Conformity and Challenge: Western Culture 2
I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. Jn 17:14-18
As a young Christian I was a typical Sydneysider loving the outdoors and sport. The passage in 1Cor 9:19-23 about becoming all things to all people was frequently discussed and I think it may have been a reaction to the Christian enclaves that we sometimes form. But then we also had the Rom 12:2 and 1John 2:15,16 passages about not conforming to the patterns of this world. The resolution of this tension was seen to be largely around ensuring moral protection while maintaining relationships. It was primarily up to the individual to determine what was appropriate and what they could participate in without moral compromise. There was an assumption that these moral boundaries were well known and largely held in the community. Today we recognise this assumption is not valid while still believing that, as carriers of the image of God, all people have inbuilt values. However, it is now more obvious that the saturating secular influence needs uncovering so we can identify our secular based views (where we conform to the patterns of this world). It is also the case that not conforming to the world means adopting and practising Scriptural values which is in addition to not partaking in certain immoral actions.
A British Church of England Bishop, Lesslie Newbiggin, served in India for about four decades and, when he returned to England in 1974, he was struck by the immense cultural changes he saw in society and its impacts on the church. He was able to obtain this perspective by having a cultural distance from the changes that occurred due to his extended time in India. Obtaining cultural distance is more difficult for us who have not changed culture but there are two helpful approaches. Newbiggin suggested one approach to getting cultural distance which was to immerse ourselves in God’s grand story revealed in the Scriptures and to see our place within it. As we place ourselves in this story we will see more clearly and be more open to the Spirit’s leading on how to live with kingdom values.
A second approach to obtaining cultural distance is to identify the predominant cultural characteristics that surround us and to hold them up to the light of Scripture. By taking this approach we can more readily identify how we may incorrectly interpret Scripture because of our cultural inheritance. Of course, this is also important as we seek to share the Gospel and make disciples in the context of this culture. Unless we cross cultures, we are more likely to engage in the first approach than the second. These days cross-cultural training is mandatory for missionaries but rarely used by those who do not change culture. However, it seems clear that we do need to better understand our culture. We will do this by holding up elements of western culture in the light of Scripture and seek to understand how they may be impacting us. There are many aspects of society that we can agree with, but which, taken out of their Biblical context, are misapplied and can be a form of idolatry (Augustine’s thought that evil is a distortion of the good). For example, the importance that Christ places on the individual can become individualism.
When we study the Scriptures, it is helpful to understand the cultural context that they were written in to determine the intended meaning. The application of the Scriptures requires us to determine its relevance to our situation within our culture. But this process of determining application can be distorted by our unquestioned cultural values. For example, we are culturally disposed to interpret Scripture from an individualistic rather than community perspective and we are also more likely to see God as our servant available to help me in my chosen life direction. Any mission of God’s people has the potential for syncretism (adopting cultural values in opposition to the kingdom).
In future articles we will be describing some of the broader characteristics of western culture, hold them up to Scripture and identify just a few ways our culture may affect our living and discipling. As Christ’s ambassadors, we are seeking to better apply the heart of Jesus prayer in Jn 17:14-18 that we are to be in the world but not of the world.