Archives For Culture

In this post, I’m going to argue that the Church ought to be (1) a place to feel at home and (2) a place to feel like a foreigner or a pilgrim.

WelcomeGod has so constructed the Church, created as it is through the building material of the gospel, that we can feel fully at home in the Church. There are many places in our modern world where we feel out of place. (I would guess that you’d feel out of place in at least one of these locations: a court room, a bar, a black-tie event, or a boxing match.) But the Church is no such place. The Church is a place to feel at home, to know that we are accepted, to know that we belong.

This complete acceptance is because of what God has done for us in Jesus. We are accepted regardless of what we are or who we’ve tried to be. It is a gospel fact that Christ died for us “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8). The gospel grabs hold of us gently and declares that we are washed, cleansed, re-created. It places us within the Church as full members of the Body of Christ.

Through the gospel, we’re not just given a seat at the table, so to speak, but we become indispensible members. Paul argues that we are such a part of the Church Body that if one of us were missing, the Body would be crippled (see 1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4:12–16). We belong in the Church.

The same can also be said cross-culturally. No one needs to leave their culture at the door when they enter the Church. This question was settled in Acts 15 when the apostles decided that Gentile converts did not need to first become Jewish (culturally) in order to be Christian. The gospel cannot ever be expressed without culture (we must use cultural forms like language), but the gospel is not bound to any one culture. The gospel can be fully at home in any culture, so we as gospel-made people can be at home in the Church regardless of our culture.

Missiologist Andrew Walls calls this concept the “Indigenizing Principle.” Throughout history, the Church has made itself a place where people can fully belong.

And yet the Church is also a place to feel like a foreigner. This is what Andrew Walls refers to as the “Pilgrim Principle,” and it stands in tension with the Indigenizing Principle.

While the Church truly is a place to be at home, to fully belong, the Church always calls us to change. We are fully accepted in the Church, yet we are always being called into something deeper. While we are accepted as we are through the gospel, the gospel also transforms us ever more into the image of Christ.

Traveler

This, too, can be viewed cross-culturally. Every culture is equally at home in the Church, yet every culture will be called to some sort of transformation through the Gospel. For example, we can be American and fit fully within the Church. But the Church will call us to lay down some aspects of American culture. The Church, when functioning properly, will always be making us feel like foreigners, like pilgrims, in the midst of our world. Being at home in the Church will always mean being at least slightly out of sync with the world around us.

This tension is real, and we must feel this tension constantly if we are going to life faithfully in the world as the Church. Andrew Walls insists that while the Indigenizing (at-home) Principle and the Pilgrim (out-of-sync) Principle are in tension, we shouldn’t be trying to find a balance between the two, as though we should be less than fully at home in the Church, or only sometimes out of sync with the world around us. We can never have too much of either principle, we can only have too little of one or the other.

The goal is to see the Church as a place where we can be fully at home—fully accepted, fully interconnected—regardless of our past, or our culture, or our personalities. And the goal is also to be constantly challenged by the Church to perpetual growth, to never-ending transformation, to the perpetual renunciation of idols that we have subtly soaked up from our culture. We always need both.

This is the mystery and miracle of the Church. The Church is a place to be part of the family and a place to be a pilgrim. It’s a place that reassures us that who we are is enough while also calling us to be more than we ever thought possible. It’s a place of comfort and belonging to a tired and hurting world, and a prophetic voice calling the world to repentance and change. Nothing in this world can be or do what the Church is and does. And this is why the Church is and always has been indispensible.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Nothing like this had ever happened before. In the beginning, there was God. And nothing else. Not an empty space and an endlessly ticking clock. Just nothing. No space. No time. Space and time are included under the heading of “the heavens and the earth.” In the beginning, God. And that’s it.

Let It BeAnd then the Maker began to make. One powerful word at a time. For six days, God continued to say this tiny word: “yehi,” “let there be.” The word is tiny, but powerful. This little word was not earth-shattering, it was earth-generating. Every single thing you’ve ever seen, or heard of, or even dreamt of was spoken into existence in those six days.[1]

This rhythm of verbal creation is punctuated by the repeated refrain, “It was good! It was good! It was very good!”

Creation is an act of the Creator. And it’s incredibly good. Thus far God has created through words: a poem written in stone and wood and soil and skies and living beings.

