In one of our first Theology of Church and Culture classes a question was posed, “What does Christianity have to offer culture?” Presumably, this means “culture” at every level of society as we interact with it today. There is the local in daily life and work. Of course, there is the ever demanding and growing the larger society we feel accountable too as well. We understand them as regional, state, national, and global spheres of society related to us by political ties, expanded into our personal lives through traditional and social media.
In our class it seemed, for the most part, the idea that the Church offers anything good in American society culturally was a negative. Since, as I pointed out in a former post, the focus of the class fixated on our experiences of local churches fighting in the “culture wars” there was not much of a positive response to the Church as a cultural influence.
There seemed to be two sides presented in this conversation. First, the Church simply exists within a given culture. The Church then has the job of evaluating culture to some degree. The word “discern” is big in this task. The Church must discern the good from the bad in new situations. God is at work out there, in the cultures of the world, and it is the job of the Church to recognize God’s presence in the good parts of the culture. This sussing out the wheat from the chaff in society’s cultural milieu is the hard job of the Church.
But here is the kicker, to many who would hold this view it seems the Church doesn’t recognize the good parts of culture very often! The Church always seems to be lagging behind culture’s progress. Since culture is always progressing and progress is inherently a good thing, then culture must be inherently good in most things! The Church, though, does not seem to accept such a premise, scrutinizing cultural progression strongly and therefore is nearly always lagging behind. If the Church is truly good it should be better at quickly recognizing the good of culture and being willing to learn from it!
The second, less voiced option in the class, was that the Church herself has a culture that is passed down from generation to generation. Those who are raised or converted into the faith of Christianity must be enculturated into the unique society that is the Church. The Church has particular beliefs and practices that give the social body of the Church a communal cohesion that is not easily understood and cannot be lived by those outside of the Church.
While this does sound good, the problem is the historical reality that the Church has been highly influenced by external cultures. So much so that the culture of the Church has seemed to change quite dramatically over the many centuries by taking on particular cultural flavors depending on the society in which the Church locally resides. It is likely that no one today would feel at home in the former church services of many days gone by, especially when so many Christians are uncomfortable with some services done today by their contemporary Christians!
So, are we doomed to see the Church as either 1) a bad arbiter of the good in the cultures of this world or 2) believe she is the ideal and pristine cultural bastion that should be untainted by the evils of competing cultures?
It seems to me that these two options are more postures about how to be in the church in a given place or society. With that said, option two is a better way of thinking about the Church’s history and tradition. But if the Church is a culture then the reality is it will be shaped and formed as it encounters other cultures as well. Cultures naturally absorb, change, and reject the competing cultures around them. There are pristine beliefs and practices that the Church has, such as Scripture, the rule of Faith, the Creeds, the ecumenical councils, and the Sacraments, that are pasted down from one generation to the next as the truest center of Christian identity. Yet, the expressions of even these central Christian identity markers will be given nuances informed by the cultures the Church is contextually engaged with.
The first option offers the true idea that the Church bares the responsibility of offering redemption to what good is already present but not fully understood in the world’s societies and cultures. But, the Church does not learn “progress” or truth from the world, rather the world must be purified by King Jesus as they enter and submit to his rule and reign in the life of the people of God. The first option fails as a posture for the Church because it would make her the slave of whatever culture she is within. Whatever the culture would deem as “progress” the Church would feel obligated to support or find some religious justification for. Truthfully, if the Church does not have a distinct culture in some way then she is not able to discern or judge the cultures around her at all. So, without the second option being primarily true then the first option cannot be true at all. In the end, the world is not “progressing” and those who demand the Church “progress” with the world paradoxically desire that the Church cease to exist in any culturally meaningful way.
What does the Church have to offer American or other worldly cultures? The Church can only offers herself and her own culture, which is shaped by the presence God by enacting the life that King Jesus has taught her and empowered her to live by the Holy Spirit. While the engagement with competing cultures might change small nuanced, the Church calls other cultures to account and, through conversion of people from another society into the people of God, teaches them the true way to live.