EITHER, Christ (in) Culture; OR, Some Follow Paul

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Perhaps it was the obtrusive cross necklace that I received attending my last DC Talk concert, which hung precariously from my neck. Or, maybe, it was the multicolored WWJD bracelet I proudly displayed upon my wrist. If you were a Christian teen in the 90’s much of your identity was formulated through the accoutrements you possessed. I mean how else would others know you were a Christian if you didn’t have a chrome fish eating Darwin or bumper stickers about the rapture emblazoned across your car?

But there was a problem. You see this generation (my generation) grew up, and as we entered our 20’s we attempted to make sense of our faith and its relationship to the culture we lived in. The bottom line was that the Christ we were taught about was not the one we experienced daily. As it turned out, memorizing our Bible verses and our special religious arguments for God, listening to Christian music and affectionately displaying our religious accoutrements said absolutely nothing about Christ to the world. If anything it diminished him.

This left many of us wandering aimlessly through culture. For some that meant leaving the church; for others that meant leaving God entirely. This mass exodus from the church caused many church leaders to speculate that churches were not providing young people with adequate biblical training (both in biblical knowledge as well as apologetics) causing them to fall victims to the world’s enticements. In other words, much of the speculation turned out to be a massive exercise in missing the point.

The Church seems very quick to blame others for its own problems. We blame the devil when we mess up, or we blame “secular progressives” when we feel like we are losing power and control. Perhaps we don’t need more training, but less. Let’s replace our superficial answers with thought-provoking questions. Let’s listen, learn and appreciate what diversity can teach us, instead of being afraid of what we don’t understand. Yes, I am boldly proclaiming that we live and love like Jesus.

Are we followers of Christ or doctrine?

I often wonder if Christians believe God is real. I mean really real! Certainly Christians claim intellectual belief in the reality of Christ, but do they demonstrate that reality in life?

I would like us to consider that the Church (post-Nicea) has largely been a follower of espoused doctrines about Christ, instead of Christ himself. Whether it is an ecclesiastical-centered Catholic Church or a Bible-centered Protestant Church; Christ has essentially been replaced by both as the central focus for Christianity.

Like most Christians, I am prone to droughts of faith, theological doubts, and despair. During one particularly long drought I found myself relying completely on Jesus (I know, I know…super obvious). For whatever reason (to this day I still don’t know why) my mind became a theological and spiritual wasteland where I struggled to even pick up a Bible. It was during this time where I became completely dependent upon Christ. It seemed the only comfort I could find were in his words, whether that was through Scripture or prayer.

This was one of the most life-changing times in my life. There was something about this particular experience that changed my perspective. As I eventually began to read beyond the words of Christ I found that so much had changed. I was baffled. I knew the content of the Bible front and back so why after such a long time with Christ did everything seem different? Suddenly I realized that most of my Christian life I had not really been a follower of Jesus. I was more a follower of Paul, James, Peter, and the rest of the clan. This led me to a question:

Why is it that Christians are more inclined to follow the ideas of Paul rather than the example set by Jesus?

Like many modern evangelicals I learned about Jesus through Paul. That is, I was sent on a journey with the Apostle down the “Romans Road” until I found Jesus (or perhaps he found me). The idea being that when we met, I would find his grace so irresistible that I could not help, but accept his free gift of salvation.

When I read Jesus through the eyes of Paul, not only am I reading the narrative backwards, but I am incorporating all of Paul’s presuppositions into my understanding of Jesus. But, what if I read Paul in light of Jesus? How differently would I then view what it means to be a follower of Christ and apply that to the culture I live in? Good Lord, what a Eureka moment!

Christ IN culture

Assuming we could ever get past our own narcissism as a church, the question becomes how should Christ relate to culture (or by extension Christians)? A number of years ago H. Richard Niebuhr did a series of lectures, which were eventually published under the title “Christ and Culture.” Its purpose was to briefly describe how Christ has been related to culture over the years. He referred to the various ways as the five types. (They are briefly defined in the chart below).

The fifth type describes the current situation as “Christ AND culture”, which places the Christian in a never ending ethical paradox. The Christian is always trying to evaluate what is good or bad, right or wrong, and using culture as the backdrop for evaluation. This results in the predominant attitude: “well…if culture thinks it’s good, then it must be bad.”

There seems to be many reasons why this occurs: a complete misunderstanding of what it means to be in the world, political motivations, a means of perpetuating certain stereotypes, bigotry, etc.

And still with all of the ways Jesus has been presented to culture the most obvious of them all is still awaiting implementation – Christ IN culture. In all of the aforementioned types Christ is up against culture. Whereas Christ IN culture is integrative. Christ IN culture means people become transformed. It requires us to be responsible for those around us.

Ultimately Christ IN culture means that we are to our culture as Christ was to his. It means we are the living Gospel – missionaries of love and vessels of compassion.

Barriers and other concluding thoughts:

However, in order for us to know how to love others – even those to whom we disagree with, we need to break through some tough barriers. Much of these barriers are so ingrained into our thinking that it seems the only hope for change is real reformation.

So many of these barriers can be seen by making a simple comparison between the failings of Ancient Judaism and American Christianity. Ultimately what this teaches us is that we don’t learn lessons very well. (See comparison chart below).

I opened this article with a brief caricature of my experience with Christianity in the 90’s. I do think many within our generation felt deceived by how Jesus was presented to them. But, we have also learned valuable lessons. We learned things like: the world is not a bad place and I am not a bad person; Not all non-Christians are debauchers and hate the Church. We learned that people in America need the love of Christ just as much as people abroad. We learned that we did not need to threaten or scare people to follow Christ, but that people would be converted through the testimony of authentic, Christ-like behavior.

Ultimately we learned our role in society (which is embarrassingly simple). We are told to love God and love others because we are all called to be missionaries of his love and ambassadors of his peace.

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  • Delwyn Campbell
    September 5, 2015

    It would be easy to treat this article like a piece of wall-eyed pike, and pick it apart, pulling out all the bones. That, however, would be succumbing to the temptation of which you write. Instead, I will just say that, given that we are still “seeing in a mirror, dimly,”; it is probably much easier to see what we are doing wrong, and focus on that. In reality, NOTHING we are doing will be perfect, and no matter how good we get it, relatively speaking, we will still need the grace and mercy of God in order to be accepted by Him.
    Theologically speaking, I will say this. The Bible presents the unbelieving world as being in a hostile position to God and to that which pertains to God, including the Church. To the extent that non-believers are not hostile to the church, it is because, the church has accommodated itself to the world. There is no reason for non-believers to dislike a church that affirms them in their rebellion.

    • Eric English
      September 5, 2015

      Delwyn…thanks for your thoughts. Perhaps I needed to be more clear about hostility. I’m for hostility if it’s for the right reasons. Much of the current hostility is partly manufactured for the same reasons you cited. However, the point of the article is that the Church is not presenting a proper view (notice I didnt say perfect) of Christ. Moreover, the hostility that the church receives as a result of that is based on a fallacious presentation of the embodied gospel in the lives of Christians.

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EITHER, Christ (in) Culture; OR, Some Follow Paul