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Rethinking the Stumbling Block: Christian Culture as a Barrier

Image- puuikibeach via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

As Christians discern how to navigate through popular culture in a way that is edifying to themselves and their neighbors and glorifying to God, one concern that commonly arises is whether or not a particular cultural pursuit will cause a brother or sister in Christ to stumble. We might personally have the freedom in Christ to watch a mature movie, but, for the sake of a weaker brother who might sin against his conscience if he sees this film, we might abstain from watching it for a time. Properly understood, this concern, which is essentially the decision to put the spiritual life of others before our freedoms, is beautiful and good. Misunderstood, abused, or misapplied, a concern for the conscience of a brother or sister in Christ can result in legalism, pride, and false condemnation.

While Christians have often treated the conscience of a brother or sister as an essential consideration in discerning what is good and appropriate to watch, read, listen to, or play in popular culture, we have not spent enough time considering how our own “Christian” culture can be a stumbling block. It is easy for us to understand how a violent video game, a song with graphic lyrics, or a movie with suggestive themes might cause a fellow Christian to offend their conscience, but could our “Christian” paintings, music, and clothing do the same?

In order to explore how our own culture can be a stumbling block to fellow Christians and non-believers it is necessary first to very briefly talk about the communal nature of Christianity. To accept Christ as your Lord and Savior does not merely mean that you are saved from the wages and bondage of sin and are adopted by the Father, it also means that you are saved into a community–a body of believers, spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ–who are the visible Body of Christ to the world.

Here we can make a distinction, however. While we all belong to the same Church, the bride of Christ, we do not belong to the same culture. In community we are united under Christ and our principal way of interacting with one another is service in love–that is what ought to define and mark our churches and the Church in general. Christian community is defined by our unity under Christ and our service to one another. Christian “culture” is not defined by the way we interact, but by the peripheral adornments that identify us in a very superficial way with Christianity: taste, clothing style, music, language, humor, food, home decor, painting, etc.

It seems natural that if we all are united under Christ our aesthetics and cultural preferences should be shaped by that unity–and to a large extent, that shaping is what this website is devoted to exploring; however, a problem arises when we begin to believe that our unity under Christ should also result in a unified culture. I would not argue that most Christians have ever consciously believed that the Church should be united in its cultural tastes, but I do think that if pressed, most Christians, in America at least, could produce a list of characteristics that define Christian culture. Blogs like Stuff Christians Like gained popularity in large part because of our shared awareness that there is a fairly definable Christian culture in American that is distinct from the Church as a community.

So we understand that Christ calls us to be a community, a family, a body, not a particular culture, and that in American at least, an identifiable Christian culture exists. The next question, and the focus of the post, is whether or not it is honoring to God and loving to our neighbors to engage in this Christian culture. Even if we accept that being apart of the Body of Christ is not the same as embracing Christian culture, we still might want to say that the culture is good, and certainly preferable to “secular” culture. Isn’t it a good thing to promote our faith on our clothing? To listen to godly music on Christian radio stations? To hang paintings in our living rooms made by self-professed Christians? To use language that other Christians understand? To watch movies made by Christians that contain explicitly Christian messages?

The first thing we must note when seeking to answer this question is that the same liberty that allows some believers to watch mature movies that other, weaker, Christians could not watch with a clear conscience allows us to embrace Christian culture. In other words, the choice to hang a Thomas Kinkade painting in our home is a freedom of taste that we have in Christ. There is no aesthetic law that makes such a decor choice a sin (as much as some of us, in our more elitist moments, might wish it were the case). However, just as with all our freedoms, our decision to embrace Christian culture must be tempered with a love for our neighbor. And there are times, much more often than we might think, when the choice to listen to “Christian” music or to engage in some other aspect of popular Christian culture can be a barrier, a stumbling block to those around us.

There are two primary ways I believe that embracing the popular Christian culture can be unloving to our neighbors.

