This past weekend in church, a video was shown to the congregation and by the end of it, not an eye in the auditorium was left dry. In the video, a woman in her early 30’s was sharing the story of the past 5 years in her life. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, and after a year of struggling with it, was in remission. Some time later, however, it returned and not just to her breasts — but to her bones and blood as well. A year ago, the doctors had told this young woman that she had 5 years to live.
More recently, they reduced that estimation to 5 months.
“There were a lot of things I expected to do,” she explained with more strength than I would ever have. “I thought I’d get my doctorate and get married and have kids…” (I’m paraphrasing all this from memory)
She went on to explain how, rather than raging against God, she has adjusted and expanded her theology. “People have been asking me, ‘how can you love a God who would take your life away from you at such a young age?’ But I respond that His goodness and His plan is not predicated on my experience; it doesn’t depend on my heath or diagnoses.”
She then explained that she herself feels like she is expanding. Initially it sounded a bit woo-woo as she began, but once I caught onto her meaning, it made perfect sense. Rather than hoping in, and being shaped by earthly things (wealth, job, family, status, friends), she was beginning to tilt toward eternity. She was beginning to eagerly hope more for eternal things than earthly ones.
Inevitably, this is going to make one feel larger.
Philosophers have juggled similar concepts, albeit in the the absence of God — the removal of earthly attachments yields freedom. Camus longed for such an experience, and…perhaps he now has it. The Buddha also sought to rid himself of earthly desires, which lead to suffering.
While the tears filled my eyes and I watched this brutal five-minute video, an age-old question filled my mind, followed by a newer one. The first was, What else could possibly matter more than THIS?? What could be more important than knowing Jesus and then connecting others to Him?
It’s not a novel thought. Most Christians, hopefully, ask themselves this on a regular basis.
I’m forced to ask myself this every time I hear of something tragic, or weighty, happening. My brother’s housemate died of Covid-19 two weeks ago.
He was 26.
Suddenly I’m forced to ask myself, if I had known him, how much more would every moment have mattered? Would I have benefitted his life in any way? Am I benefitting the lives of those people I do know every time I’m with them, the way Jesus benefitted those around Him? Did this kid know Jesus in his brief stint on our shared earth?
What else matters during our handful of years on earth more than knowing God and making Him known?
This question implies that there is nothing more important than those two sides of the same coin. There is nothing more valuable than knowing Christ and Him crucified (Philippians 3). However, it also implies that many of the things we would otherwise spend our time on would be time wasted, and as John Piper taught us, there is little worse than wasting our lives. And I concur, though I might disagree on the application here.
This all led to the second question which entered my mind while seated in church, clenching tears back thanks to this woman’s testimony. The question was more of a thought than a formulated sentence; after all, like Beckett said, “words are the clothes thoughts wear.” So, the question, as well as I can articulate it in language, was something like this:
If nothing else matters but knowing God and introducing others to Him, how do we go about doing this?
This led to a myriad of rabbit trail-like thoughts sprawling across my consciousness trying to figure this out. It led me to one unavoidable dead-end of reason:
Culture is the language the world speaks. Trying to articulate the gospel of Jesus to a community, while trying to remain removed from its culture, is like trying to share the gospel with a Guatemalan without first learning Spanish.
Sure, the more sociologically/philosophically inclined among you may point out that language is perhaps the most chief element of a culture, but you get the point. Attempting to share the Good News of the victory of Christ to a hurting world while remaining pure of the very culture in which the world partakes is very near impossible and a fruitless effort.
What would be the goal of such an undertaking? To similarly pull others out of the culture of the world so they can join you on the sidelines? Sounds like a bummer of a religion to me. Doesn’t sound too much like good news.
It also requires there to be a “Christian culture,” and a convert to Christianity must leave their culture and join that one. In America, we certainly have a Christian culture, and by most appearances, it’s like the Chinese knockoff version of the rest of culture, just without nearly as much talent, quality, or honesty.
