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Christ and Culture in New England: Engaging Without Compromising

Christ and Culture in New England: Engaging Without Compromising

Ministering in New England is certainly an interesting experiment in the intersection between Christ and culture. Once the cradle of theological thought and early colonial revivalism, the Northeast now takes the lead in a growing secularism. How do pastors faithfully navigate between pockets of outright hostility and widespread complacency to the gospel? How do our people, as sojourners in a culturally strange land, live in the world without conforming to the world? While serving Christ in New England certainly presents a host of cultural challenges, such challenges offer the church the opportunity to more faithfully articulate the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a post-Christian age. By clarifying and growing deeply in the gospel that sets us apart, God’s people are then able to enter the world as servants of Christ rather than slaves of the cultural gods of this age.

In the following paragraphs, I will give a brief overview of the varied approaches to the question of Christ and culture, assessing each in the context of New England. I will then articulate a model for faithful Christian witness that both engages the culture and remains faithful to the integrity of the gospel.[1] Finally, I will outline some practical applications for congregations in New England.

Christ and Culture: Competing Models

The questions we face in New England are no different than those faced by saints in ages past. Throughout the history of the church, Christians offered multiple answers to the question of Christ and culture. Given that Christianity emerged in the context of a hostile Empire, it makes sense that early Christians like Tertullian adopted a stance labeled by H. Richard Niebuhr as “Christ against culture.”[2] For Tertullian and others, society is so corrupted by pagan influences that military, political, philosophical, or artistic participation are incongruous with the call to bear the cross. However, as D.A. Carson points out in his in-depth assessment of Niebuhr’s classic work, this position is untenable given its inability to function outside the categories of First Article blessings like language and technology. [3] Furthermore, it also imposes a heavy legalism on Christians who cannot avoid participation in God’s world through their various callings.

The second approach, “the Christ of culture,” is “adopted by those who hail Jesus as the Messiah of their society, the one who fulfills its best hopes and aspirations.”[4] This position is clearly a compromise of the Gospel. Lacking a robust biblical theology, churches defined by such an approach are not immune to compromise. Generally speaking, this is the default approach among the historical churches in New England. In seeking to be relevant to the culture they have become irrelevant.[5]

The third position, “Christ above culture,” represents a more centrist position adhered to by the majority of the historical church. Here, Christ is sovereign over the church and the world, and the church is free to borrow from the culture as long as it does not compromise its integrity. Niebuhr expands this third position into two more categories – “Christ and culture in paradox” and “Christ the transformer of culture.” The former tends toward dualism, while the latter seeks to bring about positive change in society though the gospel.[6] These final three categories, along with the first, find biblical support to some degree. However, Carson finds each wanting in that they neglect an emphasis on the overarching metanarrative of Scripture.

Shaped by the Divine Narrative

As we approach the question of Christ and culture in the context of New England, the metanarrative of Holy Scripture outlined by Carson is foundational. The Spirit-inspired story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration is what sets the church apart as holy. As Christians surrounded by a sea of secularism and pluralism, the more we are rooted in our roles within this holy drama, the more we are able to move beyond the false utopias and dead-end subplots of this age toward a more purposeful existence. This holy identity is readily accessible to us in the normal marks of the church- its Scriptures, catechisms, liturgies, and sacraments. To engage these means of grace deeply also means to be shaped deeply in our identity as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.”[8] In short, the narrative shapes us as holy people with a unique purpose – “to declare the excellencies” of the One who called us out of darkness.[9]

Shaped for Service

Declaring the excellencies of God pushes us into the realm of culture –the space where our vocations find expression in daily life. However, apart from deep formation under the divine narrative of Scripture, culture will always corner and compromise the gospel. It’s here that the church and the family work to shape the minds and habits of its people, so that as they engage the culture in vocation, they are “prepared to make a defense” to anyone who asks for a reason for their hope.[10] This means a life of worship in the church and the family that fosters a comprehensive view of reality through the lens of the narrative (intellectual life),[11] as well as the cultivation of Spirit-inspired Christian virtue in every area of life (moral life). In other words, before we engage the culture, we labor to “honor Christ the Lord as holy” in our hearts.[12] In this way, a healthy dualism exists between church and world, where the church serves as the place of individual formation, and the world benefits as the recipient of salt and light servants. When the church functions faithfully and consistently in this manner, it is inevitable that culture will to some degree bear the mark of God’s redeemed community.

