Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Church and Culture, 5

In the last post, we ended on this point: "self-love is almost always idolatrous." We went a little further to say:
The first order of business in addressing the question of how the church relates to the culture is to reject inordinate affection for the culture and adopt an anthropology that centers our affections first on Christ, then on His "race."

The obvious question is how to do this. I wish I had obvious answers to such an obvious question. But let me start with some preliminary suggestions and invite you all to jump in with additional suggestions, questions or ideas.

1. Realize No Human Culture Is Neutral

Many of my friends in situations where their natural culture is the majority culture, assume that it's also a "neutral" cultural atmosphere. That is, they don't recognize that their natural cultural atmosphere may contain "toxins" for folks accustomed to breathing different air. The air on Venus can be quite different than the air on Mars. We gotta realize that there are meanings and ideas and even emotions grounded in the cultural milieu that not everyone has immediate and easy access to. Where that happens the culture is actively, positively promoting something... and that promotion is not neutral. It's not necessarily bad; it could be good. But it's working against those outside the milieu and understanding.

We need to develop a healthy suspicion of our natural cultural assumptions, suspend them long enough for reflection and evaluation, and jettison the "toxins" that make it difficult for others to breathe. Now, this requires at least two things: (a) a willingness to gather data from outside yourself, from the fly on the wall or the stranger in the gates, and (b) a willingness to apply what you hear, especially if what you hear makes you more like Jesus and less like your native tribe. Suspending the assumption of neutrality or "home field advantage" is necessary for relinquishing an undue affection for this world and our corner in it.

2. Remember that Christ overcomes alienation, and we should work to do so as well.

Inherent in the human conditionn is alienation. It's a result of the Fall. We're alienated from God and we're alienated from one another, even in the most intimate human relationship of marriage. What we have in the Gospel is the power of God to end alienation between man and God... and man and man. Now it's that last form of alienation-ending power of the Gospel that shows up so little in our thinking, actions, and preaching. Do we believe that Christ's atonement reconciles men to one another, thus making peace in the church? (Eph. 2:14-18) That's the crucial test of faith when it comes to the reconciliation and unity of the nations in the local church. Is the Gospel powerful enough in our lives to remedy man-to-man alienation? I say it is... but it requires our being conscious of the fact that Christ's sacrifice and grace intends for us and is sufficient for us to live redeemed lives together across ethnic divides. If we assume alienation is natural to the redeemed life, we'll create and lead and gather in churches that simply go on replicating an alienation that is conquered in the body of Christ. We can tell the story of any history or culture in a way that says quite clearly, "All y'all others are outsiders." Remember the T-shirt slogans: "It's a black thang, you wouldn't understand"?

If we're sensitive to the work of Christ in ending alienation, we'll be careful about the appropriation of human cultural forms and careful about the methods of appropriation that reify alienation. But we can only do that effectively if we see Christ in all of His glorious work as destroying alienation in His church.

3. Appropriate from the ground of Christ, not ethnicity

I once heard a friend describe his conversion this way: "I realized that I had gone from considering the claims of Christ from the outside perspective of a skeptic, to arguing from within the claims of Christ." In other words, the ground on which he faced Christ shifted from rival territory across the chasm of unbelief to the very ground on which Christ himself stood. It's an interesting way of describing a conversion. And I think it has lessons for us as we think about the relationship between church and the culture of man. In our celebrations and appropriations of history, heritage, culture, diversity, etc., do we reason from within the culture to Christ, or from Christ to the culture? Do we read African-American history listening for distinctives about African-Americans from which we generalize to Christ? Or do we read that history discerning the work of Christ in, through, and on African Americans? Another way of putting it... does Calvin belong to Swiss European history, and therefore mostly to Europeans, or does Christ own Calvin and the events of the European Reformation such that all Christians own Calvin? We'd all want to conclude the latter. But does our church practice in its appropriation of Calvin and European history, for example, reflect that understanding? Do I hold up African-American missions efforts in the Caribbean as an act and gift of Christ for all, or do I hold it up as a unique contribution of African Americans?

What we're after is not self-love but Christ-love. Our appropriation of culture when it happens has to serve that purpose it seems to me, or else it furthers our alienation even as we're trying desperately to forge unity and mutual understanding. The proof of that for me is the countless number of times I've heard white friends, for example, say, "I'll never understand what it's like to be a black man." When I hear that, I think there's something about the way I've explained or shared things that exalts the uniqueness over the unity of human experience. Not that any two of us can achieve a comprehensive knowledge of one another... but we should be able to achieve a real and accurate knowledge of one another given our unity in Christ and our common humanity in the image of God scarred by sin.