In my experience, there has been one major exception to this statistic: heavy metal. For at least a decade, the biggest heavy metal bands were Christian bands (August Burns Red, P.O.D., The Devil Wears Prada, The Chariot, etc.), and I’ve often wondered why these Christian bands could seamlessly skirt the divide between the secular and the sacred. I don’t have many explanations of my own, save that many of the themes of the Bible translate well to the metal genre: Just read any of the Older Testament prophets and tell me they don’t sound like heavy metal lyrics. But I digress.
Wait, what are we talking about?
Now before I continue, let’s pause and define some of our terms.
When I say culture, I mean all of it: The images, symbols, language, and activities found in every pocket of every civilization. And there are hundreds if not thousands of subcultures in the US alone, but there is also a larger, more sweeping idea of culture. If we’re honest, it seems to tilt more toward the liberal ideation politically and socially, and has a strong inclination toward freedom, autonomy, peace, and expression. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, but let’s pocket that and come back to it.
In past decades, the church has been painted as the Grinch who is opposed to all things fun, expressive, and new. Nothing highlights this better than films like Footloose, where the old-school buzzkills are trying to shut down anything that remotely resembles dancing. Why? What was it about the act of dancing that seemed to trigger their fear sensors and prompt them to stomp it out?
I’m no sociologist or historian, but I would guess that it dates back roughly 200 years, give or take, when the cultural power began shifting hands from the church to other rein-holders such as science, reason, politics, and the arts.
For the first 1500 years of her existence, the Church was the dominant source of cultural production. Painters did their best to portray heaven and hell; Handel composed choruses which seemed to elevate the listener far above their fleshly husks as he praised God with deafening Hallelujahs; and even the most significant literature was written as means of explaining theology (Luther’s 95 Theses, the first publication to ‘go viral’), or exploring the human contribution to an ethically-rich universe (Dante’s Divine Comedy).
Rather than poopoo certain forms of art and expression, the church was the main entity in the world promoting it! Most, if not all, of the world’s most famous artists would not have been known if not for the church. They were rivaled perhaps only by the Medici as patrons of the arts for over a millennium.
Does that sound like the church you know today? Granted, there are obviously churches with incredible, authentic creative output today who promote art and creativity in all its forms, but that’s not the larger perception of the church when critiqued by the outside.
When I say culture, I’m also not referring to simply agreeing with everything the larger population agrees with, and condoning sin or other unnatural activities. Saying that I am, for lack of a better term, pro-culture does not mean I simply let myself be carried along by the cultural narrative of the world, wherever it may lead.
Let me give a somewhat controversial example.
Last year, the Preachers N Sneakers Instagram account blew up and ignited countless debates on the internet about how pastors should be spending their money. Some (rightly) bemoaned how obnoxious it is for a pastor (or anyone) to wear a $5,000+ outfit. Other defended them — how? By saying that these expensive duds help them connect better with the culture at large.
“How else is a pastor in LA going to connect with a fashion-heavy culture unless he’s wearing Off-White and Gucci??” went the argument.
“I don’t know, use your imagination. Shape culture instead of following it,” I’d respond.
Most of my outfits, all told, can range from a total of $5 to $75 (shoes, pants, undies, everything), and I have never been accused of being fashion-backward. In fact, quite the opposite. Many people have told this thrift shopper that everything I wear is super cool and they like my style. Perhaps the most empirical proof that I’m certified cool is that on the second day of teaching 7th graders this semester, one of them asked where I got my style from (again, in like a $60 outfit). If a 7th grader thinks you’re fashionable, then you have, indeed made it.
The reason for that rabbit trail is simple: Being connected to a culture does not necessitate making all the missteps the culture at large does. Relating to a fashion-saturated area like Los Angeles does not necessitate that one become as greedy and materialistic as the rest of the population. All that means is that you’ve given in to the temptation of avarice; you’ve caved to the carnal desire of having the same hip material objects your neighbors do.
This is not what I mean by being an active participant in culture.
This applies to our sexual ethics and actions (you don’t need to sleep around to relate to people who do), our approach to substances like alcohol, et al.
