Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Cultural Relevance

It is probably not difficult to tell from my musings here that I think engagement with culture is important. I truly believe my quote to the right about what gives medicine a point. I've been considering these convictions today, in light of some posts on Slice of Laodicea, a Christian website I read occasionally. This site has recently been denigrating the emergent church, and using some stereotypes to paint pretty broad strokes. I discovered today that I'm not the only one who noticed this, and there is a bit of a terse exchange of posts going on between the players in this debate.

The debate, as such, has little or no bearing on me here. I certainly don't want to get into it right now. I think (a) a lot of the debate there is going to end up being fruitless, (b) I don't have much exposure to the emergent church, and (c) I'm more interested (now anyway) in one of the underlying points.

My concern is more with cultural engagement in the abstract. I said in an email to one of the people running Slice that "I am very wary of Christians who have a knee-jerk "anything about this culture is evil" reaction. It is simply uneducated and worse, illogical...I think the fundamental concern I have is Christians who take to heart only the verses pertaining to how the gospel will seem foolishness to the world, and then use that as an excuse to be foolish." This seems, sadly, to be the case for many of the readers of that site. They excoriate musicians who try to make Christian rap, not on the merits of their artistry, but on the basis that rap music is itself evil. And the readers of that site are by no means singular. Now rap may be a bad form of art, or even a construct solely for the purpose of making money off white suburban kids, and Nameless, the Christian rapper castigated in Slice, may not be great rapper, but it is more important to address him on the terms of his art. Call him derivative, critique his poor production, but don't dismiss him before listening. I don't think there are many (if any) forms of art that can be called evil in the abstract, and the role of the Christian in art, in science, in medicine, accounting, or any other sphere of human endeavors ought to be to redeem it for Christ.

To the credit of Slice, the reply I got from Jim Bublitz was on target, and he said (replying to my suggestion of reading J. Gresham Machen on the subject) "Be careful not to go off the deep end with cultural relevance. I'm familiar with Machen, and I know that he had a good balance on this...I agree with your statement that the foolishness of the Gospel should not be used as an excuse to be foolish. Your reasoning (and logic) can be taken to an unbiblical extreme however, to the point where cultural demands out-weigh scriptural demands."

Certainly an understandable and reasonable response. But without understanding (a rare gift, to be sure) this attitude is taken by many to be carte blanche to treat the world as latter-day Gnostics or Manicheans and see anything that doesn't take place inside the walls of church to be evil. It isn't. We are all part of the world, and though it must always be viewed through the lens of Christianity, we cannot help viewing it. Machen puts it thus:

[W]hat more pressing duty than for those who have received the mighty experience of regeneration, who, therefore, do not, like the world, neglect that whole series of vitally relevant facts which is embraced in Christian experience—what more pressing duty than for these men to make themselves masters of the thought of the world in order to make it an instrument of truth instead of error?
Are then Christianity and culture in a conflict that is to be settled only by the destruction of one or the other of the contending forces? A third solution, fortunately, is possible—namely consecration. Instead of destroying the arts and sciences or being indifferent to them, let us cultivate them with all the enthusiasm of the veriest humanist, but at the same time consecrate them to the service of our God.

This, I think is the attitude Christians ought to be taking. It is not an easy path, but nothing worthwhile is easy. And though I don't know that rap music is a worthwhile enterprise, I do know that monasticism is not the solution, and neither is angry denunciation of anything that doesn't come straight of the Bible.


Melchizedek said...

Slice won't even publish my comments, which I assure you have not contained any inapposite language. I may have made a mistake by disagreeing with Ken Silva in my first comment...

He had written an guilt-by-association article slamming someone (I'm not sure who it was, possibly Rick Warren) because they had spoken at a conference that a Roman Catholic also spoke at.

My comment was something to the affect that the guilt-by-association was very unhelpful and then I asked if they where going to throw Billy Graham under the bus next.

Which they later did. (To be fair I search on their site I just did indicates they outed Billy Graham as a heretic).

Aiming at Proverbs 31 said...

It always amazes me what Christians can find to argue about. Our community actually doesn't deal with this particular issue - we would probably agree with your view on most of it. Unfortunately, there are so many issues that can cause division,and we are plagued with another one.

Nathan said...

aiming at proverbs 31 - I am sorry to hear your community is plagued with a divisive issue. It does seeem to be a perennial problem, everywhere. On the bright side, I've recently been reading Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and it has some amazing guidlines for living in a Christian community appropriately. I highly recommend it.

melchizedek - I think "throw Billy Graham under the bus" is one of the more evocative things I've read in a long, long time. And probably sadly fitting here.

Thanks to both of you for commenting. I was about to delete this post because I'm not at all pleased with my weakness of reasoning and the fact that I barely have a point. I'm going to try to hold to a higher standard here.

Steve Hayes said...

A sort of general comment for anyone interested in Christianity and culture:

The kind of thing you posted here would be very welcome in the "Christianity and Society" forum that I've been running for several; years. If you'd like to take a look, see:


There's also a link from my blog.

Henry (Rick) Frueh said...

Nathan, I agree with your "music style" argument, there is no Scriptural teaching on it so it is all opinion. But the emergent church issues are of far more serious concerns that deal with the fabric of Christianity. Anyway, any disagreement between believers should be well mannered and respectful even when deeply serious. There really is a war going on and it is not in Iraq. Good blog, by the way. Mine is Following Judah's lion

Ryann said...

I came across an essay by Christopher Dawson that might interest you. He wrote prior to the emergent church issues discussed here, but he argues that from a sociological perspective, either extreme in 'the marriage of religion and culture is equally fatal to either partner.' Let me know if you'd like a copy.

Steve Hayes said...

One of the things i find disturbing are the books of Frank Schaeffer, who mounts a sustained attack on American culture as he perceives it. I think there's a lot to be critical of in American (or any other) culture, so why do I find his approach disturbing?

I think it's his lack of analysis. He takes shotgun blasts into the dark, and doesn't analyse the culture from a Christian point of view. Just assumes that everyone will know why it is bad, or what is bad about it.

I agree that Christianity is countercultural. When I was 19 Romans 12:2 was my favourite and most-quoted Bible verse, and it's still there.

When I was 26 I stayed with some Dutch monks who were trying to be "with it", and wore business suits and ties at a time when disc jockeys were appearing on TV wearing habits. I prefer Orthodox monks with those cool, countercultural pony tails.