First, if we choose to embrace the Christian culture that is marketed to us, we run the risk of giving nonbelievers and new believers the impression that this culture is essential to the faith, that part of what it means to be a Christian is to accept a set of cultural tastes and interests. Even if we have the freedom to decorate our home with porcelain figures from the local Christian bookstore, to exclusively let our children watch Veggie Tales,  and to listen to the Christian radio station, if these cultural choices come to define us as a community, then we can very easily present a false image of the faith. If we are more easily identified by our particular taste in movies than our love for each other, or if these become inseparable, then we have conflated the Gospel and the community of the Church with the social phenomenon that is Christianity.

I want to stress emphatically at this point that the conflation of community and culture can have dire consequences, particularly for those who are new to the faith or who are investigating Christianity. Many of us have been raised in the faith and so it can be difficult for us to discern what is essential to our faith and what is mere taste. Many modern worship songs that are dear to us might strike a new believer, who has not been raised in Christian culture, as corny and superficial. And if they get the impression that they are somehow required to enjoy these songs as we do in order to be a true believer, then they might seriously question whether their faith is sincere. If the idea that the set of tastes that makes up modern American Christian culture can and does present a stumbling block for belief to some by conflating itself with the Faith, I’d encourage you to ask people who are new to the faith how they felt about Christian culture. It has been my experience that the conflation of these ancillary tastes with the essence of Christianity has been a serious barrier for many unbelievers.

Second, even when the new believer or nonbeliever understands that to follow Christ he or she does not need to wear a Christian tee-shirt, think Fireproof was the best film of 2008, or enjoy Christian stand-up comedians, this person could still feel alienated if he or she is lead to believe that Christian community is Christian culture. I have seen many Christians experience this feeling of alienation and felt it myself. If a church, or the Church is most clearly identified by set of cultural preferences, those who do not share those preferences will be excluded from the community, not just the culture. On a practical level, this might look like a teenager in your youth group who is left out of conversations because she doesn’t enjoy popular Christian music. While we might not openly demand that members in our churches share our tastes, by uncritically embracing Christian culture as a community there is a real sense in which we can alienate and burden our brothers and sisters with an ungodly law, just as the circumcision party taught that the physical sign of circumcision was a necessary sign for membership into the early church community.

I hope that I have been able to show that as Christians we must be just as discerning about what cultural goods we support in Christian culture as in the culture around us, and that it is just as possible to offend the conscience of a new believer with our taste in Christian music as it is through the decision to watch a mature film. Let me move on to what I think are some practical things we can do as Christians to better love our neighbor in our cultural pursuits.

An awareness that Christian culture can be a stumbling block for others does not mean that we must embrace popular culture in order to identify with them, nor does it mean that we are required to abandon Christian culture. It does mean that we should become fully aware that our cultural preferences, while they might be informed by our faith, are not our faith. I think we can cultivate this awareness by making a practice of evaluating how we esteem our tastes and the tastes of others. Do we think less of Christians who choose not listen to Christian music? Do I view my choice to only watch films made by Christians as a choice which somehow contributes to my holiness? These are tough questions, but I believe that if we are honest with ourselves we can learn to engage in culture with humility.

This awareness also means that we must praise what is praiseworthy, not what panders to us as a commercial demographic. The reality of our consumer society is that conservative Christians are a very lucrative market, and if we are not vigilant and soberminded, we will likely accept the aesthetic conception of Christianity that is presented to us by companies wishing to sell us our culture. Instead of choosing certain cultural goods because they labeled as “Christian,” we ought to heed Paul’s words in Philippians 4:8 and think about (and support) things that are worthy of praise. Naturally, this requires time and effort, and our discernment about what is truly worthy of praise will not be perfect; however, simply making the decision to prayerfully evaluate the quality of the popular culture we support can do much to mature our discernment.

Finally, this awareness should mean that we are willing to lay down our preferences in order to love others. Seek out those in your church who are outside the culture, who might feel like aliens for having different tastes in home decor and paintings. Make a conscious effort to never allow your hobbies or interests to prevent you from entertaining, ministering to, or spending time with a neighbor. Our prayer here should be that we might be “all things to all people, that by all means [we] might win some.”

