Tag Archives: Christ and culture

I Pledge Allegiance To….

Over the last few weeks I have been answering some common questions about Christianity and Culture. Today I turn my attention to the other subject one is never supposed to talk about in a proper setting. Thankfully this isn’t a proper setting – so lets talk politics!

How does Christian allegiance intersect with national allegiance? Does national allegiance pose a challenge to Christian values in any way?

In Christ and Culture Revisited (a book that I have mentioned several times in the last few weeks), D.A. Carson succinctly articulates his position when he says that

The texts (i.e. the Scriptures) encourage good citizenship within the Empire while insisting on the Christian’s primary allegiance to a heavenly citizenship. The proclamation of the gospel transforms people….sooner or later such transformation will either improve the state or excite its opposition. (172)

I wholeheartedly agree with Carson’s position.

Throughout the Bible, especially in the New Testament (and also in the exilic period) there is definitely a sense that one is to submit to the authorities that God has placed above oneself. In the modern day this can range from teachers, to police officers, to the federal government. However, it is also clear from the Bible that one’s primary allegiance is to God himself, anything else would be idolatry.

The Bible is clear that one’s primary allegiance is to God alone, anything else would be idolatry.

Usually this is not a problem, the government (at least in the United States) does not usually legislate in such a way that Christians are forced to choose to act in a Christian manner or in an American manner. However when such legislation does occur, Christians have the responsibility of refusing to bow the knee before anyone other than God. It is in these situations that Christians must express the fact that their allegiance is not towards America but to God. One such situation that immediately comes to mind is immigration. The immigration debate is often framed in light of what is best for America, but as a Christian who believes that my allegiance is to God and his purposes before it is to America and its purposes there are situations where I will have to deviate from American foreign policy. This deviation from American policy will likely be unpopular in the eyes of those (even Christians) who think in terms of what is “best” for the United States. It might even incite opposition from these people, but that is to be expected. In my opinion, this is an issue of idolatry. Who or what is worship directed to? Is it to God or is it to our state?

Some questions for you to chew on (courtesy of an anonymous friend at Church):

  1. In the lives of Daniel and his friends, we see that they clearly obeyed the laws of the land in almost every circumstance, despite the fact that Babylon was clearly their enemy…
    1. Are there any laws you find yourself being tempted to disregard? If so, why?
    2. How does it detract from our witness when we are not living in submission to authorities?
  2. As Christ followers, our sole allegiance is to God, and there is a limit to our submission to our country.
    1. Keeping in mind the examples of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago, what are 2 or 3 examples of when we should stand against our own government?
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The Lego Movie – an Anabaptist (ish) Review

Spoilers ahead….

Everything is awesome! If the song is not stuck in your head after seeing Lego Movie then you probably watched it on mute and in closed captioning. Seriously though, the song plays over and over and over again – until you start believing that everything really is awesome. It’s a really clever trick though, play a song with a very simple message that reinforces the main message of the movie.

Everything is awesome – Everybody is awesome!

It’s a really simple message if you think about it. Everybody, even normal people have the capability to radically affect the world. However the key to actually affecting the world around us is “believing” (as a stupid cat poster once told us) that we really are awesome.

Name it and claim it! I am awesome! I can do awesome things!

I’m not going to pooh-pooh the movie though. I loved it, the humor was sophisticated – the “honey where is my pants” tv show was genius. The jokes about $30 cups of coffee, Lego cars stuck in traffic, popular songs, etc. are brilliant social commentary – kids won’t get it but who cares, this movie isn’t just for kids! And then to top it off (another spoiler alert) Will Ferrell showed up! Yes I loved it!

The movie was also filled with some great messages: creativity as opposed to conformity for the sake of conformity is something to be valued, working together as a team is better than working as an individual, we shouldn’t overlook “normal” people because “normal” people are often at the root of social change. I loved these messages. There is plenty of fodder for sermon illustrations in this movie, there were also plenty of clips that I would love to show in a sermon too!

Of course I had some issues with the movie. Maybe its me being too philosophical, but I noticed a lot of existential themes running through the film. Not that this is a bad thing (necessarily) but children are so easily swayed and indoctrinated that I am not sure I want them to draw from this movie in order to form their worldview.

