How Christians should relate to culture has been an area of controversy since the church began. It seems to have intensified recently with cultural events like the “Culture Wars,” fights about worship styles, and the emerging church. Here are some of my thoughts about how we as creations should relate to culture; with a large helping from a book I just finished reading called Culture Making by Andy Crouch. A chapter that stood out looked at ways Christians have related to culture in the past hundred years.
During the first half of the last century, Christians tended to condemn culture. Expressions of culture like movies and popular music were condemned by Christians as evil. It is true that movies and rock and roll music contained some objectionable material. However, the condemnation attitude of Christians toward cultural expressions led them to abandon the arts, unless it was hymn writing. Christians left a vacuum which non-Christians filled, leading worse moral standards. This view is a core belief of fundamentalist Christians and its effects still linger through out the church. Pop music, movies, and clothing styles are viewed as signs of a decline in the moral fabric of our society. Rather Christians abandoning the culture are as much to blame the culture abandoning God.
If you grew-up in a Christian home at the same time as I did you probably experienced a major reaction to this view. The CCM movement was born as Christians began to make music that sounded like music made by secular bands. Finally some Christians stopped condemning the culture and took the music of the time and “Christianized it.” I grew up listening to the Newsboys and DC Talk and am so thankful they were there. Being slightly sheltered from the larger culture I thought they rocked and still listen to them sometimes. “Christianizing” secular music helped pull culturally condemning churches into more modern styles of music, reflecting how many old hymns were simply drinking songs with Christian lyrics. However, the CCM movement progressed little farther than imitating. CCM music followed the trends of the larger culture, copying not just styles of music but its shallowness and trendiness. The Christian boy band Plus One probably being the extreme example. It also stayed out of the movie industry for the most part, except for some movies which will not be named (Left Behind I&II, Fireproof, Facing the Giants).
Another response to the fundamentalist view also developed around this time, currently called “engaging the culture.” Instead of building a wall between us and the world, Christians began to analyze and critique the culture. Analyzing culture gives us valuable information about the contemporary culture and is valuable in understanding how to better reach out to the world. Its main flaw is it can turn Christians into art critics who do nothing but critique art made by other people. The church certainly needs people good at analyzing culture, but if everyone is only a critic life will become like a concert without the orchestra; besides artists make better art critics.
Another view that has become common as Christians ease themselves from condemning the culture is the consumer “culture.” When Christians do this they become identical to non-Christians, simply eating whatever the world sets before them. We show up like uninvited guests to a potluck, eating whatever looks good even though we had no hand in making any of it. One major problem is that someone else sets the limits of the menu. Consumers are limited in what they consume by the people that are making culture, whether it is trash or not. The fundamentalist did have something right in reacting to the moral evils in expressions of culture. In addition, what the music and movie industries put out has become increasingly prepackaged and limited, a McDonalds culture. The options are formulaic and quality is limited. Not that it doesn’t taste good, but so do McDonalds fries.
Each of these views has something good in it, even consuming culture. How else can you enjoy culture unless you read a book, look at a painting, or watch a movie. Reacting to culture should contain the right amounts of condemning, copying, critiquing, consuming, and a final approach: creating. As being created in the image of the Creator we are called to create and be creative in whatever sphere he has placed us in. When God placed Adam and Eve in the garden he told them to work and keep it. Essential he told them to cultivate the garden, to make something out of the world they were in. What we make out of in as individuals and communities is up to us.