Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Cultural and Countercultural: Negotiating the Tension

In my last blog post (Why I am Obsessed with Change) we discussed how the gospel is at least in part closely tied to culture in that it came to us in a culturally relevant, contextualized package. In other words, the gospel is packaged in a way that culture can relate to, understand, and connect with. It is designed to adapt, in terms of its expression, to various cultures while its message remains unchanged. Likewise the church that is spawned by the gospel is meant to adapt to culture (1 Cor 9.19-23), at least to a degree.

And those are important words: “at least to a degree.” Cultural influence upon the church, while not only unavoidable but actually necessary, should only go so far. For while the gospel message is designed to be expressed culturally, and cultural relevance is vital to the actually integrity of the gospel, the gospel and the church are also countercultural. In many ways, the gospel is the very antithesis of culture.

For example, culture—especially Western culture—values traits such as pride, individualism, self-sufficiency, strength, self-assertiveness, success, power, and even consumerism. Jesus, however, taught his disciples a very different value system. Instead of pride, it is the poor in spirit, the meek, humble, the pure, the peacemakers who are blessed (Mt 5.3-9). In fact, Jesus described himself as “gentle and humble of heart” (Mt 11.28-30). He was “crucified because of weakness” (2 Cor 13.4) and “became poor that we might become rich” (2 Cor 8.9). Paul had to learn that true strength lies in weakness, for when we are weak, then we are strong (2 Cor 12.5-9).

Instead of self-sufficiency, Christ asks us to surrender to and depend completely on him (Jn 15.5).

Instead of self-assertiveness, Jesus calls us to deny the self (Lk 9.23).

Instead of worldly success, it is the poor who are called (1 Cor 1.26-31; Jas 2.5).

Instead of power and authority, it is those who serve who are first in God’s eyes (Mk 10.41-45).

Instead of the individual, it is the community—one another—that is more important (1 Cor 12; Phil 2.3).

Instead of consumerism (the constant drive to obtain more, to receive, to get, to acquire), it is giving that is exalted in God’s eyes (Lk 12.33; 14.33; Acts 2.42-46; 20.35).

The very essence of the gospel message—that we are broken, helpless sinners in need of salvation through God’s grace, powerless to save ourselves—runs counter to the culture of the world. The world teaches us that we are inherently good, that guilt is an illusion, that we can earn our way into God’s favor through our good works, that we can achieve virtually anything by our own power. So while the gospel is foolishness to the world and those who accept it are looked on as weak (1 Cor 1.18f), “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (vs.25).

And herein lays the tension between culture and the gospel. While the gospel is meant to be packaged in culturally meaningful ways, and the church must (in fact, cannot help but to) adapt some of its forms and styles to the prevailing culture, it must at the same time remain countercultural. Yet we have not always negotiated this tension well. Too often Christians have surrendered to culture in the very areas where we should be countercultural, while simultaneously refusing to adapt to culture where we ought to adapt. Have we remained, for example, as prideful, individualistic, self-sufficient, and consumeristic as the world, while stubbornly holding onto archaic styles, formats, and methods of doing church and teaching the gospel? Have we isolated us ourselves in our “holy huddles” while simultaneously looking little different in our personal lives? Do we emulate culture where we ought to be countercultural, while at the same time being countercultural where ought to be culturally relevant?

I think these are important questions that every church and every Christian needs to answer. I am not suggesting it is easy to negotiate this tension, but if the church is thrive it is imperative that we do so.