(Sidenote: It goes without saying, but we need to be careful what we teach our children. We Christians are so quick to jump on objectionable material – sex, cussing, violence – and are willing to accept anything as long as it doesn’t have those three sinful things as a part of it. For instance, I know many Christians object to things like Harry Potter, yet they have no qualm with The Secret Garden because the secret Garden doesn’t contain evil things like witchcraft. Yet the Secret Garden espouses a pantheistic worldview; why don’t Christians ban stuff like that?)

There was another kids movie released recently that was chock full of existentialist messages. That movie was so over the top with existentialism that it was laughable. The Lego movie isn’t that blatantly existentialist, yet its still there. For instance – Vitruvius makes up the prophecy, yet if one chooses to live by the prophecy then the prophecy is true. This is basically the existentialist position on religion, there is no metaphysical backing for religion, yet if one chooses to live as though it were true, then that makes it meaningful and hence true. Then, and this is way more subtle, Emmet has to stare into the abyss before he can make the leap of faith…. Okay Kierkegaard!

Now onto the “Anabaptist” part of this review; I am no Anabaptist, I am reformed, yet I find something strangely attractive about Anabaptist political theology… So let may lay down some Anabaptist foundations before we examine The Lego movie,.

Howard Yoder distinguishes between three different forms of church: 1) activist, 2) conversionist, and 3) confessing. The Activist church’s primary concern is the building of a better society. The Conversionist church’s primary concern is inward change. Its primary concern is the individual soul, it isn’t concerned with social change or social ethics. The Confessing church however rejects the individualism of conversions and the secularism of the activists (as Yoder would say), its concern is primarily to be a faithful witness to Christ. For this reason the confessing church sees itself as an alternative polis. According to Stanley Hauerwas, the confessing church “knows that its most credible form of witness (and the most effective thing it can do for the world) is the actual creation of a living breathing community of faith.

Bare with me! We are getting to the Lego part!

The primary symbol of the confessing church is the cross. Hauerwas says that “the cross is not a sign of the church’s quiet, suffering submission to the powers that be, but rather the church’s revolutionary participation in the victory of Christ over those powers. Anabaptists call this “revolutionary subordination.”

The Anabaptist position of “revolutionary subordination” is the position of taking a similar stance towards the world as Jesus did on the cross. On the cross the powers and authorities used their power for evil, Jesus “revolutionary subordination” is Jesus commitment not to play according to the power games of the powers and principalities. Rather than fight back, or try to convince them of his innocence, Jesus willingly takes on the cross and in turn shows them their weakness and lack of power.

Revolutionary subordination suggests that one need not play according to the rules of the “power game” with the oppressive powers and principalities. It suggests that one ought not “play” according to their rules and their ways, rather one should let them “defeat” us because in our defeat they will be shown impotent.

Now on to the Lego Movie!

Think back to Lord Business’ goal in life; he wants everything to be perfect. He wants perfect towns, perfect workers, perfect models, etc. He wants awesomeness to rule the world! Now think of the Master Builders. How do the Master builders want to defeat Lord Business? They want to build the perfect model, they want the perfect spaceship, they want the perfect plan. They want something that is awesome.

Everybody’s world revolves around perfection/awesomeness – even though they (Lord Business and the Master Builders) are on the opposite team, they are playing the same game.

It’s the game that says “only some things are awesome – and we know what those things are.” Enter Emmet – the guy who doesn’t look so awesome on the outside (or on the inside for that matter). Here is a guy who doesn’t know how to play the perfection/awesomeness game. He is normal, he has nothing to offer. His plans aren’t awesome. The things he builds aren’t awesome. He is as boring and simple as you can get. He is a Lego man who cannot play the “awesome game,” if it were up to everybody else he would be on the sideline watching. Yet in the end, it is Emmet who defeats (of better yet reforms) Lord Business. How does he do that? Emmet refuses to play the awesome game. In a world that says that “some things are awesome” Emmet says “everything is awesome.” Now this is not strictly true, not everything is worthy of awe, yet everything is awesome in the way that Emmet redefines awesome. Emmet defeats the threat by redefining terms and by refusing to play the game that the “powers and principalities” are playing. One might call this an act of revolutionary subordination.

This movie shows us that one does not defeat the threat by playing according to the threat’s rules. One doesn’t need to “play” according to their rules and their ways, rather one should let them “defeat” us. Once they accepted the fact that they weren’t going to build “awesome” (at least by Lord Business and Master Builder’s definition) things, they were capable of disarming the treat that they faced.