Going back to Footloose, it has always puzzled me how Christians could, at any point in Christian history, demonize something which is highly praised and sometimes commanded in Scripture. The same applies to alcohol, as Paul encourages Timothy to have some wine to help his stomach, though I can see why there would be more caution around that one. It’s not like you can overdose on dancing.
This, however, seems to be the great perception of Christians to the world. We are not the creative powerhouses we once were; we are the cosmic snobs who drift above the dirty fray which is the rest of the culture. Thank God Jesus didn’t have the same attitude when He looked down from heaven upon this world which, according to astronauts returning into earth’s atmosphere, smells like rotting meat.
How I became a Native American
I once was sitting on a plane beside an older Native American man. He said the most Native American thing possible to me. He asked where I was from and I said I was born in Colorado, but I’m not a Native American.
He protested, “you sound like it to me. You’ve eaten the food from this land all your life. You are a native.”
We kept chatting and he told me that he has spent much of his life working in prisons, helping inmates reform themselves to be more fruitful members of society.
“You know what the difference between prison programs that are successful versus those that aren’t?” he asked me.
How the heck was I supposed to know?
“The successful ones know how to create a culture which people enter into. People are formed by a culture, for better or worse. When you have a positive culture, people can point at someone who is violating the values of that culture and say, ‘hey bro, you’re not benefitting the way we live here right now.’ Then that guy has to change to fit in. If the prison doesn’t work to create a culture of positivity, of peace and love, then people will act good and go back to the way they were before once they’re out. Culture changes people.”
I’ve thought about that conversation on the plane for years, and applied it in youth ministry and my classroom. People may remember 5% of the words you say, but they will remember 100% of the impression you made on them, or that your culture made on them. This is why, no matter how many times a church insists, “No, no, God loves you!” someone can still feel rejected for one reason or another.
For instance, years ago I had a friend who was on the fence about church. She showed up half the time, and even when she did, she was skeptical about being there. Was it because she disagreed with the messages about loving our neighbors as God loved us?
It was because one summer, she showed up to church in a cute summer dress and one of the ladies at the church looked down at the hem of her dress and said, “Cute dress…Where’s the rest of it?”
From then on, how could my friend avoid going to church without feeling immense judgment, or at least, scrutiny? Who would want to be in an environment like that?
Years ago, I realized that if a lack of love is what drives people out of the church, only a surplus of love will drive them back. It is rare that a purely logical or scientific motive drives people from church, or draws them to it. It’s almost like Jesus told us something similar…
Creating a culture of love is the only thing that will draw in and then heal a love-starved world.
No one was ever sanctified with measuring sticks, sarcasm, condescending comments, or policing the wardrobes of nervous outsiders.
Put a little logic behind that older woman’s statement: Her words revealed that she saw the path to enter the kingdom of God was trotted by wearing long enough dresses and then judging the dresses of others. That’s the kingdom she was working toward, and it makes sense that my friend didn’t want to go in with her.
Imagine Jesus hanging out with one of the vulnerable prostitutes who seemed to magnetize to Him and rather than encourage her, Jesus says, “Nice toga…where’s the rest of it?” How long do you think the crowd of ‘sinners’ would keep chilling with Him if He had that attitude?
Sin is sin, but most are not.
The parts of this cultural conversation that seem to be the most volatile are those that are perceived as ‘wrong,’ which are not really condemned at all in Scripture. Maybe it’s a slippery slope which could slide someone into a life of ruin, but the act at the moment is not actually sinful.
For instance, as mentioned above, alcohol is not only allowed by Scripture, but encouraged at one point. Drunkenness is condemned, and that is exactly where most people jump in this conversation, but simply having a drink is not.
As mentioned above, dancing is also a questionable activity despite how highly it is spoken of in Scripture. Ask any good old Baptist and they’ll confirm: Sex leads to dancing. Why is this?
It likely has roots in the logical fallacy of a slippery slope: Allow dancing and before you know it, your young people will be grinding and then having sex right there on the dance floor. Or maybe it’s because the dancing bodies of women will cause the men watching to think lustful thoughts and stumble into temptation.
