Archives For culture

The Gospel, Christians and Culture

Greg Strand – February 6, 2015 Leave a comment

One of the significant discussion and pressure points for Evangelicals is how we understand and engage in culture. In a previous day, Fundamentalists separated from it, while Liberals (speaking theologically) accommodated to it.

The gospel creates a new person (Jn. 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:14-16) who becomes part of a new community (Matt. 16:18), an eschatological, end-time community that exists now in the present time through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. This community manifests a gospel grounded, formed and framed culture that influences and impacts the world around them. Although Christians are in the world, they are not of the world (Jn. 17) which means they are not squeezed into its mold (Rom. 12:1-2). Rather, having been transformed by the gospel (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 12:2; Phil. 3:21) they influence and impact the culture.

Harold Netland, Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Intercultural Studies at TEDS, and a former ReachGlobal missionary to Japan, and Gerald R. McDermott, Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion, Roanoke College, were interviewed about their recently co-authored book, A Trinitarian Theology of Religions: An Evangelical Proposal. There is much to glean in the interview, and even more in the book. However, there was one response that was an excellent reminder about Christians and culture, and how we are to understand the gospel and its relation to culture.

Netland and McDermott write, “While the gospel can be expressed in any culture, it also judges every culture.” In response to the question “Why is it important to recognize both these truths?,” they replied,

Scholars like Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh have drawn attention to the “translatability” of the Christian gospel into diverse cultural settings. Walls speaks of the “indigenizing principle,” which reflects the fact that all Christians (including those within the first-century New Testament church) are embedded within particular historical, linguistic, and cultural settings. God encounters people within these contexts. Thus, the gospel of Jesus Christ can become “at home” within any particular linguistic or cultural setting. Unlike the relationship between Arabic and Islam, there is no single “Christian language” or “Christian culture.”

But the indigenizing principle must be balanced with what Walls calls the “pilgrim principle.” While the gospel can be authentically expressed within any cultural setting, it cannot simply be identified with any culture. The gospel of Jesus Christ transcends and challenges all cultures, reminding believers that they are not to be completely at home in any earthly culture. In this sense it also judges every culture.

A few questions to ponder:

  • What do you find helpful about remembering the two aspects of culture – the “indigenizing principle” and the “pilgrim principle”?
  • What happens if we focus on the “indigenizing principle” and neglect the “pilgrim principle”? Or what happens if we focus on the “pilgrim principle” and neglect the “indigenizing principle”?
  • How has this played out among Evangelicals in our present-day discussion and understanding culture and cultural engagement?

The impact of the changing cultural scene has caused us as Christians to ponder the gospel afresh. This is a good thing. But it also has challenges. With these incredible changes there are often two responses. On the one hand, there is a temptation to separate from and form holy huddles of protection from the culture and those makers of the contemporary, secular culture. On the other hand, there is the temptation to accommodate, to update biblical truth, to become progressive in our understanding of doctrine.

As a parallel historical referent, consider the speech that launched the Crusades, which most conclude today was a failure: “The Speech that Launched the Crusades.”

On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II delivered the speech that launched the Crusades. According to Dan Doriani, some call it the most influential speech in human history. Everyone today agrees that the Crusades were a disaster. So is there any point in revisiting them?

Yes, states Doriani, because the case for the Crusades was so well-suited to the culture that almost every major Christian leader of the age fervently endorsed them. How did this happen? Why did most agree with Urban when most everyone today looks  back at the Crusades and see how wrong it was and conclude it was a failed attempt at Christianity and how to be in the world but not of the world. According to Doriani,

Every theme of Urban’s speech resonated with his listeners: pilgrimage, honor, land, brotherhood, knights of Christ, and remission of sin. Urban’s speech had unprecedented effect because it combined familiar and widely accepted themes, in a fresh way, for an exalted cause. . . . The answer is that he and his contemporaries baptized notions from their culture that are alien to Scripture: pilgrimage, the need to forcibly avenge affronts to the clan’s honor, the idea that works of penance are instrumental to salvation.

This raises important questions for Evangelicals. What elements of contemporary Christian culture are we imbibing and baptizing for a spiritual effect? What of that former culture are we attempting to salvage or recreate thinking it is biblical with no cultural accoutrements? What are at odds with the Word and character of God? How do we create another gospel which is no gospel (Gal. 1:6-9)?




Christmas and Culture

Greg Strand – December 20, 2013 Leave a comment

One of the Scripture texts we read in our family devotions this past week was Luke 2:1-20. After we finished reading this text and praying, we watched the pertinent clip in Charles’ Schulz’ A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Prior to this clip, Charlie Brown had become exasperated by all of the consumerism and materialism associated with Christmas. It all had become so artificial, so far removed from the foundational truth associated with the season. In confusing despair Charlie Brown cries, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Linus responds, “Sure, Charlie Brown. I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” He then moves to center stage and recites the biblical record of the historical account of Jesus’ birth: Luke 2:8-14 (KJV). When finished he returns to Charlie Brown and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

This is one of my favorite clips from a Christmas program. This is truly what Christmas is all about: the birth of Jesus Christ.