All this to say….

The Lego movie is funnier, more complex, more philosophical, and more theological than any animated movie that I have ever seen. Yes there are some messages that I don’t agree with, but this kids movie is so thought provoking, that you cannot help but pass it up. Go watch this movie!

 

Niebuhr, Christ, and Culture (Pt. 2)

Last time I briefly surveyed a few of Neibuhr’s “Christ and Culture Types.” I explained that the understanding of Christ and culture that I am most drawn to (at this point in my life) is the understanding of Christ as the transformer of culture. However all of this is tempered by an understanding of the now/not yet reality of redemptive history….

How would you talk to people in backgrounds similar to the one you describe about engaging more with culture?

I think that talking to Christians who tend to see Christ and culture being completely incompatible is a difficult thing, namely because they tend to see your desire to correct them as coming from a position of worldliness. Some would assume that trying to convince them that Christ is not against culture is actually an attempt to tempt them back into the world. However in helping them to change their stance I would emphasize two things.

  1. God’s creation is good. I would likely take them back to Genesis or Revelation. Secondly I would emphasize the big picture story of scripture, that God creates, the fall happens, God sends his son to rescue the world, and that God restores and redeems this world in the eschaton.
  2. This world is indeed fallen but this is the same world that God intends to redeem. Because God desires to redeem this world, including the cultural aspects of it, we cannot take a position of hate against the world. In illustrating this I would likely use Christians as an example. Christians were once idolatrous people who stood in opposition to God, yet God choose to redeem and restore us. God did not hate us he loved us enough to draw him back to himself. Our stance towards God is analogous to cultures stance towards God, it stands in opposition to God until God restores it. There is continuity/discontinuity between the world in sin/the world restored and the non-christian/christian in this example.

Is it important to try to change other Christians’ attitudes in this area?

I certainly think it is – primarily for the sake of mission. Its important because our view of culture greatly affects what we understand to be our mission. If we believe that Christ is against the world, then how will we be motivated reach out and engage in meaningful ways withthe world. I think the “Christ as Transformer” view offers the best tools for mission; it emphasizes the dual nature of Christ’s stance towards the world. Christ does not love its idolatry, but Christ does love the people of the world. Christ does not love cultural idols, yet he loves cultures. Because Christ loves the people and their cultures he wants to restore and redeem them and their culture for his purposes.

Niebuhr, Christ, and Culture (Pt. 1)

Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture is a classic book on the history of the interaction between Christianity and the culture around it. Over the next few days I’m going to share some thoughts I have on this book….

Are his five types accurate?

I think that Niebuhr’s typology pretty accurately represents my experience interacting with other Christians and their views on Christ and culture. However I would say that most Christians that I have interacted with would not classify the types of stances in terms of five categories, rather they would classify them in three. These three would be: 1-Christ against culture, 2-Christ affirming culture, and 3-Christ and Culture in some complicated blend of the two. The churches that I grew up in always tended to see Christ and culture as two incompatible things, however now I do not see things as being so simple. (Thankfully the church I am currently at also sees it as a complicated matter.) Life tends to be difficult to break up into dichotomies like Christ against or Christ for culture.

Am I drawn to any of these types?

The understanding of Christ and culture that I am most drawn to (at this point in my life) is the understanding of Christ the transformer of culture. However, I really do not want to go as far as Niebuhr does in affirming the liberalist project as it is displayed in the work of F.D. Maurice. I agree with Niebuhr in saying that one day culture will be “converted,” however I thik D.A. Carson brings up a good point in Christ and Culture Revisited when he speaks about the conversion of culture needing to be understood in terms of the larger narrative of Scripture. I believe that it is a misunderstanding of The Kingdom of God as taught by Jesus that leads to Liberal Protestantism’s (as well as Fundamentalism’s) hope that culture can be converted now. A proper understanding of the Kingdom of God affirms that one day culture will be converted, but since we live in the now/not yet of the Kingdom, the conversion of culture will not occur until the eschaton. One extreme example of the now/not yet conversion of culture that I have witnessed is in the area of politics. When it comes to the difficult issue of homosexuality, some Christians campaign for the conversion of culture to a biblical understanding of marriage as being between a man and a woman. Although I believe that this is the biblical definition of marriage, it is difficult to say why culture around us ought to act in a biblical manner. It seems to me that the desire to convert culture to a Christian understanding of marriage is hoping that culture is converted now. This is a failure to understand the now/not yet aspect of the conversion of culture.