There are a myriad activities, symbols, and words which our culture has appropriated for their own purposes, and to retaliate, the church has simply demonized those things. A recent example of this is the rainbow. Our culture has taken it to represent the LGBTQ+ community, and rather than continue an open conversation on how we interact with that community, we’ve simply begun to bristle whenever we see a rainbow-anything. I’m guilty of it too. I’ll see a picture of a rainbow and automatically associate it with the movement, rather than seeing it for the symbol it is.
Others have taken this attitude further, becoming angered at the sight of a rainbow-colored anything. See how the meaning beneath the symbol is what some people may disagree with, yet the symbol as a whole is suddenly demonized? Take this anecdote and you can apply it to nearly everything the church has ever demonized.
It’s sad that we are known for having such a fearful mindset. Even things with darker connections, like pentagrams, Ouja boards, or Wiccan people result in an immediate door closure from Christians. What if we learned to see the people behind these outward symbols or activities rather than writing them off from the start? It doesn’t mean Ouja boards aren’t dangerous, but I also don’t think they are something to fear, and I definitely don’t think we should avoid those who use them. Those other people equally made in God’s image.
What if we learned to speak the language of their culture, rather than dismissing it as evil, dangerous, or bad?
Isn’t that what you would want if you were in their shoes?
Imagine if earlier Christian missionaries had this attitude toward indigenous people they witnessed to:
“Welp, they pray to trees, dance naked, and worship the sun. They’re beyond hope. Let’s try to get them to be more like us.”
Did you notice how one of those things is not inherently antithetical to Scripture? What are the things that reflect your comfort level among your peers more than the things the Bible actually encourages in us? What are the activities and symbols you see around you which are also not inherently evil, yet we shut them down in the holy name of our religion nonetheless?
Not everything associated with sin is sinful.
Not everything associated with evil is evil.
Learning the difference between the two — between associations and actual rebellion — will help us relate to our culture immensely.
Is ‘divorce’ a bit dramatic?
Now to the title of this post. I chose it very carefully for a reason. When two people are married and undergo a divorce, what happens? Practically speaking, they segregate their finances (resources), they change their language, and they sever all other relational ties. I want to focus on the first two for a moment.
Prior to the Reformation, the church was not only a powerhouse of culture, but also of global healing. Who was responsible for feeding the hungry, taking care of the sick, and looking after orphans and widows? Was it the State? Well, sort of. Mainly, it was the church. That’s why there are a million hospitals named after saints, and none named after atheists. And we could debate until we are blue in the face the pros and cons of having a church who holds hands with the king, but it was a care-machine to be reckoned with.
Martin Luther swings his hammer as he pounds in the 95 Theses and effectively shatters this mighty entity into countless denominations and factions with as many resources to heal the world as an ant has to fix up a house. Unwittingly, however, Luther was still an old-school Augustinian, meaning he was holding onto the idea of a theocracy, or a City of God where the church is welded to the governing body of society.
The Reformation inevitably led to the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and ironically, the divorce of the Church from the State. It was a long-lived romance (You could measure it either from the conversion of Constantine, or from the crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III. Either one is an equally repugnant representation of Imperial Christianity), but with the modern day celebration of the separation of Church and State, we can look backward and see that it’s probably better when the Church keeps its paws out of royal coffers.
With this divorce, however, the church suffered both a loss from the resources of the State, and therefore, can help fewer people per capita, leaving the State to be the great ‘Hand That Feeds,’ rather than the faithful. It also seems to have resulted in pulling the Church out of the culture at large. No longer are the greatest artists alive creating works to glorify their Maker as encouraged by the Church, but they are patronized by a secular culture which celebrates their creative achievements more than the Church does.
In this divorce, the secular State got the creative culture and the financial means of healing the world, and the church is left with…theological debates and the apparent corner on who is in and who’s out? No wonder no one wants to go to church anymore…
And what about the second main effect of a divorce? Well, within a loving relationship, the two members develop a certain language which is spoken only by them. It takes time to build and they know what the other means by their words, even if no one outside the two of them would. It’s a sort of secret code known only to them.