May we, by God’s grace, learn to be sensitive to our neighbor’s conscience, not only in our engagement with popular culture, but also our engagement of what is sold to us as our own culture.

Image Credit: puuikibeach via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • http://www.gaffneyjournal.blogspot.com Sean Gaffney

    Nicely done.
    .-= Sean Gaffney´s last blog ..Steampunk Star Wars =-.

  • Chris H.

    Excellent post, Alan. I do want to mention why one small good thing that may attract Christians to the subculture- Family friendliness. Almost all content in a Christian subculture is family-friendly, and so is acknowledged and supported.

    Now, I know that CaPC comes at pop culture from the perspective of looking at what is good art, and what is not. But the content I think should be kept in mind. Many Christians look at things in this way. Now, I personally believe in a balance between the objectionable content, the messages, and the quality. What do you think? Also, in anyone’s opinion, what is commendable in the Christian subculture, and what isn’t?

  • Alan Noble

    @Chris H.

    Great questions, let me see if I can answer the briefly–in time for breakfast. I think most of us at CaPC (high five for using a lower case “a.” There are some who secretly support the CAPC abbreviation) would say that content is one, very important aspect of evaluating what is good and praiseworthy, so certainly that should be taken into consideration. And I think most of us would also agree that parents need to only expose their children to the content that they feel is appropriate for their age, and that adults should not offend their own conscience (or that of others) with the content of the pop culture they consume. That said, there are three things we can note for our discussion of Christian pop culture:

    1. A great deal of Christian popular culture comes in a form that is unlikely to have an offensive counterpart in general pop culture. For example, home decor, clothing, and bumper stickers. It is incredibly easy to find a tee-shirt with an image or slogan that is family-friendly, and yet tee-shirts (I would suggest) are one of the most common markers of Christian popular culture.

    2. Part of the point I am making in these posts is that sometimes, it is not an either/or situation. Sometimes it is not necessary to embrace Christian culture or “secular” culture. What I mean by that is that in those situations when we know that someone might feel alienated by the collective tastes of a church, we can choose to set aside our interests and tastes in conversation and reach out to that person. In other words, I don’t think it’s necessary for us to abandon Christian culture in order to love our neighbor, but it might be necessary for us to stop talking about it for a time, to not allow our identity with Christ to be confused with our identity with the culture, to treat it as what it is–a preference.

    3. While Christian pop culture certainly tends to be family friendly, I would suggest that there is a lot out there that is not explicitly Christian, but is still family friendly–depending on your definition of the latter. Again, this isn’t an either/or situation, so one solution might be to pursue those cultural creations that are not “Christian” but are family friendly while still primarily supporting what you find good in Christian culture. But I would suggest that the key in both actions would be to strive to support what is praiseworthy by seriously thinking about the culture work. There are many “Christian” works/products that contain poor/dangerous theology or promote an unbiblical view of humanity or God.

    For example, many of the Focus on the Family shows I watched as a child were so utterly focused on teaching me to be good (typically by showing how sin is destructive) that I believe it presented a false view of the world, one in which life was entirely comprised of failing God and seeking repentance, a world essentially without true Grace, beauty, joy, or love. Likewise, many, many family-friendly “secular” cultural works have subtle, yet significant ideas that could be unhealthy for us to watch uncritically. In either case, I believe what we need to do is be vigilant and thoughtful about our media consumption so that we can praise what is praiseworthy in a film or tv show and identify what is not praiseworthy.

    Since my breakfast is now probably cold, I won’t try to answer the second question right now. Maybe later!
    -Alan

  • Alan Noble

    Okay, breakfast eaten, now on to question two:

    We could talk for a while about what is commendable and what is not in Christian culture, so I’m going to just throw out a list for each, and see where that gets us:

    Commendable:
    1. It is good for Christians to make art and do it well for the Lord.
    2. The works and products created by Christian culture, even some of the tasteless ones, have provided opportunities for Christians to share their faith.
    3. Just as it is good to encourage each other with hymns and spiritual songs, I think it is also good to encourage each other with other mediums. Reading a book, watching a film, or hearing a song created by a believer can encourage us as we remember that we are a part of a Body that is striving to serve the Lord, saved by His grace, and longs for His return.

