Rethinking the Stumbling Block: Christian Culture as a Barrier

Rethinking the Stumbling Block: Christian Culture as a Barrier August 27, 2009

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)

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