Engaging with Culture: Learning from the early Church


How christians and the church engage with culture, is a question that began when the church started. In the early church the word 'culture' wouldn't have been used specifically, but their questions centered around how christians engaged with the cultural legacy of the classical world of ars poetica - poetry, philosophy, and literature. Is God at work in other religions, in the poetry and music and writings of pagan culture?

We are in ancient company as we try to male sense of the changes in our culture and how we engage with it. Three key approaches from the Patristic period of the early church are illuminating (at least they are to me).

1. Everywhere: The Gospel is found in the world, outside the church. Justin Martyr in particular in his logos spermatikos wrestling with Christianity's interactions with the platonic world, asserted that 'whatever has been said well' in classical culture was ultimately divine wisdom. Whilst this was a positive engagement with the world around the early church, it's main criticism was of failing to distinguish between culture and the church. It was too much like seeing everything as equal to christianity for his critics.

2. No-where: Tertullian, in the 3rd century, uttered the infamous phrase, 'what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?'. In other words what has the philosophy and views of the non christian world got to do with Christianity? Christianity for Tertullian was a counter culture movement. Aside from obvious practical problems, how do to share the gospel to others if you cannot use the language and forms of their culture, there are theological issues, such as whether God's wisdom is located solely in the Christian church, or do we encounter God outside it? However given the context of persecution of the church, it's not surprising that this view was popular during such times. But when Rome converted, this antipathy to classical culture shifted.

3. Both: Augustine articulated a different view. That we can critically appropriate from culture, whatever is true, right, pure etc. The notion that christianity can liberate critically the writing, thinking and speaking of culture in service to the Gospel.

I think that the modern church in the western world has taken a Tertullianic approach, of separation and rejection of culture (ironically due to a previous overly platonic en-culturation, but that's a whole topic on it's own). I think in the emerging church there has been re-discovering is the location of God in his larger creation, his wisdom in throughout the world.

However, I think the interactions with culture have been largely uncritical (for example see A Heretics Guide to Eternity). We see this (I think) when people identify themselves as 'postmodern christians', almost as if culture has become their hermeneutic for what is real and true. Is it time the emerging church had not just a critique of modernity, but a robust critique of post-modernity?

In our excitement of finding God outside the church, and alive and well in the world I think we need to re-discover Augustine's approach, and temper our discovery with a sifting and critique, so that we would find that which is true, perfect, right and lovely.