Friday, July 21, 2017

Christianity and Culture Part 1: Asking the Right Questions

Part 1: Culture Versus Culture: Asking the Right Questions

I have been contemplating writing this post for some time, but was sparked by a mention by my former pastor of Christ and Culture by H. Richard Nieibuhr, a book written back in the 1950s that discussed potential ways of viewing Christianity and culture. I did a bit of reading to have an idea of what Niebuhr said, and appreciated that he discussed the basic approaches. (Also, his brother Reinhold had a lot of interesting things to say about Christianity and ethics.) Having grown up in subcultures (homeschooling and Gothardism) which had elements of both the isolationist and dominionist views, I think an understanding of how these two particular views of culture have come to politically dominate both Evangelicalism and the GOP is helpful.

But I think that talking about our approach to culture - really, our approach to the highly political Culture Wars™ - is premature, because we haven’t really thought through the threshold question:

When we talk about Christianity and Culture, how do we even tell when they are truly opposed?

I believe this is a great a problem as our approach to cultural clashes - probably greater - because how we pick our battles is every bit as important as how we fight them.

To start with, I think we need a couple of definitions:

  1. What is “Culture”?

While culture can be a bit slippery to define, I tend to like anthropologist E. B. Tylor’s definition: “[T]hat complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

This seems to be fairly comprehensive, yet helpful. The reason that I think we need to define culture more carefully is that it is all too easy to think of culture in terms of “us versus them,” or “people like us are good while people like them are bad,” which is not just unhelpful, it gets tribalist and racist really quickly. It also in practice tends to lead to the idea that people who share certain specific cultural beliefs with us are “Christian,” while those who do not are “hostile culture,” whether or not those cultural differences have any real nexus to religious beliefs. Here in the United States (and throughout the West to a degree), this means that specifically American cultural beliefs and preferences can take on the weight of religious dogma.

Instead, I think focusing on the specific things which make up culture, we can better analyze whether a particular cultural belief, art, moral, law, custom, or knowledge we are talking about, and better analyze whether our perceived conflict with Christianity is really a conflict, or if we are really dealing with a conflict between cultural preferences.

  1. What is “Christianity”?

This one is equally vital, because how we define the essence of our faith will often determine how we view conflicts with it. As a great example of this, the religious establishment in the Gospels viewed Christ himself as an existential threat to their religion. As I will discuss later in this post and series, this is because Christ was a threat to their culture, and threatened to - and did - divorce true religion from their cherished cultural preferences.

I would start with this: Christianity, whatever it has been in practice, should be, in theory, following Christ. Following His teachings, his commands, his values.

Taking these premises to the logical conclusion, we should only have a true “Christianity versus Culture” conflict when the teachings, commands, and values of Christ conflict with the beliefs, morals, laws, customs, habits, and so on, of the culture.

I bring this up in significant part because of my own upbringing. My parents were both Missionary Kids, born and raised overseas. My dad grew up in the Philippines, while my mom grew up in Mexico. Their experiences were different than most other Americans their age. My dad in particular impressed on me from an early age that Christianity often looks very different in different cultures, and that American culture was not synonymous with Christianity. Americanism and Colonialism in particular were problematic because they elevated cultural preferences and the exercise of power over others to the level of religious faith, and were thus idolatry.

In light of this, I believe that a significant portion of the Culture Wars™ are not really about the opposition of the teachings of Christ to the culture, but about warring cultural preferences which have been elevated to the level of idolatry. When Evangelicals in particular talk about the Culture War, more often than not, they are not really defending the teachings of Christ - and often are doing the opposite.

The sad thing is that there are two poisonous results from this failure to carefully think through this issue: first, we tend to pick battles that are about culture versus culture rather than Christ versus culture. Second, we very often fail to identify those cases where the teachings of Christ truly do conflict with culture, and thus cling to and embrace the culture instead of Christ.

Here is how I see these play out:

  1. Culture versus Culture

There are three major conflicts which represent the real clash of the Culture Wars™ - and they are related. Different, but intimately connected.

