Are we seeing the effects of the previous generation of evangelicals’ disengagement with culture being played out today?
For my Faith in Public Life grad course at Bethel Seminary that I began this week, we were assigned to read an article from Kevin Vanhoozer entitled What is Everyday Theology? How and why Christians should read culture?.
(I’m midway thru the article now as I stop to type this)
One of the definitions of culture that Vanhoozer presents actually comes from a man considered to be the first professor of anthropology- Edward Tylor. He defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capacities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”
Born in ’83 to first generation evangelical parents, I grew up in an era of unique experimentation for protestant, Evangelical Christians. The Sexual Revolution of the 60’s and the counter culture movements of the Jesus People and charismatic renewals created a unique set of questions for evangelicals getting married and having kids by the late 70’s, 80’s and into the early 90’s.
In a culture that seems to be heading completely against the values we want instilled in our children, how should we respond?
I would assess the response as this- lets separate, isolate, and create our own culture.
And so Christians in America did that. We created our own schools (certainly Catholic schools existed long before this, but not many Evangelical “Christian” elementary/secondary schools before the late 70’s/80's). We created our own music (What would people think if they I hear that I’m a Jesus Freak???). Our own book stores. Our own television stations. Our own movies. Our own kid’s shows (Mcgee and Me, anyone?). Our own science.
Having grown up in a home that didn’t allow “secular” modern rock/rap music in the house, I was thankful for my Tooth and Nail Record bands. Some of those Christian bands really made good music. Some of it was awful, mainly as it was merely poor derivatives of the real stuff.
My local Christian bookstore even had a chart up on the wall that was really helpful. It listed the secular bands and artists and then told you what Christian bands sounded like them.
It came in handy. Sure, T-Bone wasn’t anywhere near as good as Tupac, but it was better than nothing.
Looking back though, it was a blast. Me and my youth group friends (who were also my Christian school friends) going to these Christian music concerts in our MxPx and Grammatrain shirts feeling like we were getting an experience of youth that was similar to our public school friends but with out all the sex, drugs, and side effects. I mean, when we were really feeling committed to following Jesus we’d express it by burning the secular CD’s we had secretly accumulated. Honestly, it really was so much fun if you came out un-jaded. I’m not even saying that this experiment was a total catastrophe but…
Here’s the problem, most of the time the stuff in our Christian sub-culture just wasn’t that good, and it carried a massive inferiority complex feeling. To engage any of those “unsaved” friends in meaningful relationship either meant getting exposed to culture or trying to invite them into ours.
Problems became more complex as the main form of cultural interaction perceived by those outside of the Christian subculture seemed to be Christians only emerging from their bubble to use political power to change culture at large. (ie, picketing concerts, lobbying for video game ratings and censorship of sexual content, etc.)
Here’s the deal, I don’t blame anyone for being like this either. These were uncharted waters in so many respects. The rise of mass media, the real shift in mainstream culture away from a traditional morality of the previous generation, I mean who can blame Christians from going “forget this, we’ve got to protect our children from this garbage!”
The unintended consequence of selective, voluntary exile is that a vacuum was created. Where the Church could be the prophetic voice reminding humanity of the God who is restoring all things- the people who stand for defending the defenseless, restorative justice, and an ethic that promotes both the individual and the common good- the other voices (many with greedy and destructive agendas) were the only one’s heard in the cultural conversation.
This affects American society at large, in which evangelicals are a part of. As the LGBT movement became acceptable in the mainstream, it was as if the response to Christian protests of that sexual ethic were met with a “um, who are you? why do you care about what we do with our culture? Don’t you have your own culture?”Certainly going forward, an Essene-like response is plausible- lets move out of cultural/societal sphere all together, live off the grid, etc, but unlikely and unhealthy.
One other response in recent years has been that of dominion theology. “Lets dominate the “7 mountains of culture” so we can usher in the kingdom of God.”
I wouldn’t suggest that alternative, but perhaps a third way :
A prophetical sojourning. Here we live with awareness that we will not bow to idols, but we will not use force or political power to make you bow to our God either. We acknowledge that on this side of the age to come, we are in exile in Babylon, but we refuse to hole up together in isolation and allow the world around us to head towards Gehenna.
We work as transformative servants in our societal institutions, and where it appears transformation is unattainable, we create new institutions that model a better way with gates that never shut the way in.
We don’t sterilize the experience of life with “off limits” subjects in our art or conversations. We don’t live to escape the now for the hereafter, but move the now into the Age to Come.
We become culturally literate and not to merely Jesus-juke people into our ideologies.
When people say “turn off your TV and get in the Bible instead”, I see what they are trying to actually say- “stay grounded in the tTruth and don’t get brainwashed by destructive ideologies”. This may actually be good advice for the new believer and for many individuals, but at a certain point it may be time for some to mature into their calling as a prophetic sojourner and turn on their TV and their Bible together.