Living in sin/living in love: the both/and reality of cultural accommodating Christians?


It seems to me that in a Christian mud throwing contest, right after the one-two of "not preaching/believing a full gospel and not believing the bible" the final knock out punch comes in the form of "you're just accomodating/acepting/aping culture" (in its worldy christian sense not the bacterial one)... ouch the subject of christians playing dirty and punching each other out like some cross between an Old Testament prophet/ess and Mike Tyson/Sumya Anani is something for another post (ok my summary view: no one wins, not even on points, in the long run but quite a few people do get knocked out of the faith).

Back to the charge of cultural accomodation which is what I want to explore a bit today - some great thoughts that I have come across recently by blind beggar, Makeesha Fisher and Conrad Gempf are well worth a read for the way they unpack this issue from different perspectives. These posts certainly have helped me engage my mind with starting to think about the question of the impact/influence that me as a Christian has on culture and the impact/influence that culture in turn has on me. And this is something I would like your help in exploring/clarifying my thinking, of which I have begun to set out below...

culture vultures 'aka worldly'

The label of cultural accomodation can often be swapped interchangably with the charge of being worldly (of the world). One of the ways that the word 'world' is used in the bible is to give a sense of a place that is in opposition to God and his rule/wish/will/dream/way for us, for example:

"Don't love the world's ways. Don't love the world's goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity." 1 John 2:15-17

Now we are getting to the heart of the label - to be worldly or culturally accomodating is then to be in some way so similar to the the anti-God world i.e. that there is no discernable difference between it and the church/christian concerned. Or to put it crudely world culture bad, Church/chrisitian culture good and like oil and water the two just cannot mix.

A ghetto cultured church

The impact of such thinking as described above could have a number of consequences, three of which spring to my mind:

1) inward looking - out of safety/fear of being tainted christians retreat into their own institutions, where values and norms are preserved and protected. 'Worldly' is clearly defined and the evils of it reinforced with cautionary tales and a strong moral police.

2) counterfeit world culture - whereby christians take the cultural artifects of the world and produce their own versions - so we have christian books, christian schools, christian companies, christian music, christian art, christian tv, christian films etc - you do not have to leave the christian sub-culture and can consume quite safely

3) confrontationally detached - or confortably numb syndrome, the world is bad and is going to hell anyway, therefore there is a right to tell people that they are wrong whenever it confronts/comes across our path but in the end we know we are okay and what else could you expect from worldly folks...

My question is whether culture so simple? Can we be so detached from the world when we are all part of it? Is culture/the world all bad and is christian culture really all good? If so why do christians get such bad feedback and the world look such an attractive place in comparison?

Cultured people

Culture of course is quite a pervasive presence - it is the water we swim in, the air that we breathe and to that extent its definition is as all encompassing as: "the way of life for an entire society. As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, norms of behavior and systems of belief." A common way of understanding culture is to see it as four elements:

1) values - comprise ideas about what in life seems important. They guide the rest of the culture. 2) norms - consist of expectations of how people will behave in various situations. Each culture has methods, called sanctions, of enforcing its norms. 3) institutions -are the structures of a society within which values and norms are transmitted. 4) artifacts - things, or aspects of material culture—derived from a culture's values and norms.

Things are beginning to get a little more complicated now - when a charge of cultural accomendation is laid it could be that it is with reference to any combination of one to all four of the factors. But if I start to think more about examples of culture from above I wonder if, in the same way Brian McLaren can talk about good faith (loving, generous, caring, involved, open) vs bad faith (angry, judgemental, withdrawn, closed), culture can be viewed in terms of good culture/bad culture? Let me explore that briefly using examples of values/norms/institutions/artifacts:

Good values: e.g. importance of family/equality/fairness/justice, care for the environment/sick/elderly/poor etc Bad values: e.g. selfishness/me centred/me first values and all that comes with it - over consuming/exploitation/greed/lust etc

Good norms: e.g. law abiding, good manners, polite, responsible, taking action, respecting others etc Bad norms: e.g. rude/unhelpful, apathetic/whatever generation, exploiting/denying law, disrespectful etc

