So Cultured I’m Yogurt

Most of my readers are probably familiar with the categories of Niebuhr regarding Christ and culture. There’s Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture. What many pastors claim to be advocating today is the last option: Christ transforming culture. It sounds great, doesn’t it? It sounds like the gospel is doing its work. The problem is that it is not always personal. The shift from personal evangelism to an impersonal “engaging the culture” oftentimes leaves the gospel out of the mix. It is parallel to the social gospel (and in many cases is equal to it) of the old liberal stream. Theoretically it is Christ transforming culture. Functionally, it winds up being the Christ of culture.

The other problem is this: all non-Christian culture is fundamentally idolatrous. All too often, “engaging the culture” is a euphemism for “caving in to the culture.” I am not for a moment claiming that culture always produces bilge. There are a myriad of great works of art out there, fashioned according to the gifts of common grace. They can and should be appreciated. I am referring to more problematic phenomena, like using movie clips as the text of the sermon. Surely, in that case, we have substituted man’s words for God’s words. I suggest that those who are so enamored of culture that they are yogurt need to step back for a moment and ask the tough questions: is this phenomenon I am studying really conducive to evangelism, personal holiness, progress in the Christian walk? Or am I merely using this “engaging culture” mantra as a smokescreen to disguise my own idolatrous fascination with an idolatrous culture? Am I using the mantra “engaging culture” to mask, disguise, and even justify my own sinful propensities?

Most of the time that I see this, I also see someone who is soft on sin. They will typically redefine sin so that what they are doing (conveniently enough) doesn’t fall under the Bible’s strictures. They become functional antinomians.

Now, let us not throw the Christian-in-culture baby out with the idolatry bathwater. Should Christians, in their various fields of art and science seek to produce that which is Christian in those fields? Undoubtedly. Alas that Reformed folk fall so far short of doing these things, most of the time. There are always exceptions. However, one could wish that there were more great Reformed artists, sculptors, musicians, and scientists that would produce work that is Reformed, bringing glory to God. Again, it is not common grace that I am arguing against, nor a Christian’s desire to produce works of art that I would in any way hinder. Rather, it is the sinful fascination with the idolatrous culture that I am seeking to expose.

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17 Comments

  1. Reed here said,

    August 6, 2013 at 7:28 am

    Hah! Good insights! The title completely threw me, and then made perfect sense in the first sentence or two.

    In my experience I’ve this as a re-birth of a variation of the social gospel. “We’ll make a truly loving community through Christian principles.” O.k., but why does the deed usually end up divorced from the word? Often such “gospel” “ministries” have no observable ministry of the gospel expressly commissioned by Jesus, the proclamation of it.

    Crazy too, I’m seeing more and more functional antinomiansm. I hadn’t thought of this one, but I can see it. Ironic that it often seems joined at the hip to a legalism as well. If you’re not with the latest cultural transformative movement then you’re not really obeying Jesus.

    To be fair I also see the same antinomian-legalism among those who give most of their attention to doctrine. Both approaches tithe mint very accurately.

    And to be completely fair, I find both tendencies in myself. I have my own lst of doctrinal niceties that my flesh presses into use in judging others. As well,I find it hard sometimes to not be unfairly judging towards some who seem to never find interest in any evangelistic endeavor.

    Good post Lane.

  2. August 7, 2013 at 12:02 am

    […] the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article first appeared on his blog and is used with […]

  3. August 7, 2013 at 1:50 am

    Hi,

    Culture and Religion is sort of my thing so I was interested in reading this post to see what you had to say about it.

    Just a question first. You wrote: “The other problem is this: all non-Christian culture is fundamentally idolatrous.”

    Can you give an example of a “christian culture?”

    Michael

  4. August 7, 2013 at 8:25 am

    In other words, churches which make being part of culture a major part of their missional life (e.g. art galleries, beer brewing, gentrifying cities, etc.) would do well to read Ecclesiastes 2 again — which ends with a positive assessment of earthly work, by the way, but not before first reminding us that earthly comedy, gardens, wine, singing, romance, cool architecture, and even learning itself, are all ultimately vanity. We must work for other ends.

  5. greenbaggins said,

    August 7, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Michael, a couple of great examples: the music of J.S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn, and the paintings of Makoto Fujimura and Rembrandt.