Orion Nebula

But in Genesis 2, God goes beyond speaking. Now he begins to “form” (v. 7). God is now digging his fingers into the dust that he spoke and forming it into a statue. This statue will become the inspiration for every statue of a human being every created, and it far exceeds them all—even Michelangelo’s David. But God is not done creating. After he “forms” he “breathes” (v. 7), and the breath that shaped the word-creation of all the stuff we’ve ever known now breathe-creates human life. God exhales into the nostrils of his statue and humanity takes its first breath.

God now takes one more creative step; this time he “plants” (v. 8). He plants a garden—not a raw wilderness or an unorganized jungle, but a specifically shaped garden. Speaking, forming, breathing, and planting God brings into existence the world we know. From absolutely nothing, the Creator creates his creation.

Given this creative context, we probably shouldn’t be surprised at the first job God gave to Adam. God created, then decided to make something like him, something “in his image and likeness” (1:26–27). So what did the Creator create this image-bearing creation to do?

Create!

“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)

Once he finished making the world, the Maker made a maker. Adam and Eve were specifically placed within the garden to “work it” (which means exactly what you’d think) and “keep it” (which means to preserve it and take care of it).

It wasn’t enough for God to make paradise, he wanted paradise to continue to be made. To be further developed. God’s creation wasn’t bad (“It was good!”), but it wasn’t finished. The Creator finished his creative activities in the beginning by creating a creator to act according to the example of the Creator.

So now, thousands of years and millions of creators later, we find ourselves standing here, on this same spoken earth, in this planted garden, as these formed and breathed human beings. And the job description remains. Created to create. Look at the world around you and see what the Creator’s creators have done. Some of it is magnificent. Some of it is horrifying. Some of it reflects the Creator. Some of it defies him. But we stand as creators, bearing the likeness of the Creator, creating in the not yet finished creation.

The Artist in His Studio (Rembrandt)

“The Artist in His Studio” by Rembrandt

 

So what will we make? Too many Christians—who bear the image of the Creator to an unimaginable extent—have hidden away from the task of creating. It’s too hard, too dangerous, too dark, too embarrassing, too defiling, too degrading, too physical, too artsy. Too many Christians have hidden in pews or buried themselves in doctrine, as if those things are somehow antithetical to creativity. Too few of the Creator’s Christian creators have created.

Christianity actually has a rich history in this area. We have created works of staggering beauty. We have shaped our world to a profound extent. Yet who would argue that the Creator’s creators are creating as they should, all they should, where they should?

In the beginning, the Maker made a maker, and he placed us here to make this world the kind of place he wants it to be. Wherever we stand on God’s good earth, may we dirty our hands in the stuff God made and make something good and true and beautiful.

 

 


 

[1] Of course, there are many things that human beings would make out of the original things that God made; I’ll make that point next.

One year ago, internationally acclaimed artist Makoto Fujimura published a small booklet entitled On Becoming Generative: An Introduction to Culture Care. This booklet, and Fujimura’s concept of “Culture Care,” have resonated with many. This month Makoto Fujimura released the full length expansion of his Culture Care concept, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life.

Culture Care Makoto FujimuraFujimura has written eloquently and inspiringly on faith and art before. With Culture Care, he gives us many important concepts to ponder and pursue. Fujimura talks about the culture wars that are all too familiar for most of us. Unlike those who would glamorize our modern culture, Fujimura acknowledges that there is much in culture today that should sadden us, much that is toxic, much that harms the soil in which we are trying to grow. But unlike those who want to throw up their hands in disgust and sit in condemnation of culture until Jesus returns, Fujimura insists that we have a responsibility to the culture all around us.

“Culture is not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care. Culture is a garden to be cultivated.”

Culture Care means viewing all of life as a gift, viewing culture itself as a gift. Our own abilities, and the abilities and cultural goods of the people around us, whether Christian or not, are gifts from God. Rather than disdaining culture or the works of those outside the church, we need to be life-giving participants in culture. Fujimura explains:

“Artistic expressions are signposts declaring what it is to be fully human.”

When we free ourselves of our utilitarian mindset that insists on valuing only that which is useful, when we begin living “generatively,” creatively bringing something new and life-giving into existence, then we create new possibilities in the lives of the people around us.

For Fujimura, this is a matter of stewardship. If we all fall prey to the utilitarian mindset that fails to value beauty, creativity, and generativity, then the cultural soil will be further poisoned by the time our children inherit the cultural world we have failed to steward. But if we labor to tend the soil of culture, our children may live in a cultural world that is bursting with life, in which gospel seeds can grow, in which beauty takes root and shapes the imagination and daily life of society.

Too often, the cultural efforts of Christians are derivative (simply imitating the “secular” culture with a Jesus-twist) or speak almost exclusively to other Christians. But Fujimura’s concept of Culture Care calls us beyond this introspective existence.