Vocation as Holy Service

Having been shaped by the holy community of God’s people, the Christian is then called into the thick of vocational life in the world. The location of such vocation is in the realm of economy and civic participation.[14] While both of these realms may present difficulties for the Christian, they are nevertheless good arenas, created by God and upheld by his grace. As gifts of God, Christians cannot hide away in isolation and quietism. The call to serve in the public square, whether in the realm of work or citizenship, is a high calling where discipleship is lived out. We cannot neglect these posts. They are places where we serve Christ and neighbor. As Paul exhorts believers working in world, “[Render] service with a good will as to the Lord… knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord.”[15]

While the recent secularism of this age has sought to suppress the witness of Christians in the public realm, as Christians we enter into these engagements with culture as Christians.[16] Certainly we do not enforce our beliefs on others – genuine response to the gospel is never coerced. Nevertheless, as Richard John Neuhaus has pointed out, “One enters the public square, then, not as an anonymous citizen but as a person shaped by ‘other sources.’”[17] For Christians, our “other source” is the narrative of Scripture. As a result, we should not only apply our ethical standards to the way we serve in public, but also unabashedly bring those standards into the public discussion about the nature of the service – but always, as Peter reminds us, “with gentleness.”[18] To do so does not wrongly mingle the kingdoms of God and Caesar, but rather recognizes that God’s truth remains truth for both realms.[19]

A "Weird" Gospel

A posture of gentleness does not guarantee a gracious response from the culture we engage. There will be points where we stick out as “weird,” or even illicit the outright hostility of the unregenerate with whom we work and serve in the world.[20] Just as Peter wrote, “They are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.”[21]  There will also be times when our consciences will require us to say “no,” just as the apostles chose to obey God rather than human authority.[22] However, all of this opens the door for Christians to bear witness to the gospel with greater clarity. Rather than grow bitter at the growing cultural resistance to our faith, Christ calls his people to love those who malign us, and joyfully embrace those distinct elements of the Gospel that stand out as counter cultural.[23]

Overall, God’s people are called to live holy lives in the world by first being shaped by God’s holy narrative and holy community. As “sojourners and exiles,” we are called to live in the culture without conforming to the culture, insofar as the culture resists God’s order. Avoiding quietism and isolation, we are called to participate in God’s world for the benefit of the world, serving as “masks of God” through our vocations, yet never compromising our call to holiness by conforming to the world. And finally, we are called to engage culture as joyful people, embracing the oddness of our holiness rather than growing embittered at the memory of a Christian culture that never truly was.

The Local Church

How are these conclusions about Christ and culture applied at the congregational level, especially among congregations whose members live and work among the ground zero of secularism? First, there is a need for deep, robust, sustained catechesis among young and old. Such catechesis includes the basics of the Christian faith, the narrative of Holy Scripture, and a basic grasp of apologetics. Such formation creates worshipful disciples who are eager to glorify God in all things, and whose virtues will be of service to the world rather than overcome by the world. Such catechesis is distinctly apologetic in nature, since it is called into the mix of the public square - a public square that will increasingly ask with surprise, skepticism, or even offense, "What does this mean?" By reinforcing our teaching of the Ten Commandments and the Apostle’s Creed with solid apologetics, believers will not only be able to articulate what they believe, but also why they believe.[24] This kind of catechesis accounts for a culture in which Christianity is not assumed, and prepares the baptized to engage culture faithfully.

Second, an element of this catechesis will include appreciation for each believer’s unique vocation. Rather than prizing church vocations above secular ones, God’s people need a deep understanding of the holiness inherent to each avenue of service given by God. Teaching the value of vocations among the culture will work against a two-tier view of reality in which some things are sacred and others secular. The members of our churches are engineers, insurance executives, nurses, teachers, and truck drivers, and each of these callings are first service to Christ, and second, service to neighbor. The end result of such teaching is purposeful Christian service that infiltrates the ranks of stale secular strongholds.

Third, our churches are called to embrace those elements of the Gospel that are counter cultural. At the congregation I serve, the commitment of our members to local and international adoption is our most visible example of our counter cultural gospel.[25] While secularism flounders to find a solid intellectual reason to defend the value of human life, our churches continue affirming human worth through the most pro-life action of all – adoption. As families continue to adopt, support adoptions, and foster awareness about God’s care for orphans, the light of the gospel shines in the darkness. Of course, this is just one example of many tangible expressions of Christ's love for the world through the hands of the church, many of which are alive and well in our congregations; after school homework help for bilingual students, food pantries, and appointment-based social intervention services.

