Culture Wars

Culture Wars is the phrase which best seems to describe the interaction being Christianity and culture in the past few decades. The culture wars are not a physical conflict, but a battle for cultural supremacy. On one side are the forces of American Christianity: Evangelical churches, Christian non-profits, conservatives, and pro-family organizations. Their opponents are the forces of “secularism”: the media, Hollywood, atheists, Planned Parenthood, liberals, etc. The wars have been hard and vicious. However, there is a younger generation of Christians who are tired of the constant warfare, even among the younger Evangelicals. I must say that I am tired with them.

We often forget that an enemy is as necessary to warfare as a cause. Indeed, the enemy’s we choose comes to shape the nature of the conflict and even our own identity. Bono puts its best when he sings, “Choose your enemies carefully ’cause they will define you.” For this reason, I think it is always important to make sure you have the correct enemy. Are the enemies of Christianity really Hollywood, liberals, atheists, etc? We must not forget Ephesians 6:12 which declares that our ultimate enemies are not human but spiritual. The “forces of secularism” should never become confused with the Enemy. Yet I have seen Christians attack mere humans and human institutions as if they are the Enemy.

And if in a sense these forces of secularism are our enemies, how should we respond to them. Jesus commands us to pray for and love our enemies. I’m always bothered by someone who proclaims the sanctity of human life and then turns around and denigrates an actual human being, made in the image of God. Where is Christ’s compassion for those trapped in sin? Every war has collateral damage. What collateral damage has been caused by Christians in their attempt to win the culture war?

There is also an aspect of the culture war that bothers me. The culture wars often center around a struggle for power, both in the political and cultural arenas. Yet the kingdom of God has never been about the acquisition of power, at least not as the world defines it. When the disciples come to Jesus and rejoice in the fact that demons submit to them, he tells them instead to rejoice in the fact that their names are written in heaven. When Christians appear to value that same type of power as those they are fighting, it should serve as a warning that we may have gotten our values mixed up. For this reason, it is entirely possible to win the political battle and loose the spiritual one.

There have been some attempts to change the way American Christians relate to culture. These take the form of cultural engagement (itself a word with military connotations). What this means in practice is often the critiquing of culture. Yet I feel this turns us into culture vultures (to borrow an excellent phrase from of artist Makoto Fujimura). We circle in the air, looking for the next Miley Cyrus to flout as proof that Western civilization is going to down the drain. Vultures are scavengers by nature. Instead of creating, they flourish on other’s failures. It is the exact opposite of the way Christians should approach culture. Our attitude towards culture should be (again in the words of Makoto Fujimura) one of culture care.

Before I say a little about culture care, it would be wise to define the word culture. Using a word in a discussion in which participants have differing unconscious definitions is like trying to start a campfire with a Molotov cocktail; what could have given light and warmth turns into forest fire. Yet culture is a difficult word to define. Even experts will give it slightly varying meanings. In this post I use culture in its anthropological sense. Culture then is then is everything humans make and do. Architecture, language, patterns of behavior, customs, clothing, and social norms are all forms of culture. Everything from chocolate chip cookies to paintings to shaking hands are a form of culture. The vast majority of cultural artifacts are morally neutral. Chocolate chip cookies, for example, in one person’s hands can be used as a sign of affection. In another’s they could make someone sick through over indulgence.

There is another important word which I feel like I need to clean of its mental crust. Christian involvement with culture often finds itself struggling with the idea of “the world.” The dangers of “the world” are frequently thrown around in Christian circles, but with little time being taken to nail down what “the world” consists of. It is occasionally used as a synonym for culture which, considering the above definition, is incorrect. The difficulty is that the New Testament uses the word world in a variety of different contexts with different meanings. Context matters. The word disappeared when used in a fairy tale is likely to have a very different meaning than it would in the mouth of a mobster. When Christians warns each other of the dangers of “the world” or being “worldly” they are using the sense found in James 4:4 “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” But context matters. The writer John uses the world, the same Greek word as in James 4:4, more than any other author in Scripture. At times he uses it with a similar meaning to James 4:4, warning his audience that if they love the world, they don’t love God (1 Jn. 2:15). Elsewhere, John criticizes people who don’t share the world’s goods with the poor (1 John 3:17). This would be odd if the world is always to be understood as evil. John 3:16 famously proclaims God self-sacrificial love for the world. Is God an enemy to himself because he loves the world? 1 John 3:17 uses the world as a synonym for tangible or material. John 3:16 uses the world primarily to refer to humanity, though I think a case could be made that it encompasses creation as a whole.

The use of the world in James 4:4 is to be understood within the larger context of the letter. The churches to which James was writing had come to value possessions, and the social status they conveyed, more than people. This is the behavior that James considers worldly. The world here refers to a set of values that are opposed to God’s values. Friendship with the world in James 4:4 means to devalue human beings made in the image of God and exalt material possessions and social status. He is not saying that Christians should avoid friendship with people who are not Christians or isolate themselves from the larger culture. “A friend of the world” then is not someone who keeps themselves from so called “secular activities.” “A friend of the world” is someone who is greedy and arrogant towards others. They look down on other people, especially those from a lower place in the socio-economic ladder. They also do little to help people who are in financial and material need. With that out of the way, let us return to culture care.

Instead of fighting culture, Christians should learn to nourish it. Such an idea is actually deeply rooted in Scripture. Consider Genesis 1:26-28:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens
and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Two things happen in this passage that are important to our discussion. First God creates man in his image. There is considerable theological discussion about what this means. What we do know about God at this point in Genesis, based on what he has spent the preceding verses doing, is that God is creative. We can then assume that one aspect of being made in the image of God is that we are creative. When we make stuff we are fulfilling the image of God.

Second, God has delegated dominion of the Earth to men and women. As Creator he has final authority, but he has graciously allowed humans to share in the process with him. Adam, not God, names the animals. In practicing this secondary dominion or stewardship over creation we are further reflecting the image of God. Of course, such dominion comes with responsibility. No one entrusts something to another person with the expectation that they will trash it. To have dominion of the Earth means to not only take good care of it, but to nourish it. Not only care for the environment, but creative and artistic activities are a form of dominion over creation.

Creation and care for culture are a deep part of what it means to be a human, which is to live in the image of God. I think it is interesting to note that Jesus came not as a politician or philosopher, but as a craftsman/artisan. Assuming he lived into his mid thirties and his public ministry lasted roughly three years, God-on-Earth spent more time as a carpenter than he did in his official ministry. That is not to say that his death and resurrection are less important, but to elevate the of making. It is fitting that someone who in heaven created stars and planets should on earth should make bowls and oxen yokes.

Pope John Paul II expressed this well in a letter he wrote to artists. He writes:

God called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task. Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God”, and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous “material” of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him.

Christians need to move out of their trenches, to stop tearing up the earth, and instead do the work of cultivating it.

Edit: Later I came across another important use of the world which it may have been helpful to mention. 1 John 2:15: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” This certainly clashes with John 3:16 if we try to understand the world with the same significance in both contexts.


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