Recommended books on Christ and Culture

If you are looking for some books on the interaction between Christianity and Culture here are some I definitely recommend.

D.A. Carson – Known more for his exegetical prowess than his cultural engagement, but in recent years he has entered the arena of “Christ and Culture”.

Carson, D. A. Christ and Culture Revisited. Eerdmans, 2008.

Andy Crouch – He has quickly become the expert on Christ and Culture (at least in my mind and the minds of a lot of other evangelicals). His books have reshaped the discussion of Christ and Culture in recent years.

Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Stanley Hauwerwas – He brings wisdom from the Anabaptist tradition.

Hauerwas, Stanley, and William Willimon. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony. Abingdon Press, 1989.

Abraham Kuyper – A true man of all trades. He was never a professional theologian, yet as a lay theologian-politician he isn’t just a man sitting up in the ivory tower theorizing. He put his theories to work!

Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism. Eerdmans, 1943.

Richard Mouw – A true Kuyperian. If you want to know about Kuyperianism read Mouw. More than anybody else Mouw has shaped my understanding of Calvinism and the reformed take on Christ and Culture.

Mouw, Richard. When The Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem. Eerdmans, 2002. ISBN: 978-0-8028-3996-1. $14.

Richard Neibuhr – This book is a classic. It is the starting point for all discussion about Christ and culture.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

Kevin Vanhoozer – He is a theological beast! Enough said….

Vanhoozer, Kevin, Charles Anderson, and Michael Sleasman. Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends. Baker Academic, 2007.

Christ, Culture, and College Students – A Reformed Perspective (Pt. 5)

Last time we looked at cultural transformation in light of the biblical meta-narrative. Today we wrap things up by looking at what vocation looks like in light of all we have said.

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God’s Sovereignty and Vocation

Working with college students who desire to make an impact on culture, we will certainly minister to students who don’t have the time or “abilities” to engage in cultural transformation as it is normally thought of. Some students will not have the ability to create art or music. Others will not have time or resources to advocate for social justice or to create new ministries. These students will still desire to make an impact on culture but they will feel bad because they think that their “regular,” “unflashy,” or “unspectacular” vocations can’t make an impact on culture. As ministers its our responsibility to show them that even though they are not in a “flashy” or “impactful” vocation nevertheless they are in a vocation which is necessary and important for God’s intentions regarding culture and its transformation. Helping students understand that their vocations as a student, a banker, a barista, or a retail worker is extremely important in God’s eyes is one of my primary tasks. I believe that the best way to do this is to paint a big picture of God’s sovereignty over all areas of culture in a way similar to what Abraham Kuyper did in Lectures on Calvinism.

Kuyper breaks up his lectures into six parts. The first part explains what “life-systems” are and the type of questions and answers that life-systems attempt to ask and answer. He argues that Calvinism is the most coherent life-system. In the second part Kuyper examines Calvinism’s relationship to religion. In the third through the fifth part he addresses the relationship between Calvinism and several specific spheres of culture. In the final part he addresses what Calvinism’s role in the future will be and how it needs to adapt to the future. It is the second part that is especially relevant to our understanding of God’s sovereignty and vocation. In the second part he argues that in the humans tend to make religion about themselves, but Calvinism is different in that for Calvinism true religion is always for the sake of God.[1] In fact all things exist for the sake of God, all of creation exists to glorify God. Since all of creation exists for the sake of God “then it follows that the whole creation must give glory to God.”[2] This means that God is not limited to being glorified within the confines of the church or the “sacred.” God will be glorified in the base things and in the secular. God is interested in all of life, since all of life is meant to give glory to God. Thus when humans do anything whether it be serving coffee, sweeping floors, managing bank accounts, or playing sports, humans are employed in God’s service to bring God glory in those areas. Since God is sovereign over all things, not just the “religious” things, God desires to be glorified through all sorts of vocations.

