Slip Sliding Away: Culturally Accommodated “Christianity”
I recently posted here some thoughts about Christians and modesty. I expected disagreement and I got it. My purpose was to provoke thought about Christian norms. To what extent do we, American Christians especially, allow our Christianity to be shaped and re-shaped by contemporary American culture? Are we supposed to stand out rather than (just) fit in? To what extent? Whatever happened to the Christian norm of avoiding “worldliness?” Do we throw the baby out with the bathwater when we move away from perceived legalisms of the past and embrace the permissive standards of contemporary culture?
Let me offer an example from another culture. Years ago, when I was a doctoral student, studying religion, at a major American research university, I was entrusted with being a sort of mentor to an international student from a European country. I waited for him and his wife (so I thought) for hours at the international airport. I drove him and his “wife” to their rented apartment and showed them around the area—stores, banks, etc. The Religious Studies Department chairman had arranged for him to work part-time (I don’t know whether it was for pay or not) at a suburban Protestant church. He was, after all, already an ordained Protestant minister of the majority church in his home country. I soon discovered that the woman who accompanied him and lived with him was not his wife! They were not married and had no intention of getting married. And yet, he had for some years pastored a church in his European home country. I informed him that the people in this American church where he would serve might object to this living arrangement and he was puzzled. Why? He simply could not understand the problem. So far as I know the couple never did get married. They simply did not inform the American church about that. The church folks assumed they were married. In the United States she went by his last name or (I don’t recall which) they both hyphenated their last names. The question never came up. Had it come up, even in that relatively liberal Protestant congregation, there would have been trouble.
Some years later I had opportunity to visit the couple in their home country and city. He was pastoring a small town Protestant church. They were still not married. Unsurprisingly, to me, he told me that on many Sundays he went to his church prepared to lead worship and preach and nobody came.
Is this just a matter of cultural relativism? Is it right for a European Christian pastor to live with a woman not his wife—having sex with her? Apparently, from what he told me, that was no problem for the Christians in his part of Europe. Or was it, even though they did not say so? Maybe it was a problem for them even if they did not know it was. Was it part of a larger problem of “slip sliding away”—of the loss of Christian distinctiveness and accommodation to culture?
Now let me offer an illustration of the opposite approach to Christianity and culture. I am very well acquainted with an intentional Christian community that goes out of its way to not accommodate to contemporary American culture. They are Amish who drive cars and use cell phones. They do not have televisions, personal computers, stylish clothes, etc. The boys and men wear their hair short and the women wear their hair long (never cut). The boys and men do not wear shorts and the women wear only dresses or skirts—down to their ankles. I could go on. Yet, they are very familiar with world events (through reading), politics, and even theology! When I first met them in 2000 they had already read my The Story of Christian Theology! We discussed the theology of Jürgen Moltmann together. They use technology—up to a point—but avoid anything they think would be a corrupting influence on their children such as the internet. Needless to say, the young men and young women never are alone together until after the wedding. The first time they kiss is after the wedding. They “court” rather than date.
Which is right? Or perhaps the question is “Which is righter?”
This is, of course, the old issue raised by theologian H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic book Christ and Culture.
Sociologists of religion tell us that churches that thrive maintain a moderate degree of tension with the dominant culture around them. They stand out as different from “the world” without being cultic about it. Clearly the New Testament churches were expected by the apostles to be “in the world but not of it.” They were expected to not participate in certain routines and rituals and even customs and habits that most of their neighbors took for granted as normal and even right. With regard to pagan culture they were expected to stand out, not fit in.
What about today? Do Christian churches and organizations and institutions stand out or fit in with secular and pagan culture in America? Do we lead the way when it comes to love and service and resist the pressures of Social Darwinism? Do we lead the way in being chaste and modest and humble and resist the pressures of status, fame, aggrandizement, mastery-over, sexual promiscuity, near-nudity in public, conspicuous consumption, etc.? When and where should we take a stand in relation to secular and pagan culture and draw the line and say no to accommodation? That is always the challenge. In most of the churches I have known well—in my adult life–this question hardly ever even comes up.
Recently I overheard some members of my church (one I attended earlier than now) talking about a planned trip to Las Vegas—a “girls only” trip to gamble and attend “shows.” They were all married women in their thirties. They were all members of the church in good standing. The church was not long ago evangelical in its ethos. Without judging them I ask myself (and now you) “Is this okay for committed Christians?” I know it wasn’t a few decades ago. Some may have done it, but if so they did so secretly without discussing it together in the church foyer!
Where are we headed as moderate, non-fundamentalist, American evangelical Christians? Are we slip-sliding away from anything recognizable as Christianity in terms of doctrine and behavior? I know a deacon in that same church who does not believe in the incarnation of God in Christ, the deity of Jesus Christ. I don’t know how many know that about him, but I don’t think it’s a secret and his talk and walk point in that direction. All these people are very nice, good Christian people. But are they, are we all, slip sliding away into something that is more cultural than Christian? I ask that of myself all the time. What do I do that is more cultural than authentically Christian? Do I watch movies and television programs that are harmful to my relationship with God? Possibly. I wish I had an accountability group to talk with about that—fellow believers who share my concern to stand out rather than fit in.
I have lived and worked in the “thick” of American evangelical Christianity for most of my life. I grew up in it. I have taught religion and theology at three Christian universities. I edited a major scholarly journal devoted to the integration of faith and learning and culture. I have contributed to Christianity Today as well as to Christian Century and have “hung around” all kinds of Christians in heavy on conversations, dialogues, for decades. I am probably about as well informed about these issues as anyone—at least from personal participation and observation.
I can testify to this: What we call moderate (non-fundamentalist) American evangelical Christianity is not what it was decades ago. Let me illustrate.
I have in my home library four volumes of bound issues of a leading American evangelical magazine called Eternity. It went out of publication many years ago, but during the 1960s and 1970s it was widely read and very influential. It published articles on many subjects ranging from church music to sex to missions to pastoral ministry to theology to … you name it. It ranged far and wide in terms of the kinds of things it published article about. And most of the articles were by then-leading evangelical authors. It was not noted for being fundamentalist; it was a voice of then moderate evangelical Christianity in America. When I go back and thumb through those issues one thing I see clearly is a conservative ethos with regard to secular culture’s seductions. But it was not reactionary. There are articles in those issues (1970s) about homosexuality that urged compassion and even inclusion of homosexuals among Christians, but drawing the line at affirming the “gay lifestyle.” There are articles about contemporary Christian music as well as secular music—pro- and con-. But overall and in general the magazine’s editorial stance is recognizable as Christ and culture in tension. Christians should be cautious about adopting the mores and norms of secular and pagan American culture.
Outside of fundamentalist circles (which I do not participate in), I do not hear or read that kind of overt exhortation to caution among American evangelical Christians. I suspect we are so afraid of being thought of as fanatics, fundamentalists, old-fashioned “church lady” type people that we avoid that subject altogether. What I frequently hear is that how a Christian lives his or her life is between them and God and it is nobody else’s business. I have not seen a church covenant in many years. I don’t know if they even exist outside of fundamentalist circles.
Slip sliding away? I think so—at least when it comes to moderate church life, even moderately evangelical church life—and individual Christian living. A “girls only trip” to Las Vegas for gambling and attending “the shows?” There are certainly worse things (depending I suppose on which shows), but I remember a time when even the most moderate evangelical churches would have been shocked by that—happening openly among its members.
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