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Cultural Impact or Cultural Irrelevance:
A Christian Dilemma

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          February 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

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Part 1 : Super Bowl Decadence and the Challenge of Culture

Confession #1: I watched the whole Super Bowl, including several scandalous commercials filled either with violence or sexual innuendo.

Confession #2: Like the President of the United States, I took a nap during the halftime show, thereby missing the biggest scandal of all.

But I've heard enough complaining on talk radio and read enough about the halftime show, complete with its Jacksonian unveiling, to offer a few helpful comments. I don't want simply to add my voice to the chorus of complaint. It's already loud enough. Rather, I want to ask what we Christians might learn from this fiasco. I believe it confronts us squarely with the challenge of culture.

Several of the Super Bowl commercials stretched the limits of good taste. Children (and children at heart) were scared out of their wits by a horror movie trailer, perplexed by a beer commercial that took a humorous look at bestiality, and treated to an inside look at a football legend's sexual problems. The halftime show featured MTV-style musicality, with sexually-suggestive lyrics, and, of course, an R-rated peep show. CBS officials were apparently shocked by the last item, but otherwise unperturbed by the rest of the halftime show, not to mention the collection of off-color commercials that filled their coffers with cash.

I am unhappy about what I witnessed and about what I slept through. But I'm hardly shocked. I knew that MTV produced the halftime show. Did I actually expect them to feature Barney the Dinosaur singing "I love you, you love me" or Doris Day singing "Que sera, sera"? Though I've watched only about one hour of MTV in my entire life, that's all I've needed to get a taste of MTV values.

Ah, but shouldn't we have trusted CBS to make sure things were appropriate for a family show? Well, why would we do that, I wonder? CBS officials apparently watched the entire halftime show in rehearsal - minus the unplanned surprise - and gave it their blessing. And surely they knew the content of the commercials, yet expressed no misgivings or offered no advance warnings to parents. Is it possible that the network brass saw nothing wrong with all of this?

It's more than possible. It's a sure bet. I don't think anyone at CBS or even MTV intended to shock anyone, except perhaps for the few who planned Justin Timberlake's sexual harassment of Janet Jackson. I don't think they even realized that many commercials and the rest of the halftime show would pose a problem for viewers, including young children and their parents. They simply don't see the world as many of us see it. In their world, sexual immodesty and off-color language aren't raunchy, but regular. They aren't even that cool. They're simply a part of life.

Why do I think this about network officials, none of whom I know personally? Partly I'm responding to the fact that they appear to have had no problems with the commercials and 99% of the halftime show. But I'm also remembering the experiences of a friend of mine who makes his living as a television writer. This friend, whom I'll call "Jeff," has repeatedly found himself in dialogue with other writers who included humorous filth in scripts for prime time television comedies. When Jeff says, "Wait, you can't say that in a family show" his colleagues don't argue their right to freedom of speech. Rather, they're confused. They have no idea why Jeff finds their humor offensive. When he tries to explain that parents don't want their children exposed to such nastiness, the other writers simply don't get it. They weren't intending to be nasty or edgy. But the edges of their moral world are miles away from the edges of the moral world of most Christians.

So here's my thesis in a nutshell. Most of the people who shape our culture, especially those who produce television shows, movies, Broadyway plays, rock music, and MTV videos, live in a moral universe that's far different from the moral universe of Christianity. Their perceptions of right and wrong differ vastly from the perceptions held by most Christians. This isn't a gripe. It's simply a fact.

So what can we do about this fact? Complain about it? Get mad? Start a boycott? Host a television burning in the town square? Or . . . ? In my next post I'll talk about some of the options we face, and which of these seem to me to be most consistent with our calling as Christians.


Part 2 : How to Be a Christian in a Non-Christian Culture

In my last post I claimed that the decadence of the recent Super Bowl confronts Christians with a challenge we cannot avoid. We live within a dominant culture that doesn't share our Christian values. So the question is: What are we going to do about this? How can we live as Christians in a non-Christian culture?

A helpful way of approaching this question comes from the pen of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr. Forty-eight years ago he wrote a book that is now a classic: Christ and Culture. Here he laid out several different ways that Christians relate to the culture around them. The two dominant options he labeled "Christ against Culture" and "Christ of Culture."

