Culture War: Towards a Better Way, part I
In reading and writing about last month’s Nashville Statement, I’ve been thinking more broadly about the idea of a culture war. That statement is certainly another salvo in the ongoing conflict between the evangelical church and American culture, but like many other former or disaffected evangelicals I’m weary of the so-called culture wars. In my experience, this conflict isn’t helpful; it doesn’t help to build relationships, nor does it result in meaningful critiques of contemporary American culture.
I’m not going to spend this post attacking the culture wars, however. It’s tempting, but engages in exactly the flaw I want to critique: an inability to lovingly engage with someone who differs with, or is opposed to, my own beliefs. Instead, I want to think about ways forward, ways of moving beyond a culture war mentality. How can we have a faithful Christian witness without waging a culture war?
First, a brief summary of my position on the church in the world — since Christians have legitimate disagreements about how the two ought to relate to one another. I believe that the church ought to be interacting with the broader culture, rather than withdrawing from the world like the Amish (or Rod Dreher’s Benedict option). I also believe that the church should also stand distinct from the surrounding culture, finding a balance between withdrawal and assimilation. I see the church as distinct from the culture around it, but not removed from that culture.
But what is it that makes the church distinct? We must first answer this question, because without an idea of what makes us distinct we cannot consider how to best manifest that distinction within our particular cultural contexts.
I think the simplest, yet most profound, answer to the question of what makes us distinct is Jesus. We’re marked by our belief in him as Savior, by our belief (as we say in the eucharistic liturgy) that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. Christians believe, as Paul says in Romans, that Jesus is Lord and that he has been raised from the dead.
But what does that even mean? Isn’t there more to our identity as Christians than affirming that Jesus is Lord and that he has been raised from the dead?
Well, yes — but it still comes back to Jesus. Paul tells us twice to clothe ourselves in Christ as we strive to live as Christians. John takes a slightly different angle, focusing on the love of God that is to flow through us; he writes that we are to believe in Jesus and love one another. Throughout the New Testament, the qualities we are to cultivate are those modeled by Christ and received through the Holy Spirit.
And if we turn to Jesus himself, he tells us that all the law and the prophets are summed up in two commands: love God and love your neighbor. This sounds simple, but living into these commands is the work of a lifetime.
I don’t want to pretend that this is a simple, or an easy, answer to the question of what it is that makes the church distinct. We may agree that it’s Jesus, but what does that look like? How is it distinctive? And how should a life patterned on Jesus differ from the surrounding culture? Even New Testament writers like Paul and Peter draw on the Roman household codes as models for orderly relationships, indicating that the church’s moral standards may have significant overlap with the standards of its surrounding culture.
But the advantage of patterning our lives, our distinctiveness as Christians, on Jesus is that it frees us from comparisons to the surrounding culture. Imitating Christ may align us with cultural values or put us in opposition to them, and our call is to hold fast to Christ regardless.
I don’t mean to suggest that we can ever fully separate ourselves, Christian or otherwise, from the culture in which we live. But the great advantage of Christianity, in my mind, is the gap it creates between Christian and culture, since our ultimate allegiance is to Christ and his kingdom. In Wednesday’s post, I’ll turn to this gap and suggest some ways in which it can provide a model of cultural engagement beyond culture war.