  6. Dr DeRidder said,

    August 7, 2013 at 9:46 am

    Just as Man needs Redemption so does culture, and that comes only from Jesus Christ. Culture, as does all of sreation, needs the Resurrection and the Life.

    Chris, above, directs us wisely to Solomons’ writing in Ecclesiates which outines the vanity of culture separate from redemption or as Calvin called it Reformation.

  7. Cris A. Dickason said,

    August 7, 2013 at 9:53 am

    The OP: let us not throw the Christian-in-culture baby out with the idolatry bathwater.

    Hey, Lane, I would buy that bumper sticker!

  8. Dr DeRidder said,

    August 7, 2013 at 9:54 am

    Just as Christ created all things in the Universe. The Image of God within us sparks our DNA to “create” as did God. That creation by man is culture and culture used by man either glorifies God or doesn’t

  9. Dr DeRidder said,

    August 7, 2013 at 10:24 am

    As yogurt and bread and Korean Kimchi, must be produced by “things” [pobiotics and yeast] that God created which causes death with fermentation [in the earth for 3 days] in order to transform into a life sustaining product for man.
    Thus it is an analogy from general revelation that points to Christ and how He had to die and was transformed in 3 days to became the Resurrection and Life.

  10. Dr DeRidder said,

    August 7, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Add beer and wine to my list above and you can see how the “culture” when used by man can glorify or dishonor God.

  11. Don said,

    August 7, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    greenbaggins #5,
    Those are good examples of Christians positively impacting culture (what you’re calling for in the final paragraph of the OP). But Bach was a guy, he isn’t a culture. So what I’m wondering is whether there really is such thing as “Christian culture.” (To be distinguished from, say, the stereotype of the Bible Belt where everyone goes to church and knows the right things to say, whether or not they believe or act like Christians in any meaningful sense.)

  12. Cris A. Dickason said,

    August 7, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Lane @ #5 – Let’s not forget the music of Turlough O’Carolan, to add another country and genre to the list.

  13. Martin said,

    August 7, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    Don in #11,

    I’m not Lane, but if I may venture an answer: Christian culture as I think you are meaning it, is found this side of the new heavens and new earth, in the Church, where Word, sacrament, discipline, prayer, and the like are properly made use of. That culture can and sometimes does produce men like Bach and Mendelssohn.

    I can’t think of a successful example in history of an attempt to establish a Christian society, Christendom, or whatever.

    We are sojourners until Christ comes again.

  14. rfwhite said,

    August 7, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    Green Baggins: interesting post, especially these words: “an impersonal ‘engaging the culture’ oftentimes leaves the gospel out of the mix.” What, to your mind, distinguishes music (be it of Bach and Mendelssohn or others) and paintings (be they of of Fujimura and Rembrandt or others) as culture that is identifiably Christian?

  15. August 7, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    Thanks for the reply. I live on the other side of the world so it seems that I have been left behind by the conversation :-) At any rate, I guess I misunderstood what you meant by “Culture.” Rather than it being all the stuff that makes up the world in which we live, such as worldview, language, customs, schools of thought, etc. (all created by God by the way — a way for us to distinguish the tribes, nations, languages, and people in Revelation) it seems like you mean culture as in the arts, music, etc.

    It is an important distinction and one we need to define before we continue our discussion.

    You mention that it is bad to use movie clips in a sermon. What makes a move clip different from an illustration from the newspaper or a magazine or from a book of sermon illustrations? I guess I don’t see the connection. What about Paul’s quotations from Greek Poets in Acts 17:28? Can you tie this together for me so I can understand your point of view?

    Michael

    P.S. It seems like Don #11 and rfwhite #14 are thinking along the same lines as I am.

  16. Cally Goddard said,

    August 22, 2013 at 10:11 am

    I don’t blog, but like the friendly yogart culture of observations….and wish i could + in my G+ google. Blogging not my game to much nagging in my home from the culture of my own lips, however, climbing the roof was a fun play to the only God i could pray too….and the sunset a reminder i have one more day….appeal for the balcony a NO and rope still anchored to the chimney a fit to the nagging….

    To the climbers of the blog: The rope needed to be retired anyways.

  17. david davis said,

    October 26, 2013 at 6:05 am

    As they said in the “Beverly hillbillies” “when it comes to culture Pearl is the first hog at the trough”


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