Those in the Christ against Culture camp recognize that culture opposes basic Christian values. Therefore they tend to withdraw from the world, either trying their best to ignore it (the Amish option) or taking pot shots at the world from a safe moral distance. Separation from the fallen world is, at any rate, central to Christian living. So, for example, since the culture encourages sex outside of marriage, Christians should renounce this cultural message and seek not to be influenced by it. Instead, they should stand by biblical teaching and embrace the counter-cultural view that sex is only morally right within marriage.

The Christ of Culture folk are much more accepting of culture. Opposing the theological conservatism of the Christ against Culture camp, they espouse a liberal theology that allows culture to determine the shape of Christian living. So, if the culture blesses sex outside of marriage, then Christians shouldn't attack this viewpoint, but rather reinterpret it in a Christian way. We should encourage fornicators to have mature, loving, just relationships, not to abandon their fornication.

As you can probably tell, I tend to line up more with the Christ against Culture crowd. But there is a downside to a single-minded opposition to culture. It's all to easy for us to overreact against our culture, to reject everything in it even if these things are good. Moreover, all too often we separate ourselves from the very people in the world we've been sent by God to reach with the gospel. We spend all of our time with Christians, rarely making genuine relationships with non-Christian folk. We talk in religious language that makes sense to us, but not to our neighbors. We worship in an idiom that pleases us, even if it fails to connect with folk from our community. And so forth and so on.

In Christ and Culture, Niebuhr examines other ways Christians can relate to culture. These avoid the clear-cut polarity between Christ against Culture and Christ of Culture. But they are, therefore, messier. It's easier to reject or to embrace culture completely, rather than trying somehow to engage the culture, yet as a biblically-committed Christian.

Take for instance my friend "Jeff," the screenwriter I mentioned in my last post. Jeff has tried to live out his Christian faith in the midst of a media culture that doesn't share his values. He has tried to make a difference for Christ, even if this difference is sometimes relatively small. At times he has lost jobs because he "just didn't fit in." At other times he's contributed some decent values to shows that, nevertheless, major in off-color humor and sexual innuendo. How much easier it would be for Jeff go one way or the other. He could leave secular media and work within the safer world of Christian media - but thereby lose his ability to influence the culture for good. Or he could simply bury his Christian convictions in order to be a successful writer - and, once again, lose his ability to influence the culture for good. Living in the middle, somehow trying to live for Christ within culture, is often confusing and untidy.

Should Christians who seek to live according to biblical standards take Jeff's middle road, or should they opt for Christ against Culture? Is there any biblical precedent for living in this messiness of a middle way? In my next post I'll try to answer this question.


Part 3 : Christ and Culture in Conversation

In my first two posts of this series I've been working on the following question: Since we live within a culture that is not Christian, how should we live? Should we join the Christ against Culture camp and cut ourselves off from the evils of the world? Or should we embrace the Christ of Culture crowd and allow culture to determine the shape of our Christian discipleship? Ironically, both choices end up with a similar result: we give up our ability to impact the culture for good. Yet trying to live somewhere in the middle, to engage in a critical dialogue between Christ and culture, is tricky, not to mention messy. Is there a biblical precedent for taking this complex path? And if there is, what can we learn to help us today?

In the ministry of the Apostle Paul we find a biblical precedent for holding Christ and culture together in creative tension. Consider the final chapter of his letter to the Philippians, for example. There Paul urges the Philippians to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8). Whereas some of these qualities are clearly Christian, others are never found elsewhere in Scripture, but are common in secular ethics in the first-century A.D. For example, the Greek words translated as "pleasing (or lovely)" and "commendable (or admirable)" never appear elsewhere in the Bible, but are often found in secular philosophical writings.

Then, continuing in chapter 4, Paul claims to be "self-sufficient," exactly like one of the secular Stoic philosophers of his day (Phil 4:11). (The common translation, "content," misses the sense of the Greek and the irony of Paul's claim in this passage. For further discussion, see my sermon of 2/1/04.) Then he goes on to say that he has "learned the secret" of living in plenty and poverty (Phil 4:12). The Greek verb translated as "learned the secret" appears only here in the New Testament. It had a technical meaning in the first-century A.D., describing the experience of a inductee into one of the pagan mystery religions. Such an initiate was said to "learn the secret" of the god and the god's way of life. Paul didn't use this verb accidentally, but intentionally borrowed the language of pagan religion.

So what are we to make of Paul's apparent flirtation with secularism and paganism? Does he exemplify the Christ of Culture option I described in my last post of this series? Has the Apostle sold out to the culture of his day?