The sovereignty of God is the theological foundation for helping students understand that all vocations are important, because all vocations have the potential of glorying God. Now when working with college students it will be important to help them make the connections between the tasks involved in their vocation and how that can specifically bring glory to God. For instance if one student desires to be an artist we might help them see that through art we glorify God, ennoble human life, and bring pleasure to others.[3] The first of these is obviously a worthy end and the second two are worthy ends because they encourage human flourishing and they are a part of the cultural mandate. Another student might be considering taking some political science classes because she wants to be a politician. We might also use the doctrine of God’s sovereignty as a way to encourage her that this is a worthy vocation. We could point to the scriptures which say that those who “rule” serve God by ruling people according to His ordinances.[4] However it is important that when we explain how almost all vocations can be used to glorify God we must make it clear that there are God honoring ways to carry out those vocations and God dishonoring ways of carrying them out. For instance there are God honoring ways for students to be baristas at Starbucks or cashiers at the local retail store. For instance the God honoring way will treat others with respect recognizing the formal imago dei in all people, since the imago dei serves as foundation for ethics.[5] The God dishonoring way will ignore the imago dei. By ignoring the value that this other person has in virtue of the imago dei they might end up treating the customers as means rather than ends; this might result in treating them as a sales figure or as a nuisance when they ask for a complicated specialized drink at Starbucks.

Conclusion

By examining these four aspects of Christ and Culture we have seen that having a robust theology of Christ and Culture indeed is very practical and that it can really help college students be more faithful disciples of Jesus. It is my hope that students would engage with these theological and biblical concepts so that in their lives they might engage with culture and thereby fulfill the cultural mandate of bringing glory to God through “making” culture.

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[1] Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931), 45.

[2] Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 52.

[3] Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 153.

[4] Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, 103.

[5] Emil Brunner and Karl Barth, Natural Theology, (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002), 44.

Christ, Culture, and College Students – A Reformed Perspective (Pt. 4)

Last time we looked at the concept of cultural transformation. Today we turn to our third subject: cultural transformation and the Biblical meta-narrative.

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Transforming Culture and the Biblical Meta-Narrative

There are many Christians throughout the history of the Church who have held the view that God desires to transform culture; that God desires some sort of restoration. For instance Augustine and Calvin both held views like this. Recently (within the last 100 years) there have been several theologians who have advocated for a view of transformation that hopes that transformation can occur fully in the present. People Like Richard Niebuhr and F.D. Maurice have advocated for a view that eschatological restoration and shalom could happen in the present. This has led them, and others like them to expend great efforts in social and moral reform. People who advocate for this view often do end up working towards the ends that were mentioned in When the Kings Come Marching In. However the biblical drama makes the claim that this sort of transformation and restoration cannot fully occur in the present, it will happen in the eschaton. Thus a proper understanding of the Biblical drama is necessary for understanding our role in the transformation of culture. In Christ and Culture Revisted D.A. Carson points out how the Biblical drama can help us form a better understanding of Christ the transformer of culture. Carson begins by outlining the biblical meta-narrative. The Biblical meta-narrative contains some important “chapters” for understanding Christ and culture. There is the good and perfect creation, the fall, redemption, and new creation. Carson argues that any account of Christ and culture  must incorporate these “great turning points of redemptive history.”[1] If we end up overemphasizing one of these chapters over the others we end up with a skewed view of Christ and culture. Carson argues that this is what Niebuhr has done in advocating for a fully present transformation of culture. Carson believes that Niebuhr has elevated the good-creation chapter, and has failed to take into account the falleness of creation and the fact that sin permeates all of creation. Because all of creation is tainted by sin, the only hope for redemption and restoration is through an act of the grace of God. Niebuhr encourages and advocates for something that is impossible on this side of the eschaton because sin makes it impossible in the present.

This is an important critique of Niehbur’s understanding of Christ transforming culture, especially for college students. College students often believe that all the wrongs in this world could be made right if only people lived justly and lovingly. They often hope for transformation now. However according to the Biblical narrative this hope is unfounded. College students should still be working to alleviate and even prevent wrongs and social injustices, however they must understand that full transformation cannot happen until Jesus intervenes at the end of the age[2]. Keeping this in mind will certainly prevent frustration when college students are not seeing change or are seeing change too slowly. It will also alleviate stress because they know that the transformation is not ultimately up to them but it is ultimately up to Jesus the true transformer of culture.


[1] Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, 44.

[2] Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, 58.