    Not commendable:
    1. It can be destructive and troubling when Christians make poor art and assert that it is good, simply because it is made for the Lord. See this post on the importance of Christian criticism.
    2. Works and products created by Christian culture can often advertise Christianity rather than proclaim it biblically, which equates the Gospel with other ideologies and products on the market. See these posts on Voting with our Dollars: Part 1 and Part 2. Also this post on “Wearing our Faith.”
    3. While we can and should encourage each other with our cultural works, we are not called to isolate ourselves, to hedge out the people around us. As I hoped to show in these two articles, our encouragement of each other can become a wall which keeps us from loving our neighbors and our neighbors from identifying with us.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Good article(s) Alan. I have nothing to complain about in regard to the content.

    HOWEVER, Rich(!!), can you please somehow turn this back into a single article. It’s unduly damages by being split. I’d like to send the link to some people, but it’s hard enough to get people to read an article without having to tell them, “Okay, first read This, then go here and read This—and don’t forget that they’re not just two articles (by the same guy!), but they’re really the same article. You just can’t read it like it was one article…”

    It’s not that long. Less than 2000 words ^_^
    .-= The Dane´s last blog ..20090417.teaParty =-.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Fair enough, I’ll get on that as soon as I have a spare moment.

  • Alan Noble

    Just to be clear, I did not put the Dane up to that comment. ;-)

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    I’d also like to take to task the term family friendly, which wasn’t used in your article(s) Alan, but does rear its dastardly head in the comments here. It’s really kind of a strange term and definitely a misnomer. Absolutely it finds its origin in a particular kind of propaganda.

    Here’s what I mean.

    In the first part, family-friendly means little more than catering to the lowest common denominator in a mythological group. Family-friendly means that this is something my five-year-old can safely enjoy. And not even my five-year-old, but some fictional five-year-old who will never bear any resemblance to my five-year-old.

    Nevermind my nine, eleven, and fourteen year-olds—whose minds will surely stultify or rot if inundated with family-friendly product.

    In the second part, the term is obtuse in that it presumes to know what families are and what is friendly to them. What people seem to mean by the term is that the content of a particular cultural product is innocuous. But innocuous by whose standards? And for how long can an innocuous thing be innocuous before it become virulent?

    Why would I as a father wish to keep family-friendly products away from my family? (Or at least administer them in small doses?) Because I believe that a better and healthier interaction with the world concerns itself with ideas that contradict one’s established parameters for thought and that one may even consider inappropriate or offensive. I believe that the cultural produce that one consumes may have an impact on those that consume such—therefore, how could I, as a responsible father, allow my family to consume only this, quote-unquote, family-friendly fare?
    .-= The Dane´s last blog ..20090417.teaParty =-.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @Rich – Thanks!

    @Alan – Truth be known, I put me up to it. Which makes sense, because I am the only one with strong enough influence over me to put me up to anything. Well, maybe Michelle can. Maybe.
    .-= The Dane´s last blog ..20090417.teaParty =-.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    Alright, done!

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    I do think that it may be apropos to state that the biblical language of the stumbling block doesn’t have to do with causing people to sin, but instead causing them to stumble from the path of life, to reject the life of faith for their formerly pagan ways. So a movie that causes one to (however briefly) have a lustful thought is not a stumbling block, while a believer who nullifies the worth of the gospel and the truth of the Path by saying it doesn’t matter if one indulges a steady diet of porn is himself a stumbling block.

    In that sense, I can see how the American Christian pop-culture could be a stumbling block to some, leading one away from faith in Christ and toward faith in a Christian culture (what we might call another gospel). I think Christian involvement and support of various political machines can behave as stumbling blocks as well.
    .-= The Dane´s last blog ..20090417.teaParty =-.

  • Alan Noble

    Rich combined the articles AND brought over the comments? High fives all around.

