On the sixth day according to the Book of Genesis, God created human beings. After a time, God observed that it was not good for the man, called Adam, to be alone. Causing a deep sleep to come over him, God formed a wife for him out of his rib. Adam called her Eve, “the mother of all living.” Shortly thereafter, Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden for disobeying God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The gates of Paradise were closed against them. The cherubim and the swirling sword prevented their return.
God commanded humanity and all creatures to “be fruitful and multiply.” After their expulsion from Eden, Adam and Eve had children. Sin increased in the world through their son, Cain, and other descendents of the original couple. The early chapters of Genesis (Genesis 1-11),called the primeval history, deal with the increase of sin.
Humanity increased, forming tribes and nations with various languages and customs. The writer of Genesis explains that different languages came about by God’s command at the Tower of Babel because of the sin of human being’s trying to become like God. They intended to build a structure that would reach to the heavens, a prideful and arrogant thing. Many different cultures and languages resulted from this dispersion.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture as “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations . . . the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group . . . the set of shared attitudes, values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic.”
When God created a helpmate for Adam, Eve, to join Adam and commanded them to participate in the ongoing development of creation by bearing offspring, God effectively established culture. Culture is intrinsic to human beings who are by their very nature culture-creating, culture-bearing, and culture-perpetuating beings. Human beings have founded many cultures and developed and subsequently transmitted them to succeeding generations. God declared His creation to be “good” and upon seeing His creation of human beings that includes culture, described it as “very good.”
But, things went wrong. Adam and Eve disobeyed God, an act that got them cast out of Paradise. Culture was affected and infected by this act of disobedience (see Genesis 4) The solution for sin, the Bible tells us, is our salvation in Jesus Christ.
Christ, a Greek word meaning “anointed one,” taken from the Hebrew word, Mashiach, is a title applied to Jesus of Nazareth. The mission of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, was, and remains, the establishment of His eternal kingdom. Through HIs willing sacrifice on the cross, he redeemed humanity. Those who believe in Him are saved.
He redeemed humanity from what? The Holy Scriptures make it clear that human beings were created to enjoy a perfect existence; however, tragically, we turned our backs to God through our disobedience and sin, the setting up of ourselves as idols above God. This event, part of every human life, beginning with Adam and Eve, who set it in motion, is called the Fall in Christian doctrine and theology. Human beings fell from perfect and sinless communion with God to a broken relationship. The implications of the Fall permeate every aspect of human life. We are now subject to sin, death, the world, and the power of the devil. The culture is subject to the disastrous effects of the Fall; because, it has negatively affected those called to form “pattern[s] of human knowledge, belief, and behavior.”
The Gospel of John often uses the term, “the world,” to describe human culture as fallen, steeped in idolatry as a result of our disobedience to God. Our idolatry puts other gods before the true God. The world is opposed to the will of God.
Jesus contrasts His peace with that of the peace offered by the world when he says “peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14: 27) He draws a stark contrast between the world and Christians when He says “if you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world; but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15: 19) and “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world . . .They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (John 17: 14, 16)
Human culture had been negatively impacted by the Fall. It is the context for the world opposed to God, darkness, and the work of Satan. This fact poses a significant challenge to Christians as they both pursue a life in and with Christ, but do so within our imperfect and fallen culture.
Christians also belong to a subculture, the Church. Unfortunately even inside the Church, we are impacted by the fall into sin. Despite the fact that Christ founded the Church, Christians struggle with the influence of sin in their subculture.
How do Christ and culture relate? (See H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture and D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited) The first thing to recognize is that some sort of culture–regardless of whether one is a Christian, atheist, devotee of another religion, or pagan–is impossible for humans to avoid. Any community of people forms a culture and, to that end, has language, cuisine, musical forms, a system of etiquette, style of dress, dance, architecture, entertainment, literature, ethnic customs and outlook among other things. Culture is fallen, because human beings are fallen. It is “the world” insofar as it is in opposition to God in Christ and hates the Church, the people of God. The Church is burdened with sin; but, at the same time, is the place where the redeemed dwell. Saint Augustine describes two societies: the earthly city and the heavenly city. The Church is a pilgrim people, whose sins are in the process of being cleansed, as we fare toward the heavenly city. We are pilgrims seeking the destination of the kingdom of heaven.
The Christian who wishes not to be “of the world,” must come to terms with the fact that he will in significant ways engage with culture and deal with sin in the congregation he belongs to. Even those Christians that are the most withdrawn from the world, like the Amish or a monastic community, will engage with the culture and the opposition to Christ and His Church in it. They cannot seal themselves off from culture. They will also struggle with their own sin. Therefore, Christians must come to terms with culture and with how to live in and with it. But also, Christians must avoid fraternizing too closely with culture such that we become indistinguishable from the world, as some denominations have done in recent times. The Church itself is a culture that opposes the world.
The Church recognizes that culture should be subservient to the Lordship of Christ. The Church neither completely withdraws from culture, nor capitulates to it. To do either would cause great harm to her life in the world that is her mission field.
Most Christians live in an uneasy paradox, seeking the grace of perserverance against the world and asking Christ to sustain us through our interaction with it. Culture is fallen, yet impossible to avoid. Although culture is subject to the Fall, it is an overstatement to suggest that it is entirely corrupted by the Fall, that it is entirely evil to the extent that Christians may not participate in it at all. It serves as a medium through which the Gospel is communicated to those outside the Church. Through the ages goodness and virtue have been described and sought in cultures by philosophers, poets, theologians, and others. In The Divine Comedy Virgil, the pagan Roman, is chosen to guide Dante along part of the way to heaven.
The Church and Christians need to have a reasonable and sober view that recognizes that culture is essentially human and is good in its origination, yet is also a result of the Fall. We must use our faith as a guide to decide how, when, and where to participate and not to participate.
The Church and individual Christians must discern where culture is consistent with Christ, where it has departed from the truth, and what remedies are possible this side of the fulfillment of the kingdom of heaven. But, the most important concern of the Church is to reflect Christ in the life of the City of God in pilgrimage. We pray for the Church in the words of a Collect taken from The Book of Common Prayer, “O gracious Father, we humbly beseech thee for thy holy Catholic Church; that thou wouldest be pleased to fill it with all truth, in all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, establish it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of him who died and rose again, and ever liveth to make intercession for us, Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. Amen.
How does this article relate to the theme of this blog, which is, ways to engage in respectful conversation with those who disagree with our faith, especially atheists? It introduces the divide that exists between secularists in the culture and the faithful in Christ. Christians and unbelievers would bring to the table great differences regarding the meaning of life, the way to live, relationship to the culture, priorities, and commitments. A lot is at stake when we would sit down together. Anger could be quite apparent in such encounters. It would not be too difficult for a discussion to turn into a quarrel. (More on anger later). Contempt for the other may also be brought to such meetings. The gap is wide between contemporary American culture and the Church and even wider between the contemporary culture (called the world in its sinful and rebellious aspects) and Christ.
In future articles H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture and D.A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited will be reviewed.
June 18, 2019