The Church Is Dripping with Culture

My response to Jason Clark’s review of my book is up at Church and Pomo:

If I may put a finer point on it, the question is this: Is there a normative (biblical?) ecclesiology that is timeless, to which every congregation must aspire? Or is ecclesiology necessarily shaped by the culture that inevitably envelops every congregation?

I unequivocally say no to the former and yes the latter.

I am most interested, as I wrote above, in theologies that are grounded. My criticism of Jürgen Moltmann is that he is too idealistic, too naïve—and he’s exponentially more grounded than Milbank, Hauerwas, and the other ecclesiologists on the scene today. To develop an ideal ecclesiology—an image of the perfect, eschatological church—doesn’t do anybody any good because it’s pure hypothesis. It merely establishes a aspiration of which every congregation in the real world will fall short.

Every congregation is dripping with culture. It comes into the sanctuary in the clothes that congregants wear, in the music they were listening to in their cars on the way to church, and on their phones as they check Facebook during the introit. A realistic ecclesiology will acknowledge culture; it will recognize that parishioners talk about their experience of the numinous using cultural idioms, not second-order theological discourse.

via Jones’ Response to Jason Clark : the church and postmodern culture.

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  • If you would be for Methodist ministers to leave their ministries then normality has left the building. There has to be some foundation to normal, that is defined by the Bible, otherwise my guess would be that you would wash away into a sea of beliefs.

    Culture shifts, and has a strong effect on every congregation or division of Christianity. There is a both/and to the answer of this question. The answer is both the former and the latter. To omit an effort of finding the normative is to be completely passive (which what good is your religious convictions if you have none?), or to move into something of an iconoclastist.

    This effort to deconstruct any biblical norm seems to be a modern iconoclastic movement. The doctrines of cultural political divisions seems to be our normative standard. We are awashed in information, and to muddy the water, or to let go of what we hold onto seems to be simple. It would seem easier to be political than to hold onto good traditions that we find to be dear to our souls.

  • Dan Hauge

    When you frame the question in such a stark binary (pristine uncultured church, or church shaped by culture?) then I definitely fall on your side of the equation. It’s undeniable that the surrounding culture determines our idioms, aesthetics, and thought patterns and to believe we can completely escape that is naive and unnecessary. But my question, whenever you speak or write on this topic, always is: isn’t the church also called to provide *some* level of a distinct culture and value system, in healthy tension with the surrounding culture? To put it a different way, is there any room in an extremely pragmatic theology for the prophetic? I know you’ve expressed skepticism toward ‘anti-imperial’ theologies that push against the militarism and consumer capitalism in the U.S., but this is a case where I think we need some counter-culture in our church, identifying and standing against strains in the wider society (and therefore also within our churches) that can be harmful or de-humanizing. This doesn’t mean that we will create some pristine de-cultured community, but it doesn’t have to be a stark either/or. It’s one thing to acknowledge our fully encultured existence, it’s another to begin chiding any attempts to push against culture, or to provide a healthy critique of culture, as necessarily naive.

  • Evelyn

    I think that timeless wisdom exists. I also think that some ways of doing things are more emotionally and materialistically efficient than others (i.e. they decrease human suffering and enable us to more fully enjoy the grace of God). There are also quick fixes to problems and long-term solutions – often times getting lost in the quick fixes hampers your ability to find long term solutions.

    Scripture tends to embody the long-term solutions and the timeless wisdom. However, it takes a life well-lived and experienced to arrive at a place where you can fully understand the meaning behind the timeless wisdom. Culture is a readily-available testing ground or a place where aspects of life can be experienced if it is used as a catalyst for personal relationships. When it is just used as an escape or a source of entertainment (as it most often is), it turns into a drug that doesn’t allow spiritual progress and can even reverse it.

    Churches tend to make the mistake of assuming that everyone automatically comes into the world with timeless wisdom and they harshly judge the inevitable mistakes that people make when they are actually experiencing and interacting with the world as they should to make proper spiritual progress. This is a drag. There has to be a balance between being a repository for an ideal way to look at the world and allowing people to either attain that ideal or, at least, respect for that ideal through their own maturation process.

  • ME

    I don’t know of any strong scriptural or historical argument for a normative ecclesiology therefore I seen no reason to strive for a made-up one. On the other hand, there is a normative for the Kingdom of Heaven, it’s way out of our reach. We should always strive for it and that striving will influence just how much the body of the church caters to culture.

  • Even if we try to find “the Church” in Scripture we are only allowed to see a culturally conditioned social group – even if that group is joined to God through the Holy Spirit. Even if we go back before the first schism of the Church after Chalcedon (the Monophysites) the Byzantine Empire gave an enormous amount of influence on the church from vestments to the place from which the Bishop gave the sermon. I agree with an above comment that the choice isn’t a true statement. It forces one to choose between to idealized states that have simple never existed. In between the two is a culturally conditioned church in as much as Jesus himself was a culturally conditioned man who is also fully God.

    One more bit is that Christ redeems culture by defeating death and in Pentecost gives it new life transforming matter and redefining what it means to be human. Here my influence from Jim Loder is clear. The church and human being are Christological insofar as they both human and God in paradox. Or, as Vladimir Lossky describes it, the ecclesia is unified as the body of Christ and made diverse by the Holy Spirit which gives witness to the risen Christ. One body, two natures.

    Finally, “normative” is merely a statistical reference. It is as one group conforms to the mean variables that are measured. What is the mean to which we are referring here? To disentangle that pudding is like removing coloring from a can of Coke one molecule at a time. It requires better focus on a finite set of measurable variables and then other analyses to see if it means anything.

  • As an Anglo-Catholic, my ecclesiology is “high” and somewhat timeless: the holy catholic Church of Christ subsists in the apostolic churches as governed by the historic episcopate and the elements of truth and sanctification found outside those structures compel towards catholic unity under apostolic authority. I believe that.

    But also as an Anglo-Catholic, I see both the Church and the culture at large (which it is a part of, rather than set against) as constantly evolving, growing, and prone to Spirit-led dialectical forces. The Church is free from being subject to the dialectic of history only insofar as she is herself synonymous with that process. The Church is thus identified not with the top-down imposition of claimed authority (whether emanating directing from the ecclesia itself or from an interpretation of Scripture) but by the bottom-up practices of debate, dialogue, and critical reasoning as motivated by the Spirit. The Church stands as means of grace not because of her ability to minister from some extrahistorical pulpit but rather because of her incarnational positionality from within history, as the Body of Christ, which uses the substance of the here and now to open a way to the transcendent.

    In the Episcopal Church, my own denomination, this essential dialogic character is reflected in its very governance, which holds according to liberal democratic principles, the Church subject to the faithful, and not the other way around. The end effect is messy, as anyone who has been paying attention to the news (or has attended a diocesan convention!) knows–but it is also authentic.

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  • Great back and forth between you and Jason. This is precisely the kinds of conversations that need to be added to the mix.

    Jason’s call for more theological development (if that’s what he’s suggesting–I read quickly) is very much the case. Yours is a practical theology text, intentionally so, and that lays some great groundwork for continued theological reflection. As does Church in the Present Tense and Missional Church in Perspective — each of which are great texts for those of us interested in the underlying theological issues.

    I quibble with your suggestion that Moltmann is idealistic and naive. I don’t think he is either. Yes, maybe, if his ecclesiology derives from his anthropological hopes, but that’s missing Moltmann. Moltmann develops his views in light of God’s work — and then is both idealistic about God’s work while realistic about human effort. He is well aware of his forebear Blumhardt, who was really idealistic then crushed when WWI showed what humanity is really like.

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