  • AmandaBeck

    Alan,

    Good article. I agree with the idea that the Christian culture can be pointed towards another gospel, be it advertisement or family-friendliness, etc. Thanks to you and your commentators for putting these thoughts into words.

    ~Amanda

  • http://bearspace.baylor.edu/Brittany_Noble/www/ Brittany

    As someone who came to know Christ later in life, I can attest that Christian culture really was a stumbling block for me to even consider the Christian faith as a valid worldview. It was only until I met believers that demonstrated their freedom to engage the culture — the world — that I lived in, that I began to seriously think about the Christian faith. I say this not with the intent to offend anyone who enjoys the Christian culture, but simply to offer evidence that sometimes it is a stumbling block.

  • Tim Hahne

    Very interesting… I’m not really that informed on what is Christian culture and what is not… kind of a lame duck of sorts, but I do realize that many so called Christian things and ways simply don’tappeal to me. I don’t let them stumble me but I must admit I’m puzzled by what is considered cool or popular… Been out of the loop to long, but that’s ok by me.

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  • Chris H.

    Thanks to Alan Noble for clarifying. I really appreciate it.

  • Matt

    Great article, Alan.

    I think that this is a huge issue in the Church today. I think that the political and social climate of the past few years has incited this Christian Sub-culture. You could even point to prohibition as an early indicator of this in modern America (although this is not a new problem by any means).

    I believe that cultural preferences the Church conflates with the Bible can be a stumbling block for non-christians. This is a topic that needs to be discussed by our generation.

    I have many friends that are completely turned off by the “CCM generation”, and I can hardly blame them. Obviously there are those that buy into the contemporary Christian sub-culture, but just as many are repulsed by mediocre “Christian” art and/or non-Biblical “Christian” taboos.

    Authentic faith can be expressed in many ways, and that’s what people need to see. It would be of great benefit for us to identify the essentials of Christianity and what are merely its cultural trappings.

  • Tomas

    well done. thank you!

  • Richard

    I’m a professional musician and
    I really dislike pop music. I’m an Episcopalian (and yes I am a Christian!) and talked with a young Evangelical musician who played in a praise band. I asked whether he knew the music of Bach, his answer was that he only listened to “Christian” music.

  • David Dunham

    Richard,

    That is actually both hilarious and really sad.

  • http://www.sinema7.net maureen

    Love this post. Back in the 70′s when I became a believer it felt like I was on the conveyer belt of an assembly line. Dear Christian friends were all in line to make me look like a “Christian.” They wanted to change my clothes & fix my hair, hand me my politics, give me devotional books, smash my records & replace them with the Imperials, get me in the “right” theological camp, supply me with a stack of scary Chick tracks to hand out to my heathen friends, and make sure I read Romans first. I followed Christ in spite of the Christians I knew, not because of them. It did get better but 30-odd years later I still am not really into cutesy plaques and Testamints (yes, they really do make “Christian” breath mints).

  • Carol

    Thanks for posting this, it was very timely! As a long time Christian from Australia – I have been rather shell shocked by the VERY prominent Christian culture in the US. Of course there was a recognisable Christian culture in Australia but nothing like what I have experienced since living here.

    I’ve recently spent some considerable time evaluating my place within the American Christian culture that I find myself in and trying to deal with the alienation I felt. I have realised that it is ok to not think Fireproof was the best film of 2008, it is ok to not own a Christian slogan T-shirt, it is ok to not have the slightest inclination to vote Republican or think certain politicians are ordained by God to be in office or have a clue about contemporary Christian pop music. God loves me despite my being a bit of an outsider. And more importantly – my faith is still sincere and pleasing to God.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been challenged too to get rid of ungodly influences from secular culture in my life and seek after things worthy of praise. It’s just good to know that it’s ok for me to have my own cultural preferences without it becoming an issue of faith and salvation.

  • Pingback: Words on Christ & Culture | Pastor Dave Online

  • Felipa Chancey

    Performances may be similar, but MWR is a team on the rise while DEI appears to be going in the other direction. Look at the numbers from last year, or the year before, or the year before. You’ll see that every year MWR has gotten better while DEI has not.


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