Let me start by mentioning this fact: The United States is 80 percent Christian. We ARE the culture. So the idea of the dominant culture of the United States being opposed to Christianity as it exists in America is self-contradictory. The conflict must therefore be in significant part between Christians and between different Christian cultures. While there are exceptions, the Cultural Warriors - and particularly their organizations - are overwhelmingly white, middle class, and Republican. This is only one slice of Christianity in America, obviously. (For Evangelicals - particularly white middle class Evangelicals - they and they alone have theological and cultural truth, so that colors this conflict.) Thus, the Culture Wars™ owe a great deal to demographically driven cultural preferences far more than doctrine. A good proof of this can be seen that among American Christians who share most of the same core doctrines, beliefs about culture and politics break down largely on racial and class lines. Which means, if you think about it, that these beliefs must be primarily cultural rather than doctrinal.

Here are the three cultural conflicts I see that are really Culture versus Culture, rather than Christ versus Culture.

  1. Culture of the Past versus Culture of the Present

This is, of course, merely a modern manifestation of a profoundly human tendency well in evidence by the time of Aristotle nearly 2500 years ago. The “good old days” were better, society is going to hell, the young people are horrible, and so on. It has been well documented throughout human history. Perhaps it would be just an irritating facet of human existence but for one thing: The past is worshiped as if it were divine.

I have far too much experience with this because of my involvement in the Dominionist/Separatist movements of fundamentalism. (A good place to start is in my post on Cultural Fundamentalism.)

The institutions, power structures, and indeed the very injustices of the past are believed to be True Christianity™ and thus all ways that the present differs from the past are to be considered departures from true religion, and cultural war is necessary to return us to the halcyon days of utopia.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the war that organizations from Focus on the Family to Bill Gothard’s cult have waged on women who work outside the home. (My wife works outside the home, and has experienced much needless disdain from people in our life as a result.)

But it isn’t just that. The music of the past versus the present. Clothing styles of the past versus the present. Smart phones versus newspapers. Archaic slang versus modern slang. The never ending barrage of articles dissing Millennials. And so on.

Keeping in mind the above definition of “culture,” it becomes evident that most of this is a clash of cultures. Past culture versus present culture.

I hope to discuss what I believe is the theological source of this clash in a future post.

  1. White Evangelical Churchianity versus other Cultures

Again, this is connected. It is a white Evangelical culture of the past (such as the 1950s or 1850s depending on your preference) versus modern non-white, non-Evangelical cultures. You can see this both in the hostility toward “ghetto culture” or Latino cultures, but also in the specifically “churchy” parts of the culture.

Just one little example is the use of vulgarity. After all, Saint Paul and Isaiah both engaged in some pretty “earthy” language to make a point. They were not above using the Hebrew or Greek for piss and shit when it heightened the idea they were presenting. But particularly for my grandparents’ generation, this was horrible of horribles. In contrast, my grandparents’ generation sure seemed to throw around racial epithets without embarrassment. The taboo words have changed, and the change is viewed by many as culture triumphing over Christianity. But is it really more “Christian” to refer disdainfully to n-----rs than it is to drop an “Oh shit!”? Perhaps this was just a cultural difference.

I have found that when pressed, most Evangelicals will list, alongside the usual sexual bogeymen, a litany of supposed “evil” in the culture, which are really, if you look at Tylor’s definition, cultural differences. Cultural preferences. And if you press as to which of Christ’s commands are being violated, you usually don’t get anything of substance back.

It’s Churchianity, not Christ, that conflicts with culture. And it is, more than anything else, in those ways in which white culture conflicts with non-white cultures, and where middle class culture conflicts with lower class culture that there is the most conflict.

As before, this conflict is revealed in the fact that white middle-class evangelical culture and politics tend to resemble non-religious white middle class culture and politics than it does the culture of non-white, lower class culture and politics.

  1. Republicanity versus Culture

I can’t remember exactly where I ran across this word, but it is so useful. Republicanity is the religion that many Evangelicals truly exercise, not Christianity in the sense of Christ and his commandments. That is why, as the GOP has shifted dramatically to the right, and embraced Social Darwinism, you see more and more Evangelicals giving preference to the teachings of the atheist Ayn Rand over the teachings of Jesus Christ. When the two conflict, Rand wins every time.

You can also see it in the fact that multiple leaders switched completely on whether adultery and sexual assault were a deal breaker - and the difference was whether there was an (R) or a (D) after the name.

This is why a local church in my city held a mourning service after President Obama was elected. And why so many Evangelicals celebrated a GOP victory this November despite (or perhaps because of) the damage that is likely to occur to many vulnerable people as a result.

This is why the main thrust of the culture wars is political.

