by Gayle D. Beebe, Ph.D.
What is our role as followers of Christ in the 21st century with regards to culture? Should we be transforming culture or become part of the counter-culture?
I first started thinking about this issue when I was in college and read “Christ and Culture,” which H. Richard Niebuhr wrote in 1951. The book describes five dominant ways the Christian church has responded to culture throughout history: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ and culture in conflict, Christ above culture, and Christ the transformer of culture. Each has a specific example, such as the Anabaptists and Quakers for Christ against culture. Niebuhr selected Augustine and the Apostle Paul among others to represent Christ the transformer of culture because they worked effectively to understand their culture and used prevailing thinking to communicate the truth of Christ.
James Davison Hunter takes a contemporary look at how Christians engage culture in the 21st century. Last year he published “To Change the World,” which identifies three primary approaches: Defensive Against (the Christian Right); Relevance To (the Christian Left); and Purity From (neo-Anabaptists who call for a new order that parallels the prevailing culture). Quoting Jeremiah 29, Hunter says they’re all insufficient because the great call of God in our life is to practice faithful presence wherever God places us.
In Acts 17, we see how Paul related to his prevailing culture when he spoke at the Areopagus in Athens. He recognizes that he’s in a place that believes in gods, yet not in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jesus. He has the capacity to show unusual respect for beliefs different from his own — and he understands them with enough depth and complexity to use them as he makes his points.“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship — and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22-23).
Pascal, my favorite philosopher, once said that respect means putting yourself out. He meant that we have to be willing to be inconvenienced in order to show our respect for things that are different from our own. Like Paul, we should be attentive to whom we’re with so we can communicate effectively with them.
Nevertheless Paul goes on to state his own beliefs about God as the creator of all things. He tells the Athenians that God will not forever tolerate ignorance of God’s true nature. One of the great challenges for followers of God is to understand enough of the culture’s literature that we can communicate Christian truth in a way that connects with the cultural thought forms of the society we serve.
People responded to Paul’s words in three ways: some sneered, some had questions and some became believers. As we bear faithful witness to God, we’ll likely have the same results. I find it encouraging that no matter where we are, the call on our life is to be faithful to God, not to convince the crowds. When we’re faithful, we can count on God to bear fruit in the lives of others.
Hunter concludes his book with Jeremiah 29: 4-7, addressed to exiles ripped out of their homeland and taken a thousand miles to live in Babylon. Jeremiah tells them, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters . . . seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Wherever we are we can make a life that honors God.
How do we practice faithful presence today and communicate the truth of Christ in an increasingly secular and egocentric world? We do this at Westmont in part through our commitment to Scripture and our Statement of Faith and Community Life Statement. You can read these foundational documents on our website, www.westmont.edu. Over the years, people in our community have invested time, careful thought and prayer in developing these statements, and we will continue to affirm them. I’m thankful they go beyond behavioral standards to address the attitude of our hearts.
I believe this paragraph from our Community Life Statement helps us practice faithful presence as we hold firm to our beliefs: “As we seek to follow God in truth, certain choices make for greater peace: a respect for others as they make decisions contrary to ours, a readiness to listen carefully to those who represent situations or cultures unfamiliar to us, and a concern for how our preferences affect the lives of those around us. We are committed to inquiry as well as pronouncement, rigorous study as well as kindred friendship, challenging teaching as well as reflective learning. Sometimes these tensions will lead to conflict. To live in unity, we must set ourselves to the practical task of discerning daily how to love well, how to inflesh the biblical call to justice and mercy. As we do so, our life together at Westmont will begin to resemble the community God has envisioned for us.”