Cultural Idols and the Church

Cultural Idols and the Church September 28, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 7.28.53 PMBlindness is the problem and it leads to complicity in culture in ways the degrade the gospel and the church. We need the frigid splash of water in the face of what the Bible actually says at times — about all kinds of topics — if we want to be enlightened out of the blindness so that our complicities in culture are snapped. Brian Harris, in his fine new book, The Big Picture: Building Blocks of a Christian World View, examines our complicities in our cultures.

To foster conversation about our relationship to culture, Brian examines the classic typology of H. Richard (not Reinhold) Niebuhr (but Reinhold’s brother). Here are the five:

1. Christ against culture, where the sacred and profane are seen in opposition to each other.
2. Christ of culture, where the sacred is discovered in culture, the danger being that the sacred and profane merge, so that in the end a genuine awareness of the sacred is lost.
3. Christ above culture notes that some compartmentalize the sacred and the profane. Christ is for the churchly sphere, culture for the realm of business.
4. Christ and culture in paradox acknowledges the corrupt nature of culture, but recognizes that it is our embedding context from which we cannot be removed.
5. Christ the transformer of culture proposes that all is permeated by the immanent presence of God in the world, and that rather than reject or assimilate to our culture, we should work to transform it.

In my Kingdom Conspiracy I contended that our church-culture milieu in the USA is trapped in #5, largely unaware of it, and so locked into it that one thinks “transformation” of culture/world is itself the kingdom. Harris is pushing us to see that these five types only get the conversation going and that we need to see once again that culture can be both friend and foe and we must discern the difference. I would contend at this point the need once again to affirm the Bible’s warnings about “world” and not thinking that everything in the world is “culture.” (I move on.)

We discern only by rethinking what our culture values so much — so much they can be called idols. Here are some cultural idols that have been at work in the 2000 years of church history:

Idol 1: The quest for power, by military means if necessary

“At the Massacre of Verden in 782, Charlemagne had 4,500 Saxons killed when they rebelled against their enforced conversion from Germanic paganism to Roman Catholicism. We could also consider the abuses of the Crusades or the torture administered during the Spanish Inquisition. Each is a sobering reminder that it can be a very small step from being a power holder to a power abuser, and that the justification for the abuse of power is often given in the name of God” (56).

Idol 2: The quest for the quiet, ordered life, rather than the just life

“My own experience of growing up in apartheid South Africa provides evidence that this idol might not be restricted to the churches long distant past. The warm, passionately pious Baptist church I attended was deeply divided about how to respond to the evil of apartheid. Many did not believe it was an evil – others saw more clearly. For those who did see the evil before them, there was an additional dilemma. On far more occasions than I care to remember the opening verses of Romans 13 were unpacked to us. Verse 1 tells us to submit to the governing authorities while verse 2 instructs ‘whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted’ (NIV 2011). So what were we to do in the light of the tyranny that confronted us? The guidance from the pulpit was ‘do nothing’ – for we were to submit to what God had instituted” (56-57).

Idol 3: Money — he points at materialism and consumerism.

Idol 4: Sex — he observes that the kingdom will be a “sex free zone” (59), relativizing sex, leading to this:

“Those who are scandalized that Christians could contemplate the validity of gay sexual relationships don’t question whether they are attaching too much importance to sex – is it really so important, if sex is one of those things that will pass away? Likewise those who consider it an outrageous injustice to deny gay people a context in which to express their sexual orientation also fail to question if they are attaching too much importance to sex. Again, if sex is one of those things that will pass away, is it really unthinkable to suggest that it is more appropriate for some to remain sexually inactive? If this is hard to read, ask if it is not because in our sexually obsessed society we have accepted the myth that sex is life’s greatest joy. If we believe it is, we are bowing the knee to one of the idols of our age” (60).

Idol 5: Power — instead of pointing at the medieval complicity in powers of the state, he points to leadership issues:

“Graham Hill has insightfully suggested that it is more biblical to think in terms of servantship than leadership and has called for ‘four movements of radical servantship’. These are the movement from:
• leadership to outwardly focused servantship
• shallowness to dynamic theological reflection
• theories to courageous practices
• forgetfulness to transforming memory” (61).

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