Yesterday morning at Art House North in St Paul, MN, the mixed audience of pastors and marketplace workers grabbed a coffee and muffin-the-size-of-your-head and headed for the pews of this unique space to begin a stimulating day’s conversation on faith and work, sponsored by Leadership Journal and the Kern Family Foundation.
After musician and Art House North co-owner Sara Groves opened up with a simple worship song (if she were my worship leader, I’d never miss church!), Christianity Today Executive Editor Andy Crouch took the podium. He did not disappoint as he led us into a meditation on culture, work, and the Bible.
Andy teed off from a rather jaw-dropping ad that appeared recently in a Christian magazine, before setting up the audience to exegete it together:
Someone in the audience pointed out that ironically, the term “detox” on this book’s cover derives from our culture’s popular fad health remedies. And we were off and running.
Not all comments were critical: both Andy and several audience members did express some sympathy for an underlying motive of such culture-averse mindsets among Christians. My own mind went to David Wells’s dictum: “Worldliness is what any particular culture does to make sin look normal and righteousness look strange.”
But, I mused as the tide of conversation carried me along, we cannot pretend that all of culture amounts to nothing more than a cesspool of worldliness. That’s not all there is to culture . . . is it?
Andy followed up our group exegesis activity by reflecting a bit more on those rubber gloves clasped in that prayer intentionally echoing the “deliver us from evil” of the Lord’s Prayer:
“If God were to answer our prayer, deliver us from culture, where would God deliver us to? Where would we go? The book, the ad, this building, food, clothes – aren’t these all culture?”
He offered a commonplace example – our clothing:
“Are we to be delivered from clothing? On the nude beaches of Crete, you realize that clothing is a great gift to 98% of human beings. We don’t actually want to be delivered from culture. We flourish within culture . . .”
In fact, of course, there is no place for Christians, or churches full of Christians, to somehow stand apart from something Bad called “culture” (and the marketplace in which we work, spending the bulk of our waking lives) As if the very language we speak isn’t already fully enculturated!
Gosh, I reflected, even the Amish can’t get by without telephones and Wal Mart, let alone your average middle-class, suburban evangelical churchgoer! And let’s not even get started with the pharmacalogical remedies, communication devices, traffic grids, schools, convenience foods, etc etc etc that permeate our lives, and without which most of us would really not want to live.
I was reminded that H. Richard Niebuhr started his classic book Christ and Culture with an explanation of his title: He didn’t write “Church and Culture” or “Christians and Culture” because it is not given to any human institution or individual to somehow operate outside, or apart from, or over against culture as a whole.
Nor, as Andy pointed out with the illustration of nude beaches and the blessing of clothing, would we even want to. I mused: We owe so much to God’s common grace that, for example, has consistently raised the world’s standard of living, year after year and decade after decade, since the onset of the industrial revolution. How did this happen? Some Deus ex Machina? Obviously not. It was through the work of human hands and minds – work that, Andy reminded us in what followed, was mandated in Genesis to turn the “good” raw materials of creation into the “very good” products of the work of His human image-bearers.
As he wrapped up his introduction, Andy put an image on the screen of a little kid holding out muddy hands to show us, his huge grin telling the whole story. And he asked,
“Why have the fearful, cloaked, sheathed hands been our image of culture at times in the Christian community, rather than this kid? Should we have sent him out with rubber gloves? Why did mom and dad let him out? Because the kid has an immune system! If those germs and toxins that are certainly really out there do get “in” through the skin, etc., then his system can work it out.”
To Andy, the smiling kid with the muddy hands is so much more a picture of who we are meant to be in the world – not retreating into fear, “Just take me out of here!”
And in the remainder of the talk, he began to unpack biblical reasons why this is so, and relating these in particular to the goodness of work.