Saturday, August 2, 2014

Kate and Crew 21: On Christianity and Culture

21. On Christianity and Culture (May 2014) 

          Kate and Mister liked to read books aloud to each other. Kate couldn't remember when this started, but it had always been a sweet way to share something and get a good conversation going. So far, they read twenty or thirty books together, mostly childhood favorites including the Anne of Green Gables series (Kate's choice, obviously), and the Pendragon Cycle by Stephen Lawhead (Mister's childhood equivalent.) This summer, the adventurous couple planned to branch into non-fiction for the first time. Kate was generally opposed to non-fiction reading on some kind of principle, but for this summer reading list, she made an exception since it was a topic she found fascinating and compelling. 
          Perhaps she found it compelling because, at the core of the discussion, lay reasons to choose some books over others...or movies, or games. It involved thinking about what was good food to eat and how much and why. In short, it was a discussion about how to live life--all of life with its many nuances, changeableness, and decisions--in a way that is distinctly Christian. And this was a discussion that she and Mister had been having since early in their marriage. Usually, their conversation focused around their entertainment and finding truly good things to do with their leisure time. When could they decide when one thing (watching a movie, for example) could really be identified as the best thing to do? Their search was not for some proscribed formula, but for a method of thinking, a structure through which they choose from their options not just what they want in the moment, but what is lasting and meaningful and good. 
          Of course, they understood the answer to be different depending on stage of life and circumstances (there was certainly a marked shift when Teddy was born!) But still, they desired to continue the dialogue, with each other and with their friends, seeking to understand how (and if) their Christian peers answered this question of what to do with our leisure time as Christians in modern American society. And out of this discussion was born a themed reading list on Christianity and culture. Among the favored titles were Christ and Culture, a classic from the 1950s; Temptation: Self-control in an age of excess, a secular consideration of the importance of self-control; Popcultured, a Christian book focused on style, media, and entertainment; and Dancing in the Dark, a similar collection of essays on youth, pop culture, and electronic media. 
          Their first pick (as being the broadest and most foundational) was Niebuhr's Christ and Culture. Kate and Mister found it to be slow going, trying to read aloud such an academic work. Almost after each paragraph they would stop and discuss some element of his argument. But they appreciated the thoughtful language, charming turn of phrase, and most of all Niebuhr's attempt to lay out five distinct responses to the question "how should Christians interact with the world's culture around them?" Though they were certainly possible responses, the first two weren't terribly helpful for their own questions. 
          Kate simply mocked the first, radical response which posited that Christ was against culture and Christians should have nothing to do with it. "That's just silly." she said, in her artless, tactless way. "After all, one just can't get away from it. Even if Christians go off and live by themselves, they still form a community with a culture of it's own and it is still based in some respect on human considerations--like eating and sleeping and manners and...." 
          "Okay, okay." Mister calmed her, "I agree with you! And I think Niebuhr does too...just keep reading." 
          Kate was equally outraged at the next option: Christ of culture. She complained, "It's as if these people think that culture is the most important and that Jesus is just around to show us which are the best parts of culture!" 
          Mister nodded again, "Yes, this view is not really a Christian view. I like what Niebuhr says about them thinking that the enemy is Nature, and that God is helping mankind overcome and purify opposed to God overcoming the sin within mankind. They seem to completely ignore the fact that people are sinful and need to be saved." 
          The other three "responses" were much more palatable, mostly in agreement with each other, with only degrees of difference. The "Christ above culture" view considers that God institutes and sustains culture, which means that it's not wholly bad...True, thought Kate...and that there are varying degrees of goodness or evilness in the cultural forms of the world...No, she thought, there's nothing inherently more holy about being a minister than a trash collector. And yet, it's good to recognize that cultural things can be God-ordained and sustained--but, as with governments, that does not make them perfect or righteous. 
          The Christ and culture perspective resonated the most with Kate and Mister, and presented the paradoxical view from the New Testament that people need to live in the world but not of it. Interaction with culture is a necessity, but conformation is not. And yet this view seemed to lead to a static, conservative response--not really responding to or trying to change culture at all, but merely trying to keep the status quo from becoming more evil. 
          Kate wanted to join this with elements of the last view, Christ as a transformer of culture, which says that Christ is involved in every area of our lives and being so, Christians can expect to make a difference as they attempt to redeem various parts of their culture. But if taken to the extreme, this view started sounding universalist--as if God was going to transform and perfect people and cultures here in this life, saving one and all with no condemnation for those who reject him. 

          This was Kate's Mother's Day: after a delightful visit to their old college church, they took a beautiful drive to Ft. Wayne, where they had lunch with some college friends, who were eager to dive into moral and philosophical discussion. Then they continued their drive to St. Louis as they read. And as Kate and Mister talked and thought, they got more and more excited about their growing family. 
          "This would be a great book to read again every five years or so," Mister proposed, "and what would be really fun is to get together with James and Kelsey and the Howards to discuss it!" 
          "Ah! SO fun." Kate exclaimed, and wondered if they could really try to make that happen. "It's definitely a great topic to think on as our family grows and we start deciding 'family policy' about different things. It would also be a great book to go through when our kids reach high-school age!" (Kate was already drawing up essay questions in her mind for Teddy's homeschool curriculum.) "I think it would be wonderful to have--in varying forms, of course--these conversations with them as they grow and start thinking more independently about clothes and activities and what they do with their play time." 
          "Certainly. It's a discussion Christians should have more often, not just with their families! Too often, Christians in America are content with pursuing the 'American Dream' along with everyone else. We need to be careful and always consider just how we're called to be set apart; and then of course, have ready answers for why we choose to live differently." 
         We're set apart. Kate mused happily to herself as she looked at the passing fields and fluffy clouds. It's what make life secure even when we don't know the future, and an adventure even when every day seems the same. God has a beautiful, exciting plan and a good purpose behind everything, and that is SO comforting and fun. 
          Aloud, she said, "This is SO fun. Maybe we should take road trips every year on Mother's Day!" 

rest stop on the way to St. Louis

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