Einstein said that if you can't explain a thing simply, you don't understand it well enough. The lack of simplicity in this post reveals my lack of understanding. So, comments and corrections and suggestions are welcome.


Anonymous said...

I think you are on the right track, but as you confess at the end of your post, I feel like I have questions in the back of my mind I can't quite articulate. I think it would help me to hear you explain a hypothetical situation describing how a church would change if they discovered and applied these principles.

Anonymous said...

I greatly appreciate your posts on culture and the church.

I don't think the church will want to hear what you're saying, but they can't deny its truth.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I have a few minor criticism. In one sense you seem to be pitting unity against diversity. It is as if your suggesting (this is my rendering) that we must forsake diveristy for the cause of unity. Your use of language might be part of my misunderstanding. For example, what do you mean by;

"the fact that Christ's sacrifice and grace intends for us and is sufficient for us to live redeemed lives together across ethnic divides"?

If by this you mean those redeemed in Christ have a metaphysical & transcendant relationship that goes beyond mere ethnic differences, I'd agree. But if your suggesting we, as redeemed people must forsake our ethnicity, I'd disagree. So some elaboration at this point would certainly help me. You must be willing to say; we are saved by grace, not race.

Secondly, it appears your discussion of culture is taking a very ethnocentric path. Yet cultures often cross ethinic lines and ethinic lines sometimes cross into other cultures. If the issue is truly culture, then ethincity is only tangental to that matter at hand.

And again, you seem to be suggesting something I would disagree with, that this is an "all or none" paradigm. Using your example of Calvin, when we reason from Christ to the culture, it doesn't neccesitate total disregard for that culture. Calvin reformed Geneva. He worked with the people (his people) to transform their lives to the image of Christ. And as various ethinic and cultral influences around the world maintain their distinctives while being conformed to Christ, there is harmony with unity (in Christ) and diveristy (manifest in various peoples and various cultures). There is no reason, biblically speaking to reject all that which is good from a various ethnic or cultrual background. Rather, IMO we should look back upon God's work within the differing ethnic/cultural contexts, which ethinic contexts He established, to honor how He has moved in and among various groups.

Along these lines, I'd be very interested in your thoughts on a group called "Reformed Balcks of America". If you aren't familiar with them you can google their that title and bring them up. As you have time, please let me know what you think of their overall goals.

Anonymous said...

I am really enjoying this series, but IMHO it is moving too fast. I need more time to think and digest.

FellowElder said...

I'm going to respond to part of your comments in the next post and part here.

Did the Lord through Calvin reform Geneva or Genevans? And is that merely or primarily a Genevan story or a Christian story? Are we meaning to say something special about Genevans or something profound about God? What is "all that which is good" in a particular culture apart from the grace and blessing of God? And does how we tell that story have any impact on the question of common Christian identity across cultural bounds?

I think what happened in Geneva is about God primarily, not Calvin or Geneva. And I think how we tell that story can either be "theological history" or "his story," to borrow a phrase. If we tell it as theological history, more will be edified and the cause of Christ in unifying the body will be advanced. If we tell it as "his story" we actually raise barriers and force alienation that's both unnecessary, undesirable, and gospel-reconciliatio-opposing in the church.

I don't see any place in Scripture where we're told God made ethnicities and intended them to remain separate, or intended the church to preserve either the ethnic distinctives or the separation. In fact, it's precisely the opposite. Paul's exhortations to the Ephesians (Eph. 4:1-6), for example, makes no sense if he doesn't expect them to make little of their former natural and religious identities and embrace their new, common identity in Christ. He's not writing eschatalogically, but temporally and with urgent passion. Be unified, Jew and Gentile, in one local church. Make little of your past and much of your present and future in Christ... so much of your present and future in Christ that centuries of hostility are vanquished!

As far as I know, Xavier and Michael at RBA are attempting to introduced Reformed theology to African Americans and predominantly African-American churches. In so far as I believe Reformed theology to be theology that is biblical, I'm all for that. In so far as Reformed theology is associated with European theology, I think they're in one sense doing what I'm suggesting... trying to make that historical and cultural experience permeable to African Americans and to put it in "dialogue" with some African American thinking.