Until recent times, Christianity was a dominant force in the Western world. To one degree or another, and usually to a large degree, Christianity shaped the culture. By culture, I mean the external manifestations of the inward, guiding impulse of a society: its education, arts, politics, technology, economy, and so on. This impulse is always religious. Culture, in the words of Henry Van Til, is “religion externalized.” Each religion produces a particular kind of culture; Christian culture is different from Islamic culture, Buddhist culture, Satanist culture, New Age culture, secular culture, and so on. Today, the religion of Western culture is secularism. Therefore, our politics, education, entertainment, and technology are predominantly secular. This is our root problem. Getting this particular candidate elected or that particular law passed won’t solve it. The problem lies much deeper. We need an entire cultural root excavation.
When Christianity began to lose its cultural dominance to secularism in the United States after the War Between the States, it was relegated to an opposite role, countercultural. Christianity became the ignored — and sometimes persecuted — minority. By the middle of the 20th century, certain Christians began to investigate what the proper relation really should be between Christianity and culture. This never would have happened had not Christianity lost its cultural leadership, but it is an investigation we cannot afford to dismiss today.
Three of the insightful treatments of this issue were Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture, Christopher Dawson’s small book The Historic Reality of Christian Culture, and J. Gresham Machen’s essay, “Christianity and Culture.” Niebuhr, Yale theologian for many years, was “neo-orthodox,” about halfway between orthodox and modernist, but leaning in the modernist direction. Dawson, a brilliant British Roman Catholic historian, was offered a Harvard teaching post late in his life. Machen, an eminent New Testament scholar and founder of Westminster Theological Seminary, was an orthodox Calvinist. All three offered deeply penetrating analyses of how Christians historically have related their faith to their culture — and how they should do it today.
When you boil it right down, there are three main ways to approach the relationship between Christianity and culture, and we had better learn them if we expect to make sense of what Christian responsibility is in today’s culture.
First, Christians may abandon culture. This is a seemingly easy route. It is certainly popular. It has been the majority view of non-Roman Catholic conservative Christianity in this country since 1880: “The world is going to Hell in a handbag; Christians will soon be ‘raptured’ up to heaven; and even if they aren’t, our job is to win a few souls to Jesus, not try to change the world. Heaven belongs to Christians, but the world belongs to the Devil.”
Cultural abandonment has sold the church into cultural bondage. It says, “Jesus and the Bible should exercise authority over the individual Christian, family and church, but not over the media, education, arts, and politics.” In other words, the proponents of cultural abandonment deny the Lordship of Christ in all of life. They often complain about the evils of modern culture. But it’s their own inaction and laxity that allow the forces of evil to gain the upper hand and, eventually, enslave them. This has been going on a long time now. In the words of a popular novelist, the problem with doing nothing is that you never know when you’re finished.
Culturally, doing nothing simply will not suffice.
Second, we may immerse ourselves in culture. This has been the agenda of Protestant liberalism since late last century, and it includes professed evangelicals like Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo today. It has been the view, “You’ve gotta be like ‘em to win ‘em.” Because liberals understood that cultural elites mightily influence society, they wedded their version of Christianity to causes popular among those cultural elites. This meant that religious liberals quickly lined up behind popular socially and politically liberal causes, since this is just where the cultural elites were standing. These causes, as diverse as the temperance (anti-alcohol) movement, civil rights movement, and state socialism, were considered “forward-looking,” and “progressive.”
Today, the religious liberals’ “progressive” causes include ordination of women and homosexuals, legalization of homosexual “marriage,” expansion of abortion rights, and acceptance of goddess-worship. You may have noticed that these just also happen to be the views of the Eastern Establishment, Hollywood, and the major media. The cultural immersionists believe that they can win over the society to Christianity by adapting Christianity to the prevalent ideas of the culture, particularly its secular elites.
Cultural immersion suffers from two fatal errors. First, it has no standard by which to judge right and wrong. Long ago the disciples of cultural immersion jettisoned any belief in the full authority of the Bible. Therefore, they cannot say with certainty, “This is right and this is wrong.” The only thing cultural immersion really labels wrong is opposition to its own ever-shifting agenda. The real enemies are the “absolutists” — those who contend that abortion, socialism, homosexuality, feminism, and racial preferences are wrong. To the cultural immersionists, the “absolutists” are the only dangerous crowd.
Second, cultural immersion quickly becomes outmoded. He who marries the spirit of the age becomes a widow in the next. Right about the time the religious liberals had slavishly adopted a “progressive” anti-war posture in the ’30s and ’40s, for example, their more progressive counterparts, the secular liberals, had become rabid warmongers. Just when the religious liberals were getting onto the equal rights bandwagon, the secular liberals were fashioning the “special rights” bus. Religious liberals simply change along with the prevalent secular culture, reshaping (that is, disemboweling) Christianity in the process.
There is a final view on the relation between Christianity and culture. We may work to transform culture. This view does not retreat from culture. Nor does it make culture the norm and try to find an area of agreement. Rather, it sees culture as fallen in sin and in need of godly change. This position has been held by certain Roman Catholics (like Christopher Dawson), many Protestants (especially postmillennial Calvinists), and certain culturally active evangelicals (Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, for instance).
This view is the right one. It says, “We must not abandon culture, because Christ is Lord of culture too. But neither may we immerse ourselves in culture, because our Lord and the Bible stand over it and judge it. Our job is to work to bring every area of culture into line with the Bible.”
This means that every area of modern life should be Christianized: technology, media, arts, education, economy, science, and politics. By “Christianized,” I mean aligned with what the Bible teaches. I don’t just mean Christians should be leaders in these fields. I mean that these fields themselves should have a distinctively Christian — i.e., biblical in character. This is just what the Puritans, leaders in early colonial America, believed about culture. Permanent society on this continent was founded by cultural transformers.
Cultural transformers believe they do their work by the gospel, faithful obedience, and the power of the Holy Spirit. They are not on a “fundamentalist jihad.” The use of guns and other forms of coercion to impose Christianity and its law would horrify them. They know that Christianity cannot be imposed; it must be embraced. They work relentlessly to get others to embrace it.
Unless we want our children and grandchildren to be fighting the same cultural battles with the sin and evil that afflict us today, Christians had better become cultural transformers.