Good institions: schools, national health service (UK), governments, trade unions, law enforcement agencies, charities Bad institutions: could be all of the above depending on values/norms that are transmitted

Good artifacts: art/books/music as created objects carry something of the stamp of the Creator in them and can reveal transcendence, suggest something more, hint at and lift the veil slightly tp reveal beauty of God and the good in human kind - acts of bravery, sacrifice, change, honest searching, denial, love, dreams, etc

Bad artifacts: again can be the same motifs but those that spread misery, self-deception, fear, anger, alienation, hate, bitterness etc

And of course we live in a world full of shades of grey where these good/bad characteristics will be interwined. I can also see how christian culture could be bad in the same sense that the culture of the world can be bad (e.g. the hurt men have caused women through blame and opression), even if it is dressed up in more holy sounding clothes. Conversely I can also see how sometimes the culture of the world can/will have good values/norms/institutions/artifacts(closer to God's) than those found in most churches, e.g. equality between men and women or environmantal compassion and justice. In that ought my response ought not to be one of accomodating with the world? Or at the very least going back to bible view to see whether that has become too constrained and here is God using the world to beckon me on into being part of his dream for the world?

As a Christian I find this good/bad distinction helpful, I can see that there is good in the culture of the world and indeed many things where I am of no different in wanting then the world - good families, a healthy planet, justice and many things that I can see and thank God for (good governments, laws, great books and films to name but a few :). I can also see where the effect of sin has broken in, not least in broken familes, a raped planet, injustice and things that I long for God to transform (bad governments, bad laws, hate filled books and dehumanising films to name but a few :(. It is in this context that Jason's post on salavation and spiritual formation provides again an interaction of a model of creation-fall-redemption and creation-incarnation-recreation.

Living in sin/living in love: cultural mission

I am pretty sure that I am often cultural accomodating rather than Christ accomodating. I admit that Christ is transforming me from my cultural loving world locked ways in all the bad senses of the word culture described above, i.e. my selfishness, my me first/my rights/my way of wanting to live life.. or as Paul warns the Galatians:

"It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. This isn't the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God's kingdom." Galatians 5:19-21

Rather than always retreating from culture/the world or neutering to some sort of Christian disney land, good clean consumerism, I think I as a Christian am called to: 1) replicate the transforming work that Christ is undertaking in me with the culture of the communities that I find myself in. 2) That the power to make such a transformation lies not in my will but in the work of the Holy Spirit in me. Just as Christ modelled intentional incarnationalism, to paraphrase a pharaphrase of the Message translaton of John 1, God moved into a specific neighbourhood at a specific time and began the transformation based on Jesus' total reliance on the Holy Spirit - so me likewise in my neighbourhoods using that same model including learning about the reliance on and co-operation with the Spirit. I am co-missioned with Jesus. 3) promote God culture by living God's way i.e. the things that God sees as good, the things that he wishes/wills for us to have/be like/experience. 4)In other words to be a blessing as I am blessed by God rather than a hinderance, obstruction of diversion away from God 5) to reflect/remember/recentre myself on Christ as part of his community/culture in my own communities and cultures. 6) That God is out in the world, creation/world has good and bad and that being repentent/rethinking/responsive will mean that I need to sensitive to where Jesus is. Sometime that will mean to pull back from something of the world and sometimes it will be to say look there is something of God here that the world is doing better - I need plunge in there, partner with the world and participate here with Jesus.

What do you think? Is the good/bad culture idea helpful for you? Is it a sell out rather than being sold out? What's your experience/expectation with culture, the world and God's involvment through us Christians?

What happens when we live God's way?

In closing, Paul encourages and envisions me with these words, I hope some of you find them equally as helpful:

"But what happens when we live God's way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely." Galatians 5:22-23

Update: Culture and the eary church Jase has done this brilliant post looking how the early church wrestled with these same Qs and what we can learn about being critically engaging.

by Paul Mayers A guest blogger who's struggle to lay down any of MY rights voluntarily is just one of the many reasons I need/follow Christ