These questions arise from the inevitable tension of Christian identity and mission - the call to be in the world but not of the world; the reality of living within the world as “resident aliens.” Engaging culture is unavoidable as citizens, yet in many ways Christians are called to avoid much. What to do?
There are all sorts of options: Christians should “redeem” culture, a phrase I’ve encountered a fair bit of late; or Christians should withdraw from culture (something we Mennonites are great at); or Christians should create culture. Niebuhr’s famous typology still provides a helpful foundation for the variety of ways Christians have and continue to relate to culture (Christ against Culture; Christ of Culture; Christ above Culture; Christ and Culture in Paradox Christ Transforming Culture). All this to say there is no one way understand the dynamics of Christianity and culture.
Yet underlying the whole discussion of Christianity and culture is a definition of culture as something “other.” Culture is separate from who we are, and thus something we can respond to as we see fit. As individual Christians, or even as a community of Christians, culture is distinct from us and we from it. The task is choosing how to best establish our relationship with culture.
But what if that’s a choice Christians, or all humans for that matter, don’t actually have? Or at least not to the extent we believe?
I’ve had a lingering unease with many of the common conversations around Christianity and culture. All sides display an overconfidence in our ability to determine if and how we will relate to the world around us. Yes, Christians can create and shape culture. Yes, Christians can choose to remain distinct from aspects of culture. But we can’t neglect the reality that we exist within a culture and are shaped both directly and indirectly by this very culture. Culture is not simply an “other.” We don’t just relate to culture, but are participants or members of culture. I’m not sure Christians always get this.
And this shift reframes how Christians can discuss faith and culture. We are forced to acknowledge our own limitations in freely choosing our cultural engagement. If culture isn’t completely “other” then we aren’t completely in control of how culture and faith relate. The result, I hope, is humility towards culture instead of overconfidence. History shows the perils of Christian overconfidence. Christians still need to discern how we are cultural participants as followers of Jesus, but no longer from a place of disconnection and superiority. As humble participants in culture, Christians don’t begin cultural engagement with a theory or position but with a presence, continually discerning faithfulness to Jesus in all times and places.