Christ and Culture

Christ_culture_110132013By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit speaks Gospel into culture.   And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to peak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:4 ESV).  Here the Holy Spirit communicates the Gospel among all people groups through languages that previously separated us under the curse of Babel (Genesis 11:7).  Language marks culture.  Much like Pentecost is God’s antidote to Babel, the Gospel is an antidote to culture.

To see this, define culture as the history of our collective decisions[1].  If we consistently made rational decisions based on complete information and an objective decision process, then cultural differences would not exist because we would all act the same.  We are not the same because we make poor decisions and base those decisions on prior experiences.  Consequently, as time passes our societal laws, customs, values, and morals (the lessons learned from our collective history) grow more and more unique.  And this uniqueness separates us from one another.

Because resources are limited and contested, bad decisions, which are more costly than good decisions, leave a larger cultural imprint.  Bad habits trump good ones.  Because pain screams while God whispers, culture can seem like the history of collective mistakes, griefs, shame, injustices, and pain.  Cultural isolation temporarily eases our pain as we look inward, but wounds not cleaned fester.  When the church acts as an instrument of the Holy Spirit, it amplifies God’s voice and speaks Gospel into the context of cultural pain[2].

Culture is to groups what personality is to individuals.  Personality is defined in habitual behavior.  When we tell our personal stories, these stories consist mostly of recounting our wounds, obsessions, injustices, and learning experiences.  It is the rare individual blessed only to recount mountain top experiences.  The ministries of presence, fellowship, and care allow us to amplify God’s voice, like the church more generally, in personal reflection.

What does the Gospel have to do with culture?  If culture is primarily the history of our collective mistakes, griefs, shame, pains, and injustices—in a word, sin, then confession and forgiveness of sin are redemptive and transformative.  Christ redeems us from the guilt of sin and the Holy Spirit transforms our lives abating sin’s pollution.  Our worldly cultures are sanctified.  So Apostle Paul can write:  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).   When the church speaks Gospel into culture, it becomes an instrument of Pentecost.

What if we cling to worldly cultures rather than sanctify them?  In effect, we are arguing that our personal and collective mistakes, griefs, shame, injustices, and pain count for more than Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  We are relishing our wounds or hiding behind them rather than submitting them to Christ.  Alternatively, Christ is seen as only human, but not divine.  When Paul prays for relief from a personal affliction, God responds:  My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).  When we hold worldly cultures close to our hearts, we frustrate Christ’s work of sanctification, grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and yield to the itchy ears rather than proclaim the Gospel (2 Timothy 4:3).

What if we become prodigals—insisting on our inheritance without God’s truth and substituting worldly cultures for Christ and His sacrifice?  Think here of overtly idolatrous cultures, such as atheism or hedonism[3].  This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1:24 when he talks about God giving them over to their shameful desires.  In this context, Paul takes up the mantle of a covenant lawsuit prophet evoking covenantal curses.  Rejecting the new covenant in Christ evokes the curse of law—reaping what we sow[4].  The Good News is that in Jesus Christ prodigals who return home and repent can be forgiven—not getting what we deserve.  The Apostle John writes:  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

At Pentecost we remember that Christ, not culture, is our true shelter from the storm.

[1]Jonathan Edwards (Freedom of the Will (1754). Vancouver:  Eremitical Press, 2009, p. 38) employs a similar starting point (a recursive decision process) in setting up a discussion of free will.

[2]Contextualization is actively studied in missionary circles.  For example, see,: James E. Plueddemann.  Leading Across Cultures:  Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church.  Downers Grove:  IVP Academic, 2009.

[3]Some view modernism from this perspective.  Nikita Khrushchev once said:   Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there (  Khrushchev apparently believed that the USSR had constructed a Tower of Babel.

[4]This is more than just a Pauline rant. The hermeneutic of the prodigal in Romans allows Paul to create space for the redemption of Jews who have rejected Christ (Romans 11:11).  Pentecost redeems worldly cultures, even Jewish culture.  Luke (12:10) and Mark (3:29) are less gracious and consider blaspheming the Holy Spirit (rejecting salvation through Christ) unforgiveable.

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  1. Apart from culture, we would not all act the same. There are distinctions that arise from geography. Also, there is not perfect sharing of information, even within a culture. Specialized actions result not necessarily out of distinctions, but sometimes from increasing returns to scale that follow from something like path dependence.
    Culture in this context is not necessarily the consequence of bad decisions, but instead the way tacit knowledge is communicated most efficiently across generations.
    Then what role does the Gospel play?
    The Gospel is redemptive of cultural peculiarities that arise from sin. I will grant that. But not all that is culturally unique is derivative of sin. Much is specialized tacit knowledge. It is even a dispensation of common grace. Hayek wrote a great deal about the transmission of tacit knowledge, mostly through prices, but also through culture.
    The Gospel can also be understood as new information. Brand new information. Particularly when discussing the Gospel that we share through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a dispensation of specific grace, new revelation, that provides arbitrage opportunities, if we are discussing the redemption of souls. The Gospel is about rejecting those cultural appendages that were cancerous and divisive, redeeming those that were dispensations of common grace, and augmenting them with specific grace, fresh, relevant, and powerful in a way that puts all other powers to shame.
    Rejection of the Gospel, or maintaining attachment to negative cultural influences, is to deny Christ’s sovereignty. It says, “I want to hold on to either my position of relative power, or my victimhood, out of pride or selfishness. I want to maintain control or at least the ability to manipulate conditions through my own efforts.”
    We leave ourselves to the outcomes of common grace. But in many ways the entirety of the Old Testament is a story about how various manifestations of common grace were insufficient. We need the direct and personal intervention of a savior. We need for Christ to die for us. The man-God on the cross is the most offensive reality to any culture, as Pau describes it as foolishness, and a stumbling block within the cultures of his time. It even offends common grace.
    Nathanael Snow

    1. Nathanael:

      Wow. I enjoy your line of thinking.

      My suspicious view of culture arises, in part, because of God’s humbleness. Pain screams; God whispers. Still, we know that Gospel substantially influences culture because some languages, such as high German, arose primarily because of the influence of the printed Bible.

      How does Hayek define tacit knowledge?


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