevant?” but are we culturally peculiar?” Not just “Can we be relevant to culture?” but “Can we be nonconformist to culture; can we be people who do things differently?’

2. Brian McLaren: The issue isn’t whether something is religious/spiritual or secular, but rather whether something is good and healthy and wise on the one hand, or bad and unhealthy and unwise on the other…You can be committed to holiness and enjoy all good things in life. And you can be committed to holiness and get seduced by a lot of destructive stench with religious language squirted on it like cheap perfume.

3. Cindy Jacobs: I believe our margins have moved as to what we consider secular entertainment that doesn’t grieve the Lord by our participation. We have become a subset of the world rather than completely set apart from those things that are unholy, such as fornication, adultery, lewd behavior, corrupt communication, etc. God isn’t kidding when He commands us to be holy. Many of us have a seared conscience and could [watch a movie] and not even notice when sex acts were taking place and, for instance, as some do, consider it art.

4. N.T. Wright: I think there are some kinds of movies and some kinds of entertainment that no Christian in their right mind would go near. I suspect it’s always been thus. There were debates in the second or third century A.D. about whether Christians should watch gladiatorial shows, and most thought you shouldn’t because that was gratuitous violence. And some Christians said, “Oh, come on — if everybody does it …” It’s not a new debate. We need to move beyond the issue of the behavior which is portrayed, although that too is important, and talk about the manipulation of people’s emotions. We need to go beyond the kind of superficial things like, “This is a story about people doing bad things; we shouldn’t watch it.” Sometimes stories about people doing bad things and seeing how the consequences play out in their lives can be an extremely moral thing to do. There are stories like that in the Bible. It’s a matter of Christian discernment.


The short answer to RELEVANT’s question is, “We don’t.” Cultural influence is not an either or, but a spectrum on which we scale. Ought we not consider the permeance of God to always be through the vehicle or conduit of culture? Take the written word, for example. Was the technological revolution of writing, pictographs, printing press a cultural entity that we are “consumed” by (negative connotation)? Well, if it was, we’ve bought in hook, line, sinker. And we now hang our hats on the “written word.” (sola scriptura)

In addition to my post on American Idol and “Shout To The Lord,” there is one more element that needs to be added to the conversation. Redemptive Movement.

Redemptive movement, (a concept that I use widely from William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals), allows for a process of engaging culture in its current state/place, to meet it with an intelligent sense of spirit and truth, so as to move it one step towards a fuller understanding of original intent, and ultimate redemption. All that to say, nothing is intrinsically bad, evil, etc. The “sacred vs. secular” argument is a false dichotomization. ALL THINGS were created by God (Psalm 24:1). Therefore, all things, no matter how “unholy” they may seem, are in the process of being redeemed toward an ultimate “heavenly” reality. Our job, then, in engaging culture, is not to identify what side of the line particular entities lie (Christian or non, holy or unholy), but in what direction is it moving, and in what direction are we moving when engaging with that piece of culture.

This idea, then, does not permit us to dichotomize our lives and the greater cultural milieus in which we find ourselves. Cultural separatism is not an option for a Christian, one, because it is just impossible, even for the Amish. Two, creating an alternative culture, subculture, or anti-, non-conformist culture abdicates our roles as the “salt” and “light” of the world and completely dismisses the redemptive movement God desires for us, and for the world. In order for redemption to happen, conversation and relationship must be present. And as mentioned above, this is all on a spectrum and scale. Some will have deep conversations, and others will have cursory relationships. But what we cannot advocate, nor fool ourselves into thinking, is that cultural influence can be mitigated away.

I argue that influence is in direct proportion to our value of redemption, and the greater the redemption we see and desire for the world around us, the greater influence it will have on us. Conversely, the greater the influence it has on us, the greater the opportunities are for us to have in redeeming it. Wright is right. It is a matter of Christian discernment. I would add, that simply implies Christian engagement, and redemptive movement.

Wright alludes to the gladiatorial shows. The story of how they ended is attributed to Telemachus, a monk, who by Catholic tradition intervened to stop a fight and was then stoned to death (or run through by a gladiator, depending on the legend). The traditional reports ring true, and provides an excellent example of the point, that culture needed to be engaged, conversed with, and redeemed. AND, Telemachus was greatly influenced, mortally so, by it. But it was that very engagement that allowed a new movement to begin that ultimately ended the gladiatorial games altogether in 404 C.E. (A.D.)

Think, then of the incarnation that Christians hold so valuably to. Believing in God becoming flesh is to believe in this very act of redemptive movement, the ultimate act of engagement for the sake of redemption. If you really believe in this act by God, then you too will not only attend the gladiatorial games, but you will descend the steps into the very arena only to be ultimately wounded by it, so that by your engagement, redemption can happen.

May we find our lives by losing them. May we redeem our world by engaging with it. And may God grant us the wisdom and courage to keep moving.

Posted in: Culture, Religion