Yesterday’s post on Brett McCracken’s Wall Street Journal article created some good conversations both online and off. These got me thinking about the question of relevance, or appeal to contemporary culture.
What I found missing in McCracken’s assessment of current movements, as he dismissed them all as being beholden to contemporary culture in a manner unbecoming of the pure gospel of Jesus, is any awareness of the culture-bound nature of everything. And this includes the gospel of Jesus itself.
But more than this, when assessing contemporary attempts at rearticulating the gospel, I think it is important to take into account that we are aware of the category of “culture” in a way that earlier eras were not. When the Reformers wanted to decentralize church authority away from the Pope and offer the liturgy in the vernacular of the people, these were not simply theological judgments, they were also reflections of a rising regionalism and nationalism. The very act of translating the liturgy from Latin into German or translating the Bible into English is an accommodation to culture.
The basic point is simply that everything we do is tied in some way to our culture. And this is not a bad thing. The creation of “systematic theology” is due to a certain cultural location (if you don’t believe me, try to find a Jewish systematic theology). The use of the word euangelion (good news) is due to a certain cultural location and carried overtones that “Jesus died so God might forgive my particular sins” almost never conveys to modern ears.
Culture is not bad. We all do things based on culture. But the danger is when we start looking at the culture we’re comfortable with and start considering that it is not only normal but also normative.
When I see someone critiquing Emergent for simply wanting to be cool, or critiquing books with “sex” in the title assimply trying to be provocative, what I see going on is someone who doesn’t understand how deeply contextualized his own assessment of Christian normalcy is. Traditional Christian culture is its own culture, with roots in various Eurpean and American movements that gave birth to its current incarnations.
And this is where Emergent was and often still continues to be helpful. Even when “it” does not give the right answer, it is asking the right question; namely, what does it look like to faithfully follow Jesus in a society that is increasingly “post-modern” rather than “modern”?
Two points here. First, we have a responsibility to ask this question because we now know that culture affects everything we do. We are realizing that articulating the gospel so that it makes sense for a certain people is not simply the calling of the foreign missionary, but what each of us are doing either wittingly or unwittingly every time we tell the story.
So, we can either intentionally ask the question, “How do we articulate the gospel in a way that makes sense for our world?” Or we will fall into one of two traps: either getting carried away by our culture to articulate the gospel in ways that it wants to hear without realizing what we’re doing or continuing to speak the gospel so that it only makes sense within the sub-culture of the church. I don’t think that McCracken’s advocacy of the latter is salutary for the church.
Secondly, the people who are asking this question aren’t simply cool urbanites. The people asking this question are folks from all sorts of social settings for whom the church shaped by modernity does not work anymore. When I am at Emergent Conversations, I am always surprised at the number of people I meet who are from rural or small town settings. Often they are there with one or two other people from their church, a covert group of people finding life in following Jesus in new and challenging ways–which ways are neither advocated nor approved of by the old guard who zealously keep watch over the citadels of yesteryear.
Does Christianity need to be “hip”? No, but it needs to be self-aware. To be simultaneously culturally relevant and calling people to a counter-cultural movement is the essence of following Jesus.
This is the same Jesus who came proclaiming that God’s military victory had arrived (Proclaiming the euangelion that the reign of God had drawn near) to a people who had been promised that they would crush the gentiles in military assault (Judah will be the sword in my hand against the Greeks!)–and who roundly rebuked them for not recognizing that Kingdom Come is the fruit of self-giving, redeeming love.
Culturally relevant? To its core.
What the people wanted or expected? Not at all.
Our calling is not to ignore culture and thereby proclaim something that was good news to 19th century Christendom dwellers, but to know the time and place to which we have been called and speak an apt word of reconciliation and repentance.