Wednesday, October 31, 2007

    Christ and Culture

    The results from our Halloween poll are in! We asked if Christian youth should participate in Halloween. You said:
    • Why not? I do! 66% (25 votes)
    • Pobably not, because it celebrates the occult. 21% (8 votes)
    • No Way! And while we are at it, get rid of that pagan holiday of Christmas, too! 11% (4 votes)
    • Only if they go dressed as Bible characters (and Satan doesn't count!) 3% (1 votes)

    I was the single vote on that last one. Though this was meant in fun, I think there is the issue inherent here of whether or not we are going to be separate from the culture. In his famous work, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr suggested five historical viewpoints of the interaction of faith and the surrounding culture: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and Culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture. It has often been argued that Niebuhr's liberal bias led him to favor the final option, seeing Christ as transformer of a broken, sinful culture (this is sometimes referred to as the social gospel). What to make of this? Do we teach our youth that if they follow the way of Christ the world will be transformed? I hope we strive for this as Christians, but do we expect it to actually happen? Do we expect in our lifetime to see the end of war, starvation, cruelty? Or perhaps that is too selfish. Do we at least project some possible distant future when these things are possible? I imagine there are plenty of Christians who would say "No." Perhaps on a personal level or community level there will be transformation through Christ, but on a global scale the world will keep on much as it always have.

    But one wonders how we can be transformative at all if we are not part of the culture itself. If God is ubiquitous, then God is to be found in all aspects of the world, the community, the culture in which we live. Thus, if we engage the culture we are engaging some part of God's presence. The question is the degree to which we are "in" the culture without being "of" the culture. Do we tell youth it's okay to go to see a concert at a bar as long as they don't drink? Do we tell youth it's okay to be in the military as long as they don't fire a shot? Do we tell youth it's okay to have friends that do drugs or have sex as long as they themselves do not? Is it possible to be immersed in a culture and not be in some way shaped and influenced by it?

    Some time back on this blog I wrote: Does the Church not have an identity distinct from secular culture? One of my favorite texts in seminary, perhaps surprisingly as it was written by conservative authors, was Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon. In it they strongly argue that when the Church ceases to have an identity separate from the secular culture, it ceases to be the Church. The authors write: "...both the conservative and liberal church...are basically accommodationist (that is, Constantinian) in their social ethic. Both assume wrongly that the American church's primary social task is to underwrite American democracy." (p. 32)

    Ultimately, I don't think this is an "either/or" proposition. Whether we like it or not, we are part of the culture. Our language, or behavior, our customs, our values are all shaped by culture from birth. The question is to what degree to do we encourage our youth to resist culture, to push against culture, to maintain a certain distance from or tension with the surrounding culture? To what degree do we encourage them to work for the transformation of culture, to work for the coming Kingdom of God? I know. I know. Lots of questions. I'm still working on the answers.
    Update: In a great mixture of faith and culture, I practiced hospitality last night by giving out candy, spider rings, and halloween pencils to all the ghosts and goblins who came to my door trick-or-treating. Then I met up with my church's young adult group at a local bar to watch a member of our group play with his band and didn't get home until after midnight!