When a breakup occurs, reason psychologists, that unique language will never be spoken again.
Their speech to one another becomes cold and alien. It might be legal and robotic now. They communicate past one another, rather than with one another.
The same has happened in our churches.
The language used seems to alienate outsiders more than draw them in. It may be comforting to those inside the church, but does it even make sense to outsiders? After the divorce of Church from Culture, we have lost much of the ability to communicate our intentions or beliefs to those unfamiliar with them.
I can recall many interactions with atheist friends of mine where we may be using similar-sounding words, but saying two completely different things. For instance, I once told a friend I’d be praying for him, and rather than at least acknowledge the kindness of the sentiment, he took offense that I’d condescend to him or try to convert him behind his back. It’s almost funny how different the two approaches to that conversation were.
When I, and most Christians I know, offer to pray for someone, it is a sweet, selfless gesture which has only the purest of intentions. Yet when the secular culture hears the same phrase, they take offense.
Because we have undergone a divorce and no longer speak the same language. To ignore this fact, and to act like nothing has happened and we can just chat with any old atheist and expect to embed the same meaning as they do into our words is just ludicrous.
That’s why we need to learn to speak the same language as our culture.
Sure, we may all be speaking English, but we are not speaking the same language. Christians who seek to distance themselves from culture (typically for the purpose of seeking purity or holiness) will never effectively speak into the very world they hope to evangelize. They are Essenes, living on the outskirts of the city, not affected by it, but also not having any significant effect on the population within the city’s limits either.
They may seek to obey the commands of James 1, being unpolluted by the world, but in their efforts not to sin via worldly temptation, they make themselves as effective at healing the world as a eunuch is at having babies. Being unpolluted by the world doesn’t mean we plug our ears and close our eyes, refusing to participate in any aspect of the world whatsoever; it simply means we don’t participate in the sinful acts the world does. And in my opinion, there is a wide berth between familiarizing ourselves with our culture and sinning.
For example, at the risk of sounding too self-righteous, I have never had sex, been drunk, gotten high, or even sworn. Yet I have never felt alienated from our secular culture at large. I could pinpoint cultural references in music, movies, television, and other celebrity phenomena, because it interests me. In that sense, I’m living proof that one can be in the world and not of it; that you can participate in and contribute to your culture without being polluted by it.
Ingesting cultural media does not automatically pollute the sincere believer. I would argue that it can have the opposite effect: building more bridges to our neighbors and secular friends. Familiarizing ourselves with the same things the world talks about can only help our witness, undoing the reeling pain of the divorce we have suffered from it.
Now, bringing this all back to the beginning. I once more ask the question, What could be more important than knowing Jesus and introducing others to Him?
The answer is still: Nothing.
However, to stand on that hill like a glorified martyr earns no points either. Because, someone who touts that phrase and plugs their ears to the cultural songs may very well know Christ, but he will be a failure at introducing others to Him.
If we want to effectively bring others into relationship with The Ground of All Being, then we must first learn to speak their language. We must share their interests and their hobbies. We must listen to (at least some of) the same music and ingest similar media.
Dwelling in our high towers of Christian music and media will a) not be enjoyable for us and b) not convince many people that becoming a Christian is worth it.
The stance that Christianity is at odds with culture is outdated. Many people still hold this view, and they are not the ones welcoming outsiders into the doors of the church. Many people go too far in the opposite direction too, reducing the spinal column of Christianity to a blubbery pile of mush which can be pushed in whatever direction the culture pleases. This is also not historic Christianity.
True Christians will seek to undo the damage done by this divorce from popular culture. They will seek to participate in it in-depth, to a degree that is not sinful, but is also not keeping the masses at an arm’s length.
True Christians will not only absorb the media produced by culture, but contribute to it, subtly being an incarnational witness for Christ in a sea of darkness.
We will not stand back from the world, but will dive in hands-first, ready to get dirty, feed both the mouths hungering for food, and the minds hungering for truth. We will serve and love, even those who hate us.
We will learn the language of the world, using it to communicate truth to an ailing generation.