Not at all. Although he clearly and consciously uses the language of his culture, he does so in a uniquely Christian way. In verse 8 Paul urges the Philippians to think about what is pleasing and commendable, using the language of secular philosophy, yet framing all of this by the prior imperative to think about what is true. As Paul has shown earlier in Philippians, the fundamental truth that shapes all Christian thought is the self-giving, saving work of Christ (Phil 2:1-11).

Moreover, though Paul claims to have "learned the secret" of living in plenty and poverty, he freely gives away that secret. Here it is: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me" (Phil 4:13). Thus, while using the language of the mystery religions, he rejects their fundamental appeal: secrecy. Furthermore, by explaining that he can do all things "through him who strengthens me," Paul completely reinterprets the secular notion of self-sufficiency. Though using the language of Stoic philosophers in verse 11, Paul shows that his self-sufficiency is really Christ-sufficiency. (For further discussion of this point, see my recent sermon.)

What Paul demonstrates in a few verses of Philippians is his willingness to engage the culture of his day, to grasp its concepts and employ its language. Yet, at the same time, he is not dominated by that culture, but reshapes it in light of Christ. When secular values are consistent with Christianity - as in the case of things being truly pleasing or commendable - then these values can be embraced. But when secular values are inconsistent with Christianity - as in the case of Stoic self-sufficiency - then these values are either rejected or fundamentally reinterpreted.

Paul's path of cultural engagement is risky. We who follow it always risk becoming too much "of the world" in our attempt to live "in the world." Yet Paul's example challenges us to live out our Christian faith within the world, rather than retreating from it out of fear. We need to be conversant with the language and thought of our world, yet at the same time remain faithful to the core of our faith.

In my next post I'll consider some practical ways we might imitate Paul and thereby make a real difference in our culture.


Part 4 : Making an Impact on Culture

So far this mini-series, "Cultural Impact or Cultural Irrelevance," has ranged over the landscape of ideas, from the debauchery of the Super Bowl, to the theology of H. Richard Neibuhr in Christ and Culture , to my friend Jeff's attempt to be a faithful Christian and a Hollywood screenwriter, to the Apostle Paul's use of the language of secular philosophy and pagan religion in his instructions for the Philippians. My point has been to examine different ways we Christians relate to the culture in which we live, a culture in which we increasingly feel like aliens.

I believe that we are called to creative interaction with this culture, however, not disengagement from it. As I explained in my last post, Paul's letter to the Philippians provides a striking example of how to do this without selling out to the culture along the way.

My theological rationale for cultural engagement goes deeper the Paul's example. It is rooted in God's creation of the world and in the fact that God cares deeply about the redemption of his creation. God himself models cultural engagement as he enters into relationship with Israel, as he reveals his truth in human languages, and, most of all, in the Incarnation of the Divine Word in Jesus Christ. We who follow Jesus have no choice, I believe, but to imitate his example of cultural engagement.

But, as I've said before, this is no picnic. Living in the crossroads of Christ and culture is challenging, risky, messy, and often frustrating. How much easier it would be for us to remain sequestered within our own safe religious world. Easier, yes. Faithful to Jesus Christ, no. After all, he's the one who said that we are to shine as light in the world (Matt 5:14-16).

Unfolding before our very eyes we see a vivid illustration of the messiness involved when a Christian seeks to make an impact upon secular culture. Whatever you think of Mel Gibson and his movie The Passion of the Christ , I believe he made this movie both as an act of devotion and in order to impact the secular culture. His life would have been a whole lot simpler if he'd simply offered this film to the Christian community, or if he just kept his Christian faith to himself. But Mel Gibson seeks to make a difference for Christ in the world.

Gibson is doing with film what the Apostle Paul once did with language. He is using one of the powerful "languages" of this culture - film -- to communicate something about Jesus and Christian discipleship. There are many risks here: the risk of using   images to manipulate emotions but not change minds and hearts, the risk of falling prey to exaggerated marketing schemes, the risk of prizing artistic freedom above Christian charity, the risk of indulging in excessive violence, the risk of offending just about everyone in the process by being too violent, too Catholic, too literalistic, too interpretive, too Catholic, or to "you-name-it."

From Mel Gibson we can learn, not only that cultural engagement is messy, but also that it takes courage. Only three verses before Jesus commands us to shine as lights in the world he offers this ironic word of encouragement: "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account" (Matt 5:11). Jesus knew that the world wouldn't beg us to shine his light into its darkness. But, nevertheless, he gave us this calling. Following Jesus, we reject cultural irrelevance as we seek to impact our culture in his name.

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