The culture question: “All things to all men” or “Be ye separate”?


This is the second of my “Grateful to the Dead: The Diary of Christian History Professor” series on Christianity Today International’s history site a few years back. It deals with the Christ-and-culture question:

#2: “All things to all men” or “Be ye separate”?
Chris Armstrong

Dear folks,

In the last installment of “Grateful to the Dead: The Diary of a Christian History Professor,” I took a cue from the Emergent movement and argued that we have to go back to the past to get to the future. (Some Emergents call this sort of thing “Vintage faith“; others, borrowing a phrase from the scholar of historical worship Robert Webber, use the term “Ancient-future faith.”)

More specifically, I argued that we need to read the lives of “the saints”—our forebears, who translated the gospel for their cultures by teaching, preaching, and especially living it—for clues to how we should be translating the gospel for our own cultures.

But now we face a serious question: Is the whole idea of “translating the gospel for culture” off-base to begin with?

Recently, thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas (Resident Aliens) and Rodney Clapp (Peculiar People) have suggested just this. These critics have said that a politically directing, culture-shaping role has ensnared and compromised the church from Constantine to the end of Christendom. Depending on who you talk to, that end of Christendom is dated variously, but the important thing is that we have now arrived at a new frontier: The church no longer wields (and—at least potentially—is no longer corrupted by) the power to dictate to the state.

This, to these critics, means that Christians can now once again take our cues not from the powerbrokers of this world—the politicians and “popes” (Catholic or otherwise)—but from the German Confessing Church, the Anabaptists, and ultimately Jesus. In their mold, we can challenge rather than coddle the cultural powers-that-be, jamming the wheels of their corrupt progress where necessary—simply by living the distinctive, separate, culturally topsy-turvy lives Jesus calls us to live.

A favorite whipping-boy of these critics is the twentieth-century historian-theologian-ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr, writer of the classic text Christ and Culture, with its five types or modes of historical church-culture interaction. Hauerwas & co. say Niebuhr’s favored “Christ transforming culture” mode promotes a church that, when it encounters the world’s power-structures, becomes more “suck-up” than “salt and light.”

They insist that the whole question of how to relate church to culture is wrong-headed. The church must be its own culture. Instead of sweating and straining under a supposed responsibility to engage current cultural trends, we should simply yoke ourselves to Jesus, living as radical Christ-followers.

Yes, this will make us look weird and different—all the better! say these critics. Then the worldlings won’t help but notice. Most will just gnash their teeth. But some will stop to marvel. And a few (the way, remember, is narrow) will come to Jesus.

This counter-cultural vision of the nature and task of the church is a powerful one that contains real truth. But even if we accept it as a faithful vision, we don’t need to let go of the idea of “gospel translation”—nor the idea of reading Christian biographies to become better translators for our own cultures.

Think of it this way: even the most world-denying, enclave-dwelling Old Order Amishman is saying something powerful about the gospel to the world-culture outside his farm’s gates. Indeed, the Amishman may be sending the gospel message to the world just as effectively as the most hip, postmodern, candle-wielding, coffeeshop-congregating Emergent worship-leader.

In fact, the Emergents themselves seem amenable to this suggestion that a distinctively counter-cultural approach may be an effective mode of gospel translation for many in today’s emerging generation. The culture-translating Emergents—who charge that the modern (Western, conservative) church has fallen out of touch with its host culture, and thus with the “emerging generation”—do not seem to be essentially at odds with Hauerwas’s church-as-culture stance. A case in point is the Emergents’ criticism of the still relatively new, but rapidly aging, “seeker-sensitive” model of ministry:

Emergents charge that in their rush to attract non-Christians to their churches, leaders in the currently regnant, conservative “seeker-sensitive” mold have been too willing to hide the faith’s distinctives and sharp edges—those aspects of the church’s historic testimony that may alienate outsiders. Instead, these leaders have served up punchy dramas, polished musical numbers, and short, user-friendly sermons. As a result, the church has looked less and less like a community of radical Christ-followers and more and more like a slick but empty facsimile of our entertainment-besotted mass culture.

(I’m pausing with a smile to recall one of the greatest book titles ever penned—though the book has some problems—Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Yes, Neil, we certainly are! And not just when we’re outside our churches!)

Christian churches, say the Emergents, need to look like Christian churches—down to the crosses, candles, and even (if necessary), the stained glass; and they need to teach like Christian churches—including a hearty dose of good “vintage” doctrine.

So our Emergent friends would likely agree with both parties in this dispute: the church needs both to find new ways of translating the gospel to directly address the questions of the day (per Niebuhr), and to refuse to buckle to secular culture by knocking the sharp edges off of Jesus’ radical kingdom message and pretending that “we Christians are really just like the rest of you folks!” (per Hauerwas).

So how does all that relate to this crusade of mine to convince everyone to read stacks of Christian biographies?

Let me put it this way: Some of the saints we’ll meet in historical biographies will look like the Niebuhrian model of “Christ transforming culture”: they felt they could best serve Christ in the mode of engaging, imitating, and adapting. Others we will recognize as fitting Hauerwas’s model: they worked in the mode of separating, renouncing, and sanctifying (“setting apart” time, talent, treasure—indeed whole communities—to the Lord). Many—maybe most—will reflect a bit of both positions.

But all of the “saints” worth reading share this: they followed their Lord, offered up their gifts, and tried to discern their paths—right in the very midst of all that was good, bad, and ugly in their surrounding cultures. (Read even a little about the Old Order Amish, and you’ll know this is true of even the most separatist Christians.)

Thus as we read—discerningly, of course—how these saints brought their deepest convictions into dialogue with their own ages’ messes, we can gain something far more precious than the ministry techniques and methods du jour. We can gain a sense of how the Lord may be calling us, today, to incarnate the gospel in our own times and places—in the midst of our own cultures’ goodness, badness, and ugliness.

Whether that calling looks more like close engagement and translation, or more like sharp opposition and testimony, we’ve gained something valuable either way.

Grace and peace to the Peculiar People and the Intrepid Translators (both!) always active in every corner of Christ’s subversive kingdom,

Chris Armstrong
Bethel Seminary

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2 responses to “The culture question: “All things to all men” or “Be ye separate”?

  1. Pingback: Sharing stories from the heart: can reading about the lives of others really change us? « Grateful to the dead

  2. Pingback: Grateful to the dead

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