“Western Christianity in the twentieth century fell into an ‘adjective’ existence with Christian music, Christian art, Christian plumbers. Even today, artists are often valued in the church only if they create art for the church, or at least, ‘Christian art.’ Culture Care will mean moving away from such labels…I am not a Christian artist. I am a Christian, yes, and an artist. I dare not treat the powerful presence of Christ in my life as an adjective. I want Christ to be my whole being.”

In this mentality, Fujimura sees artists functioning as “border-stalkers” (think of Strider/Aragorn in Lord of the Rings) who are able to cross boundaries with ease and mediate between diverse groups. Fujimura’s vision here of what an artist’s role might become in relation to the church and the surrounding culture is especially insightful, and he gives very practical and helpful advice for those seeking to fulfill that role.

Fujimura leaves us with a number of “what ifs” to spur or thinking about what might be possible if we took Culture Care seriously. Here are a few of my favorites.

What if each of us endeavored to bring beauty into someone’s life today in some small way?

What if artists became known for their generosity rather than only their self-expression?

What if we committed to speaking fresh creativity and vision into culture rather than denouncing and boycotting other cultural products?

What if we saw art as gift, not just as commodity?

What if we empower the “border stalkers” in our communities, support and send them out?

What if we created songs [and other forms of art] to draw people into movements for justice and flourishing?

All in all, I believe that Culture Care is an important book, one of the few that is taking the discussion of Christian involvement in the arts and culture to a new level. If you are an artist at any level, this is an important book to read. If you are convinced of the importance of art and culture in the life of the church and/or world, this is an important book to read. And if you’re just becoming interested in the concept of art and culture as it relates to your faith, this would be a great place to start.

As I write this, I am only aware of one place to purchase the Culture Care book, and that’s through the International Arts Movement’s website (click here).

The evangelical world has flown into turbulent skies over the last few months. From Phil Robertson to bakeries in Arizona, and more recently the World Vision debacle. Evangelicals are facing a potential fork in the road in how they think through homosexuality. Then there’s the never dying debates about spiritual gifts, women in ministry, and the timing of future things. Worship wars. Doctrinal disputes. Young leaders improving on old methods; old leaders suspicious of new methods. House churches ditching the whole “institutional” church. An unforeseen flight of young Protestants to the Orthodox and Catholic churches. And the massive growth of Christianity in the majority world.

If I were a prophet, I’d predict a major divide in evangelicalism in the near future, one which would rival the split between fundamentalists and moderates in the early 20th century. In the one corner, we have a millennial, internet-savvy, social media driven, post-9/11 brand of Christianity that’s seeking authenticity, justice, and community. In the other corner, we have baby boomer Christian leaders, whose theology was forged in the caldrons of the Cold War era, where debates about the rapture, sign-gifts, and the rise of post-modernism formed a church’s identity.

One version of evangelicals define themselves by what they’re against; the other by what they are for. One group elevates truth; the other, love. One seeks authenticity and community; the other races to Bible studies and marriage seminars. One will divide over eschatology; the other over homosexuality.

We are facing a split. A growing chasm that will spawn two distinct versions of evangelical thought.

As I reflect on this inevitable divide, here’s my challenge to both sides:

1. Be Biblical. Don’t just blindly rehearse inherited presuppositions, and don’t base your theology as a reaction to your inherited presuppositions. Neither inherited theology nor reactionary theology is good enough. We are Protestants; we believe in the authority of the text. We value fresh exegesis and letting the text critique our theology. We don’t bend the text around our theology, but our theology around the text—even if we don’t like it. Head in SandWe cannot debate this doctrine or critique that theology with a closed Bible. We desperately need to root, and re-root, our 21st century theology in the actual text, and not some vague inherited notion of being biblical—without knowing the relevant chapter and verse, and being able to identity and articulate the strongest argument against our view. Search it out. Study with blood, sweat, and calloused knees. Be biblical. Root your theology in the actual text of Scripture.

2. Be humble. We believe in absolute truth. Absolutely! But such truth is harnessed and understood through fallible human interpretation. So be humble. Work your exegetical minds to the skull, but be humble in your conclusions. You may be right. You probably are (if your conclusions are backed by solid exegetical evidence). But recognize that you are human and you therefore might be wrong. And that’s okay. God is right. God is mysterious. God is beyond us, and He is always right. We are sometimes wrong. We are wrong more than we think. Much more. Our beliefs are clouded by presuppositions, cultural baggage, unexamined assumptions, and experiences that fog up our interpretive lenses. So be humble.

