This last week the first Northern Seminary Master of Arts in New Testament cohort under Dr. Scot McKnight began our final year of class work together. During this final year many of us will be attempting to write up our theses so that we can finish up the program this coming summer. Being at Northern has been a deep learning experience, and not all of it from the classes! The beauty of time set aside for studying God, his people, and the world we live in has been a tremendous gift.
Speaking of the church and the world we live in, our cohort began a class last week called “Theology of Church and Culture.” This last week we sought to loosely define both some initial thoughts on what the Church is and also what culture is.
Church was defined with many of the metaphors and words from the Bible: a people, a kingdom, a temple, and a family. This was simple enough. Though, little was said about how such terms might not simply be metaphorical but could be manifested or cultivated in our own local communities of faith.
We had defined culture as “the water a fish swims within but is unawares of the substance it moves in.” To me, this definition is far too limited. In such a framing, culture is something we simply cannot perceive, even if we really try. It makes the ignorance of culture by people fundamental to what culture is. Rather, culture is the intentional ways of thinking and acting that arise out of the relationships we have together as groups or societies, whether as families, communities, nations, or empires. For many people, yes, this will be an almost “invisible” reality because they live according the norms and mores of their given group, but these things are substantive in every instance because of the demands and constraints they place on each person to function and think in particular ways with one another. Culture is taught, learned, rebelled against, obeyed, dismantled, and constructed. It is never actually “invisible”–it is just that people don’t often know that all the things in their lives are a part of the definition of culture.
Then we moved to our experiences of the relationship between Church and culture. This is where the conversation in the class became increasingly interesting to me. Everyone began to talk about how their home-churches fought against the norms of American culture in the culture wars. For the most part this was viewed as highly negative and looked at as sad behavior. Someone pointed out that Jesus went to parties with non-believers and someone else responded approvingly with the phrase, “Why are Christian such party-poopers if Jesus was the life of the party?” Others added that they did not think it was fair that rated-R movies or certain types of music had been banned from their Christian homes. Many in the class seemed to lament they were not allowed to experience the good things the world’s culture had to offer when they were growing up. All because their families were following the church in the culture wars.
This struck me. As a kid growing up in the Ozarks of southwest Missouri church was a present reality in my life. I went most Sundays and Wednesdays. My family was generationally connected to my home-church; my mother had grown up in it and my grandfather had been an elder for decades. I loved my church, but family was one that did not dedicate itself to the idea of American Christian subculture. Without worrying about details, life was tough. We were poor and the world I was a part of had only a few outs: religious obsession or drugs and alcohol. My life, like many I grew up in, straddled the fence of these poles.
As I grew up there were plenty of times I myself did not merely oscillate between these poles but collapsed them! Using the opportunities given by our churches for trips or events to get away from home with friends and enjoy some time for reverie and play. But there was always a cost. I have seen many friends lose themselves in the hedonistic enjoyments that were youthful escapes, and rarely have I ever seen them resurface. Life is a struggle and the grind of survival leads those in poverty, usually, to choose one of the two poles, religious obsession or drugs and alcohol, to find meaning in this life. Some might try to add sex here because it is prevalent, but it does not compare to these other two. Sex is more of a momentary convergence of relationships, but rarely does it give a meaning to life–something to strive for that will bring an end to your life.
My life touched the culture of the world. I was immersed in it. Sometimes by my choice, but just as often by the choice of others. Still, there was always my home-church. Yes, these people had their own issues. Many believe in a literal six-day creation and are fundamentalist, dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. But these people–this church–was my refuge in a world of chaos that sought to crush me!
I was struck dumb as I sat there (a veritable feat!) listening to my peers excoriate the churches of their childhoods. For all the struggles I’ve had in and with my church, they were the ones who gave to me King Jesus! Those older women teaching me Sunday school songs are some of my oldest and most cherished memories. Those young adults who taught me in elementary bible school classes. Those college age youth ministers and other sponsors who took us to camps, conferences, and concerts. The older people I learned from and argued with about the Bible over countless dinners and meals at holiday celebrations or our weekly dinners together. When our little family travels home it is that church where we go so that my children might meet their family of faith. They are my people. I could not know God or life as a Christian without them.
I asked a question in my class, “Who here grew up in the church? In this church culture that kept you from the world?” Every hand, except one, went up. There was no conversation that came in response. It became clear to me then that this whole conversation was being held by those children who had been privileged enough to be protected by the Church from the culture of the world. Like all children, they blame their parents for missing out on the things they don’t realize would have never been good for their childhood to begin with. Sure, there are always critiques we can have of our parents. Of course, there were plenty of things they did wrong. But we believe King Jesus’ Spirit can redeem even those wrong things for good through us, don’t we?
It will be interesting to see where this class goes and the thoughts it provokes. I’m even more excited to see if my class will surprise me again and leave me dumbfounded in my seat! Now that I’m prepared though, I doubt being quiet will be much of an option for me.