Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Gospel and Culture

When I think about the concept of culture the first thing that comes to mind is the nature versus nurture argument. I see culture as the nurture component of the great development debate. It is the environment that is created by the other people surrounding us. I do not mean to suggest that we are merely innocent bystanders in the creation of the culture that we find ourselves in but that our culture (at large) is so influenced by others that our individual influence is miniscule. This also does not mean that a single person cannot cause drastic changes in a culture but that the required effort is usually so overwhelming that it usually costs that person their life. And even in these cases it is usually not a single person that causes the change but rather that person is merely the most visible person in a swell of support for the change. Someone like Martin Luther King cannot change a culture of inherent racism without the tireless and continuing work of others to bring about the change. Bill Gates, who has profoundly impacted our culture in a very different way, did not act alone but had much help. Both cases had to have a certain amount of the public willing to accept the changes that they were both proposing. Yet while the culture is larger than any one person, it is at the same time what you make of it. Culture is the relational influence that is placed upon us and that we in turn place on others.

I can find myself in an almost limitless number of cultures. I am in the culture of the United States of America but also in the culture of the world. And while the USA culture is just a small part of the world culture, the culture of this country is not a single homogeneous glob. It can be divided and subdivided almost endlessly. Every aspect of my life has very different cultures that I influence and in turn influence me. Certain cultures, if I don’t like them can be easily changeable either through influence or even absence. Other cultures may provide intriguing to me and I can work to join those cultures through membership or conformity. I also have a choice to take from my surrounding cultures that which I want and leave behind that which I do not want. I can even choose to be counter-cultural, which has become such a popular idea that being counter-cultural is becoming a popular norm of our culture. While this may seem at odds with the previous paragraph because culture is based upon our relationship with each other, as the culture gets larger and larger the ability of the individual to affect change becomes smaller and smaller.

The one person that had the ability to completely affect culture on a large scale chose not to do so. Jesus understood the importance of relationship so well that in his quest to make a history shifting impact in the culture of the world that he willingly involved others. The Gospel is simply our relationship with God. This is not to say, as I have heard others proclaim, that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship. I would say that it is both; it is the religion that leads to the proper relationship with God. This relationship with God in turn affects our relationship with others. As I see it, the closer I get to a right relationship with God the closer I get to a right relationship with those that I come in contact with. In this way culture and the gospel are intricately intertwined. Because we are all creatures that were created in the image of God, then every culture contains some influence of the gospel.

While the merits of the argument that our country is, or was, a Christian nation can be debated, what I think is important is not whether or not we try to govern this country as a Christian nation but whether or not we as Christians positively influence the relational nature of our cultures. And because culture is made up of relationships and the gospel seeks to mend broken relationships that the intersection and influence of the two on each other cannot be understated. It is not merely a one way street but rather a very dynamic relationship between the two. I have found the struggles between Christianity and culture throughout the history of the church to be very interesting and how we see different reactions by the church to when culture has more influence on Christianity than vice-versa. I see culture and gospel not just as an interesting topic but rather I see their intersection as what ministry is all about.

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