A few months ago, I wrote a series of blogs concerning some of my views on women in ministry. I was accused by some readers of abandoning biblical principles in favor of culture. I know what they meant. They were accusing me of borrowing values that weren’t a part of the biblical testimonies. Obviously, I disagree with that. But I also disagreed with the way they were framing the issue.”The faith” and and “the culture” are not opposites. In fact, as I tried to point out, it is precisely Christianity’s ability to be culturally adaptive that is part of its genius.
But I want to back up a little to sharpen this point. First, “culture” is a fairly recent concept and has meant different things as it has developed as a concept. It first applied only to a slice of society–the cultivated, or cultured. Only in modern parlance did it come to represent the shared conceptual reality of a group of people, so that we learned to refer to things as “the culture.” More recent understandings have rightfully pointed out that there is not one thing that is the culture, but that we live within multiple cultural realities, and the important issues related to the cultural have to do with modes of production. Who has the power and means to shape shared meanings?
The big point here is that the Bible doesn’t use the world culture or cultural, and so we have to take care by what we mean when we bring the way we talk and the way the Bible talks together. I think we make a mistake when we use the word “culture” for what the Bible terms as “world” or “age.”
Lesslie Newbigin pointed to this when he reminded us that the church doesn’t live somehow outside of the cultural so that we can say church is one thing and the cultural another. Rather, the church finds its life solidly with the cultural and must attend to this reality with the resources of the gospel. The church, he insisted is the “hermeneutic of the gospel.” By this he meant the the church is the primary place where people see what the gospel looks like in any given cultural context. The gospel is not expressed apart from the cultural or outside the cultural, but precisely within it. This is part of the truth of the incarnation–that God can take form in the particulars of time and space.
Church members use cell phones, commute to work, watch Seinfeld re-runs, go to hospitals for medical care, stream netflix, get liberal arts educations, and eat foods shipped to them from around the world. More than that, church members create Christian meaning by cultural means. They use language, create liturgies, build powerpoint presentations, design buildings, participate in rituals, and shape meaning related to certain narratives. We don’t make meaning apart from cultural realities, but precisely within them. And we use the same cultural means that non-Christians use when they make meaning. Just watch the Super Bowl in a few weeks if you doubt that.
The difference between us and them is not that we do or do not participate in the cultural. The difference lies in the use, production, and meanings we intend as we participate in the cultural.
What I think we mean when we say we don’t want to be influenced by “the culture,” is that we don’t want to be shaped by different “powers.” Let me make a little bit of a technical distinction here that I think is important. When we think of “the culture,” we typically have space in mind. Space is bounded. “The culture,” therefore, is a different space than the one occupied by the church. This is easily confused, therefore, with “the world” which also seems to suggest space. This inevitably creates and us and them mentality. But the biblical way of imagining reality is more around time. The coming of the Kingdom has brought the realities of a different age characterized by a new rule under different powers into view, judging and exposing the ways of “this present evil age” which are ruled by a competing set of powers. In fact, Paul will talk about the “ruler of this age” blinding the minds of unbelievers (2 Cor 4). Our translations typically give us the phrase “ruler of this world” instead, underscoring my point that we tend to think spatially rather than temporally.
(Let me be clear here. It’s not that the Bible doesn’t use spatial imagery, it’s that these are understood within a larger temporal imagination).
What we don’t want is to escape culture, but to escape the shaping powers of this present age which are passing away.
Now this might sound like quibbling to you over words, but I think the practical implications are huge.
Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and powers in the heavenly places. When we define the issue as culture, we tend to get this backwards. When we think culture, we tend to think flesh and blood. As Charles Campbell puts it, we align ourselves with power over against others. When we think powers, we are more likely to align ourselves with people against the powers. This is because all of us are impinged upon by the same powers. The same powers that threaten to demean and distort the meaning of my life are also those that my neighbor struggles against. All of us are pressed upon to define our lives by what we possess or consume. All of us are pressed upon to define our life by the sum total of our sexual desires and proclivities. All of us are pressed upon to live bounded lives of self-sufficiency that cut us off from our own vulnerabilities and the needs of others. All of us are pressed upon to locate our security in groups of likeness that keep us from fully celebrating the gifts of others.
As Campbell points out, when we see life as with others against the powers, we can be both prophetic and pastoral at the same time. We can be with people even as we challenge powers that threaten to belittle us all. And in the environment of the culture wars, we are only prophetic. Only against. Only condemning. Only belittling. And observers are savvy enough to know that we struggle against the same powers that they do.
Beyond this huge difference, however, defining the issue as “the culture” also stunts our abilities within the cultural. We lose the artistic. We lose beauty. We lose humanity. We lose empathy. We lose.
With people. Against the powers. Within culture.