As I said earlier, these three are all related, and they stem from the same basic belief: “Christianity” is synonymous with a certain white, middle class, Evangelical culture of the past and its political beliefs and affiliations, and its cultural preferences and signifiers.

  1. Where Christ truly does conflict with culture

This is the truly tragic part of the equation. At its root, Christianity has to be about a certain idea which Christ himself summed up all of the law and the prophets: “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.”

Christ, in his teachings and ministry exemplified this precept, and it is what brought him into conflict with the religious establishment.

All of the cultural trappings - including the Mosaic Code - were swept away. Cultural and racial identity, gender and social hierarchies - all were upended in the Upside Down Kingdom. Christ himself said that our future judgment would depend, not on our cultural affiliation, our rituals and taboos, or even the specifics of our beliefs, but on what we did for the least of these - because that was how we treated Christ.

This is a hard teaching, and it highlights the real areas where Christ conflicts with our modern culture.

A full treatment of this is beyond the scope of this post, but let me hit a few highlights. Our American culture worships celebrity. And yet, Evangelicals worship celebrity every bit as much, as every mega-church pastor and his latest best seller demonstrates. (To say nothing of this last election, the perfect example of substance-free celebrity attracting worship.)

Our culture worships money and power. And so do we. Look at any Evangelical church board, and you won’t see much of any representation from those in the congregation in the bottom 20 percent of income. This has been true of EVERY church board at EVERY church I have ever attended. It occurs to me that this reveals a fundamental view of the church as a business rather than a ministry.

Our culture - particularly the dominant race - is hostile to immigrants, unwilling to grant to others what our own ancestors got. This is contrary not just to the teaching of Christ, but to the commands in the Mosaic Code and the teachings of the prophets. 

Our culture equates wealth with virtue and poverty with vice. And so do we, even those of us who do not officially believe the Prosperity Gospel or Social Darwinism. Christ taught the opposite.

Our American culture has had a longstanding problem with racism and white supremacy. We have considered non-whites - and blacks in particular - to be subhuman, inherently violent, less intelligent, and undeserving of full access to society. And so does American white Evangelicalism. One thing this election did was reveal just how many people I know are deeply racist. It isn’t from my atheist friends that I hear dehumanizing of minorities. It isn’t from them that I find re-posts from hate groups and openly white supremacist individuals (like Milo Yiannopoulos). It isn’t from my atheist friends that I find dismissal of Black Lives Matter as a phony media creation. No, it comes from my Evangelical friends and family. Every. Single. Time. And those of us who do push back against this problem in our culture are told to tone it down so we don’t offend fellow (white, middle class) Christians.

Again, this is just a small sample, and I haven’t fleshed it out. But suffice it to say that the attitudes and actions of our American culture very often conflict with the teachings of Christ in these ways, and yet the Culture Wars™, where they take a position, tend to side with culture against Christ.


Note: I use the (™) intentionally. The Culture Wars™ are a tremendous money machine, supporting numerous multi-million dollar organizations whose purpose is to wield political power in favor of one political party. The religious right was founded for the express purpose of perpetuating segregation  and guaranteeing the votes of white evangelicals to the GOP. A tactical decision was made a few years later to pivot to legislating sexual behavior as the focus. Make no mistake, however, this is all about the money and all about the political power.


Just one great example of where the white middle-to-upper class past culture is assumed to be synonymous with Christianity, check out this interesting article from The Federalist. When one is talking about withdrawing from modern society for religious reasons, then shift to a vision of reading old books by white males as part of that, well, you may not be distinguishing between the two very well…

Update May 18, 2018: Hey, guess what, Rob Dreher (cited above) had a nice little Kinsley Gaffe recently. He openly revealed that his desire to withdraw from modern society (The Benedict Option) is indeed driven by a contempt for poor people. Who knew? 


One more bit on the definition of culture itself. Psychologist Abraham Maslow, best known for his “hierarchy of needs,” made the following observation:

It is too often not realized that culture itself is an adaptive tool, one of whose main functions is to make the physiological emergencies come less and less often.

This is a major reason why cultures change and differ. The circumstances change. The culture of the past is often a poor fit for modern circumstances. That’s why maintenance of Patriarchy requires the women be denied education - it might become obvious that they aren’t less intelligent than men. Likewise, tribalist thinking tends to lead to big wars - globalism is necessary in a world where we are no longer separated from the rest of humanity. Science, technology, better understandings of ethics and ourselves, all of these things change our circumstances, and culture changes along with them. The answer to how to live as a Christian in the actual world we inhabit isn’t “return to the past” but the application of ethical and genuinely Christian thought to a different world. As Mark Noll points out, that is the one thing Evangelicals have grown unable to do. It’s much more satisfying to either withdraw to a bubble, or to seek political power to force others to return to the past. (That’s pretty much the definition of the Culture Wars™.)


