Christ for Culture – part 1

“Seven Ages: The Walking Figure” by Ghislaine Howard

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” – Raymond Chandler [1]

“To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” – Cardinal Suhard [2]

Raymond Chandler’s walker of the mean streets epitomizes incarnation. Completely common and yet unusually honorable, this figure speaks the language of the age and acts as an agent of redemption. Cardinal Suhard’s witness, on the other hand, seems more steeped in the incense of holy mystery. Inexplicable and yet attractive, the witness calls us away from the world as we know it. For the Christian Church, Jesus Christ represents both the walker and the witness. In our accounts of him, he navigates the complexity between these two seemingly conflicting roles so gracefully and yet we agonize: How did he do it?  How do we do it?  There is no question that the reality of Jesus Christ can and should transform our human cultures, but how? Arguments for the creation of a separate Christian culture do not resonate with our accounts of a Savior who lived and died and lives for the sake of the world He so loves. Christ calls the Church to live as a faithful community of communities that, like Christ, transcends and critiques, but most critically participates in human cultures for the good of all. The Church distinguishes itself from the world-at-large by offering a unique understanding of reality that changes lives, not Christian knock-offs of worldly goods and services. Intentionally forging an exclusionary culture negates our human and God-given identities. While making too small a distinction between ourselves as the Church and our wider cultures is fatal, making too large a distinction is absurd. God sets us in human as well as spiritual families; sometimes we’re called to leave them for the sake of the gospel, but not because it is us versus them. God calls the Church

to be the bearer of God’s saving purpose for his whole world….  It means that this particular body of people who bear the name of Jesus through history… with all its contingency and particularity, is the body which has the responsibility of bearing the secret of God’s reign through world history.[3]

Our charge is unique, but we tend to claim things, such as God’s affection and attention, for ourselves that properly belong to all of creation. God’s incarnational economy requires us to root and ground ourselves not only in God’s love, but also in the cultures to which God wants to reveal divine love.

We the Church must not shun such grounding for fear of contamination. Rather we should broaden and deepen our personal and corporate cultural experiences so we’re better educated to critique our cultures and better equipped to understand our alternatives for living godly lives within them. Otherwise we do damage by talking about the world as we fear it may be rather than addressing the world as it is. We don’t merely absorb our cultures indiscriminately, however; we follow Christ’s example in embracing our identities as cultural beings and transforming the times and places in which we find ourselves from the inside. Christ remains our best model and representative in our relationships to our cultures. Christ loves and communicates to cultures through the Church and the Church should love and communicate to cultures through Christ. Jaroslav Pelikan points out that

as respect for the organized church has declined, reverence for Jesus has grown…. There is more in him than is dreamt of in the philosophy and Christology of the theologians.  Within the church, but also far beyond its walls, his person and message are, in the phrase of Augustine, a ‘beauty ever ancient, ever new,’ and now he belongs to the world.[4]

Christ neither feared nor feared for the world; rather he took up residence in it and sacrificed his life for the good of all of us in it to the glory of God. He instructs his body on earth to walk as witnesses in the world, communicating, displaying and verifying in our daily lives this gospel, this reality that has taken hold of us. We do so by living deeply, freely, and abundantly into our cultures following the standard and example of Jesus. In order to do so, we will all find it necessary to reject some key assumptions of our cultures. In Jesus’s day those false assumptions included God’s favoritism for Israel, the rich, and the religious. In my place and time they include false assumptions of the inherent goodness of radical individualism and rampant consumerism that define success in life as getting what’s “mine.”

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more “successful” people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these needs have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.[5]

The world around us poses all kinds of pressing and complex questions. We cannot assume they are all the wrong ones, that they don’t apply to us, or that we have all the answers at our disposal ready-made. Along with the danger of dismissing honest inquiry, we risk missing God’s direction; we must remain open to the possibility of God guiding and teaching us through present cultural situations. God has invited us to be part of the process of Christ becoming all in all. When we approach all the times and places and dilemmas we find ourselves in with this staggering invitation in mind we become agents of redemption in the here and now. We will know God’s goodness in the land of the living.

“Sing redemption everywhere you go.”

[1] Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder” (accessed June 17, 2011).

[2] Emmanuel, Cardinal Suhard, qtd. in Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Commemorative Edition (Wheaton, Ill.: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1998), 34.

[3] Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 86-87.

[4] Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 232-233.

[5] David Orr, “What is Education For?” In Context 27 (Winter 1991): 52.

[6] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Where Resident Aliens Live, 100.

[7] Philippians 3:

[8] Jeremiah 29:7

[9] Gregory Wolfe, “The Four Cultures,” Image no. 58 (2008), (accessed January 31, 2013).

[10] Anthony Ugolnik, “Whose Crisis of Faith? Culture, Faith, and the American Academy” in The Two Cities of God: The Church’s Responsibility for the Earthly City, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 92.