There’s a lot riding on how the church engages our culture. I never want to say that the future of the church hinges on what we do; surely God has something to contribute to the church’s future, too. But I think it’s an open question as to whether God will build the church with/because of us or whether he’ll have to build it in spite of us.
On Wednesday nights at Wieuca we’re exploring the film, God’s Not Dead, together. The film presents one way for Christians and the church to engage culture. It pits Christ and the church against culture and the academy. There are very few gray areas in the movie. In this Christ against culture paradigm, either Christ or culture wins at the expense of the other. It’s an attractive (and at times appropriate) paradigm for those who feel disoriented, lost, unfamiliar or even afraid of an increasingly secular culture that can be difficult for Christians—particularly Christians of the insulated, Bible belt variety—to find their place in and understand.
But if it’s the only way we understand our place in the culture, the “Christ against culture” paradigm can be dangerous.
Pitting the church against the larger culture can be a very comforting way to see the world. It allows me to approach those who don’t agree with me as adversaries to be defeated and it creates a playing field where winning and losing, success or failure, is clearly defined. It helps me reassure myself that God is on my side—that my culture, heritage, traditions, biases, beliefs and peculiarities are of and from God. It lets me adopt attitudes of moral superiority. It gives me permission to express righteous—and self-righteous—anger. It lets me point accusing fingers and issue confident statements of condemnation. It lets me equate different with wrong and doubt with weakness. I can draw clear boundaries to define who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s a sinner and who’s a saint, who’s pure and who’s unclean, who deserves my love and who deserves my scorn. It gives me a clear, strong, noble identity.
Interestingly though, I always seem to place myself, my culture, my traditions, my biases on the right side of my self-drawn boundaries. Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” There’s an element of making God into who we want God to be in the Christ against culture construction.
There’s just one problem with my self-drawn boundaries, with who I include in—and exclude from—my circle. The circle of the righteous is only big enough for one person to stand in. And that person isn’t me, it’s Jesus. The circle of the forgiven, the accepted, and the loved on the other hand? That circle’s big enough for the whole world. The truth is, I—like everyone else—am on the wrong side of the boundary, which puts me in a poor position to act as a gatekeeper.
My only call from God is to love. No matter how hard I try, I won’t judge or shun or accuse one person into the kingdom. So however big my circle is, God’s is bigger. I need to remember to stop drawing lines to exclude people and start drawing circles of inclusion…BIG circles. I need to take the size of my circle and double it or triple it, or better yet multiply the size of my circle by 70 times 7 to get an idea of how big God’s circle is. God’s understanding is bigger than my understanding. God’s ways are higher than my ways. God’s universe is bigger than my universe. God’s love, redemption, and forgiveness are more complete than mine.
When Jesus redrew boundaries in the culture, it was ALWAYS to make the circle bigger. Big enough to include Samaritans and tax collectors, Romans and Hebrews, adulterers and the demon possessed, the beggar on the street and the leper, the criminal on the cross and me. God’s circle is big enough to include every imperfection of character and every difference of identity.
When Jesus directed his efforts against the culture, he was almost always pitting himself against the culture of the church. Christ’s accusatory finger pointed not at the wider world but at me, at the church-goer, the teacher, the faithful, the minister, the deacon, the leaders of the faith.
I should be careful about how I appropriate the example of Christ. It’s easy to place myself inside circles I don’t belong in. It’s also easy to appoint myself as gatekeeper of a boundary I have no control over. I should be careful. There’s a lot riding on how I engage my culture.