Finally, we cannot be naïve in our cultural context. Our congregations must stay a step ahead of the culture, communicating its changes without creating panic or alarm. We must be honest about the reality of our changing cultural and religious landscape, but in response we must preach the good news of the Gospel all the more diligently, clearly, and joyfully. There may be spiritual famine in the culture, but Jesus invites his church to a feast of Word and Sacrament, along with all who hear the Spirit's call to join the ark with us before the door is sealed and the rain begins.

Overall, the current religious climate of our nation, unsettling as it may be, provides a clearer opportunity for the church in New England to bear witness to the gospel. Such an opportunity ought never be romanticized – marginalization and persecution are painful, and the temptation to apostatize looms larger. However, since this is the time and place to which God has called us, we are called to embrace our context with faithfulness.

Rev. John Rasmussen - Our Savior Lutheran Church                                                                                  

[1] Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group, 2015).  This book lays the groundwork for the concept of deliberately engaging the culture without losing the integrity of the gospel. 

[2] D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2012), 13.

[3] As Niebuhr himself points out, “In almost every utterance Tertullian makes evident that he is a Roman, so nurtured in the legal tradition, ands dependent upon philosophy that he cannot state the Christian case without their aid.” Ibid., 15.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] As Richard John Neuhaus writes with biting precision, “The mainline was left to sniff around for crumbs that fell from the tables of the cultural elite. Or, like an aged and somewhat eccentric aunt who shares the house, it was thanked for occasionally helping out with the tasks defined and controlled by others.” Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1986), 220. A recent Pew Research study confirms the well-documented decline of membership among liberal mainline denominations. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center. Last modified May 12, 2015. Accessed February 16, 2016. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

[6] Carson, 20-29.

[7] Ibid., 200.

[8] 1 Pet 2:9. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[9] 1 Pet 2:9.

[10] 1 Pet 3:15.

[11] Nancy Pearcey argues against what she calls a “two-tier” view of reality, in which scientific facts form the basis of public knowledge, whereas religious faith is relegated to the realm of privately held “values.” Her book Total Truth is an exercise in uniting fact and value as a unified whole under the Christian narrative. Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2004).

[12] 1 Pet 3:15.

[13] Utopias aside, the influence of Christians living out vocations with the distinct aim of bringing glory to God has cultural influence at all levels – family, economy, and civic involvement. As Gustaf Wingren points out in his detailed treatment of vocation, “In earthly orders God and the devil are both actively at work. Therefore these orders never stand still. They are always corrupted because men depart from God’s will. But they are improved and reformed anew by God, among other things, in true Christian faith and love.” Gustaf Wingren. Luther on Vocation (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), 37.

[14] Luther divided vocation into three “estates” or “stations”: The church, the family, and civil government. Work is included under either family or civil government, since at the time of the Reformation the economy was typically located in the home. See Gene Veith, The Spirituality of the Cross (Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing, 2010), 89-104.

[15] Eph 6:7-8. Note that Paul calls the work done by slaves for earthly masters a good work that will be rewarded as service to Christ.

[16] Carson challenges the common idea that secularism represents a neutral position: “If Christians are not allowed to argue in the public arena as Christians, then implicitly we are supporting the contentions of Pete Singer and Richard Dawkins and their friends, to the effect that atheistic secularists are the only people who are arguing their case from a ‘neutral’ position” (197).

[17] Neuhaus, 128.

[18] 1 Pet 3:15.

[19] We want to avoid a false application of Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine that would encourage a dualistic quietism. The church and the world are certainly separate, however, they both belong to God and are accountable to his sovereign rule. As Carson explains in Christ and Culture Revisited, “It is easy so to polarize the two kingdoms that we forget that one God stands over all. Worse, if we then apply such a polarized two kingdoms theory to every domain of human endeavor, we shall not even attempt a unifying approach to knowledge” (211).

[20] Moore argues extensively that the “weirdness” of our Gospel presents us with an opportunity to communicate the message with greater clarity. “Accordingly, we will engage the culture less like chaplains of some idyllic Mayberry and more like the apostles in the book of Acts” Onward, 27.

[21] 1 Pet 4:4.

[22] Acts 5:29.

[23] For example, Moore argues in Onward that Christians are called to stand out as those who defend human dignity in a culture of death, the religious freedom of all people in an increasingly secular environment, and the integrity of the family as its previous norm is radically redefined. We embrace these as our identity even as they become counter cultural.

[24] Pearcey explains her frustration with her Lutheran upbringing, in which she knew what Christianity is, but had no idea why it is true. She comments, “Over the years, I had memorized hymns, Bible verses, the creeds, and the Lutheran catechism…. Yet I had never been trained in apologetics, or given tools for analyzing ideas, or taught to defend Christianity against competing ‘isms’” (Total Truth, 134).

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