Also relevant in this discussion is my series on Dominionism. The Culture Wars(TM) exist because Evangelicalism has embraced Dominionism as its preferred approach to outsiders. 

Dominionism and Evangelicalism PART 1: It's All About The Power
Dominionism and Evangelicalism PART 2: The American Version of Dominionism
Dominionism and Evangelicalism PART 3: Presuppositionalism Has Poisoned Everything


  1. I wish you had a Twitter account. You and John Pavlovitz would be each other's greatest Twitter fans. Great blog, Tim.

  2. The conflation of cultural preferences with God's Way is a big deal, especially since everyone, on some level, understands that culture changes the expression of faith. Here's a little example that doesn't even hold across various denominational cultures in America: is smoking allowed, or not? If you're a Southern Baptist, as my SBC friends put it, "tobacco is what the deacons grow". But they frown heavily on ETOH consumption. In the north (also from my SBC friends) "ya'll are winebibbers" but smoking is looked on as being not just sinful (it's an addiction, you know) but stupid, and dare I say, low class.

    You can argue about the merits of conforming to your culture's view of how righteousness looks. You can't, in my perspective, really argue about whether it IS a culture. It's self-evident. And that's just looking within the super narrow confines of Baptist practice in North America.

    The bizarre thing is that the American "churchianity" culture is simultaneously trying to do a couple of things. First, they're trying to establish a counter-culture, complete with social signalling and communes and its own slang and so on. But they're *also* trying to take over the culture at large--or rather, retain their hold on it. It's a bit difficult to be counter-yourself, but it sure works wonders for establishing a sense of persecution in a country that is wondrously hands-off regarding religion. (I mean, in some places and times being a Christian can get your house burned down with you in it, but tell me again about how your boss is persecuting you by not allowing you to listen to KLOV at full volume at work.)

    The inability to clearly distinguish "this is a command of Christ" (love your neighbor, pray for enemies, go the second mile, care for the poor) from "this is the way my culture does things" (attend church on Sunday, male breadwinner, frugal financially, Republican politics) hamstrings your ability to rethink any aspect of culture that stops being helpful or is actively harmful. I have seen church attendance, male breadwinners, frugality, and Republicanism ALL drive people away from the Gospel.

    Finally, I really believe in judging a tree by its fruit. We've tried the current set of Churchianity culture norms in this country for about 150 years now. Would any rational person say that it has worked? Like, did Prohibition *really* help make the country a more moral place with fewer addictions? Did stricter modesty norms *really* prevent sexual assault or extramarital sex or whatever the heck it was supposed to prevent? Has the church's shock & awe campaign against abortion or LGBTQ rights *really* resulted in either fewer abortions or (...I'm not sure what the goal is re: LGBTQ people....more healthy cis-het marriages? fewer LGBTQ people out of the closet?)

    I doubt very much that the answer is to do Churchianity culture *harder*, especially since in my view it is pretty much a relic of the weird time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Depression when America was pretty sure that it could usher in Utopia if it found the right combination of communes, philosophy, dietary restrictions, Better Living Through Science/Eugenics, The Simple Life, and specialized education. That was culture too, and the church bought it, and sooner or later it will have to admit it bought a dud.

  3. Great post. I look forward to reading part two (shortly). One interesting thing that I have noticed of late is how a lot of pastors (at least in the Episcopalian church) clamber for positions in churches in middle to upper class suburbs, and shun those in the lower class suburbs. I've attended upper-middle class churches most of my life and in many cases there seems to be a disconnect between the middle class and the lower classes. It's not that they have any concern for them, it is just that they seem to be encapsulated in a bubble and really don't understand what it means to be poor.

    However, over the last couple of years I went to a couple of suburban churches, and there certainly seemed to be a greater understanding of the working classes. Yet there was one significant catch - these churches tended to be more fundamentalist, and pretty anti-science. In fact I remember going to one church where a doctor was basically an anti-vaxer. Due to the fundamentalist nature of these churches, I've found myself drawn back, rather reluctantly, to some of the upper-middle class churches.