3. Seek truth and practice. That is, seek to live out and love out the truth you say you believe in. The world—and the evangelical left—is passionately unimpressed with unpracticed doctrines. Truth is validated and confirmed through doing it. So be biblical. Stay humble. And do it. Live out what you say you believe. For example, more than 2,000 passages in the Bible lambast the misuse of wealth, and only 6 address homosexuality. Align your values accordingly. Don’t be a stingy gay-hater, for this is not Christian. Become a Jesus follower who serves people who are attracted to the same sex. God served you when you when you were serving yourself—and idols. I don’t care if you are pre-millenial, post-millenial, or amillenial. Do you love the poor? Are you radically generous? Are you submissive, humble, and eager to love your enemies? Do these, and then I will know that you are a follower of the crucified and risen Lamb.

4. Study hard. I don’t say this because I’m an educator, but because the next generation of seekers are also thinkers. They ask hard questions and they get irritated at pre-packaged answers. With the rise (or world domination of) the internet, people have access to piles and piles of information. The anti-intellectual, Jesus-and-me, don’t-think-but-only-obey version of Christianity isn’t going to work with the 21st century generation. We need to think deeply and critically about sexuality, epistemology, science, and ethics. And if you don’t know what epistemology means, you need to. We need to think. We need to pull our heads from the sand and shed the stereotype that Christians have their heads in the sand. We need to think, interact, debate, and believe with our God-given minds the beautiful story about a God born in a manger. Millennials are asking very hard questions; recycled answers won’t work any longer. And we need to prove the truth we believe in not only with logical arguments—though we will always need these—but with an unarguable life that lives out the truth we say we believe in.

Let’s press on and obey and imitate the crucified and risen King, who pulled us into a beautiful story about a loving God who sought and saved the lost.

GlobeAs Christians, we are to be “in the world but not of it.” But what does that mean exactly? It can actually be a pretty confusing concept if we don’t give it some careful thought. Does being “in the world” mean that we hang out at bars and watch seedy movies? Does not being “of the world” mean that we avoid contact with non-Christians or watch only Christian-produced movies?

First, we have to decide what “the world” means. On the one hand, we know that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). But John also warns us: “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15–16).

So which is it? Well, it all depends on what is meant by “the world.” The Bible uses the term “world” in at least three ways.

  1. “The world” can refer to the physical world that God created. God loves that world, and he called it good at every step of its creation. Though it has been tainted by sin, it will ultimately be freed from its “bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:21). “The world” is good, God loves it and cares for it, so we should too.
  2. “The world” can also refer to the people in the world. God loves them too. That’s what John 3:16 is getting at. God loves the people he created and sent his Son to redeem them. We should love “the world” as God loved the world.
  3. But “the world” can also refer to the evil world system that is ultimately empowered by Satan. This is what John was referring to when he told us not to love the world. He makes that clear by defining it as “the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:15­–16). God doesn’t love “the world,” and neither should we.

When Jesus prayed for his followers in John 17, he said that we are “not of the world.” And yet he also said that he sent us “into the world,” just as the Father sent him into the world. How does that work? How can we be in the world but not of it? Jesus’ prayer actually addresses that specifically. He prays,

“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” (v. 15).

Now we’re getting closer to an answer. It seems that we’re in “the world” (in God’s creation and amongst the people he created), but we are to stay away from the evil one (“the world” in the sense of the evil world system).

So being in the world but not of it means that we will be where people are. We’ll be in the midst of culture. We’ll walk with them through God’s world. And yet we will not be worldly. We will refuse to love the evil we inevitably encounter. This is what many Christians mean by the phrase “engaging culture.” We are there in the midst of the world, interacting with the world and the people that God made. But we think critically, and we refuse to take part in the works of evil.

Some Christians have become so concerned about the evil in the world that they have tried to distance themselves from all secular culture. But this is actually a dangerous move. Steve Turner explains:

“Some strict fundamentalist sects show disdain toward creation and culture, and yet in doing so become proud, arrogant and uncaring. They therefore become worldly in the very way the Bible condemns and yet are not worldly enough in the way the Bible commands. We are told to be in the world but not of it. People like this are often of the world but not in it” (Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, Downers Grove: IVP, 2001, 43, italitcs added.)

So which are you? Do you love the world in the ways the Bible commands? Do you refuse to love the world in the ways the Bible forbids? Being in the world in the right sense matters. Jesus doesn’t want us pulled out the world. He wants us in there. He sent us in there. But we have to be careful about how we do it.