This show first aired on December 9, 1965. The success of the special was by no means assured. Even then there were questions and concerns about things so explicitly religious, and even more so regarding the propagation of one specific religion, Christianity. Remember, this was the mid-1960s. Since that initial showing this show has become a classic evidenced by the fact that it has been shown every year since.

John Murdock writes about A Charlie Brown Christmas and Charles Schulz in Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown:

During these days there were huge shifts happening both personally and culturally. Schulz’ was also affected struggling with his own spiritual life and passing it on to his children. In a sense, that which Charlie Brown bemoans in the story is what everything about Charles Schulz’ Peanuts gang creation became (think of the marketing and sales of Peanuts characters), including Schulz himself.

In contrast to this classic, Murdock refers to one of the more recently produced Christmas programs, Shrek’s Christmas, and concludes, appropriately, the following:

In the most recently produced Christmas cartoon demonstrating some TV shelf-life, another round-headed, socially awkward character looks for the true meaning of Christmas. However, for 2007’s Shrek the Halls, “the Christmas story” turns out to be ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, and the closest it comes to religion is a Hallelujah chorus sung to a massive image of Santa. In its finale, the now festively enlightened green ogre proclaims, “A smelly Christmas to all, and to all a gross night.” For my part, give me Linus, the second chapter of Luke, and the Peanuts gang singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” for another fifty years, please.

The lessons:

  • Culture changes, and it continues to do so at a rapid speed such that it is antagonistic to Christianity (is this becoming like the early church? Remember, in the providence of God the church grew in the midst of such a climate).
  • We can often write and speak better than we live.
  • God’s Word is and remains true.
  • Christmas is about Christ, who is life and light, our salvation.


For more on Christian Faithfulness in a Changing Culture, attend the 2014 EFCA Theology Conference, January 22 – 24, Leawood, KS.



How Society Changes

Greg Strand – May 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Most know, feel and experience the reality of our culture and society changing. But how does it change? How do values and mores shift and change and become embedded in the culture and codified in law/policy?

Recently Joe Carter writes about “How to change a society in 5 easy steps.”  He focuses on the incredible changes that have occurred over the past years, and the fact that they are happening with increasing speed. We are living in a day in which we are experiencing a moral tsunami which does not abate, and, to shift the metaphor, the speed with which the moral dominoes are falling is increasing.

Carter refers to the Overton Window, which was developed by the late Joseph P. Overton in the 1990s. Overton addresses a “‘window’ in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse.” Within this window is a spectrum of responses to a specific issue, and all issues of response will fall somewhere on a continuum. He also argues that responses will change incrementally. As noted by Carter, “All issues fall somewhere along this policy continuum, which can be roughly outlined as: Unthinkable, Radical, Acceptable, Sensible, Popular, Policy. When the window moves or expands, ideas can accordingly become more or less politically acceptable.”

Though Overton’s model addressed changes in the political climate, Carter applies it to the changes occurring in our culture and society. In essence, “if the goal were to undermine cultural institutions, the process for getting from Unthinkable to Policy would be these five easy steps” (I only include the steps):

Step #1: From Unthinkable to Radical
Step #2: From Radical to Acceptable
Step #3: From Acceptable to Sensible
Step #4: From Sensible to Popular
Step #5: From Popular to Policy

Carter applies this to the moral issues of abortion, no-fault divorce and same-sex “marriage.” It would be fitting to many of the other moral issues of the day as well, especially as they intersect with the heart of what people think and how they engage in life and culture. This would often be described not as “taking action” but rather “deliberate inaction.” It is not that Christians don’t have moral scruples. It is just that they remain quiet, silent or inactive in response to the strong culture conformist ethos.

Carter bemoans the fact that:

America has produced an overwhelming number of Christians who are adept at explaining why they can support issues that are antithetical to Christianity and depressingly few who can give reasons why we should adhere to the teachings of scripture and the wisdom of the church.

Once a moral issue has moved from Unthinkable to Policy, is there any possibility of reversing it?

History has shown that dedicated Christians can close the Overton Window and reverse the shift from ‘policy’ to ‘unthinkable’ (look at William Wilberforce). But it requires a people who have courage and conviction and a willingness to be despised for the truth. Do current generations have such virtues? Maybe we don’t. But I’m holding out hope that our grandkids will be born that way.

Undergirding it all, we, as Christians, pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10)!

Our next year’s EFCA Theology Conference, January 22-24, 2014, will address the theme “Christian Faithfulness in a Changing Culture”. It will be hosted by Christ Community Church in Leawood, KS.

We live in a postmodern, post-Christian day, which we have known for some time. For most this statement has been made intellectually. With the moral and cultural sea-changes, and the speed with which they are happening, parallel with a moral tsunami, many are for the first time beginning to feel and experience palpably some of the implications of what we have for many years only known abstractly or experienced vicariously.

These shifts require a different way of thinking, engaging, and speaking, without compromising the Word of God or Christian faithfulness.

We hope to include various topics addressed from a biblical, theological, historical and pastoral perspective:

  • Church History: we are today more like the early church than we have been since the days Constantine made Christianity legal in 313.
  • Church: what it means for the church to be missional, in the sense that its primary nature is missional, by virtue of its very being (1 Pet. 2:9-10).
  • Bible: there are significant questions pertaining to the inerrancy of the Bible, and to hermeneutics, both critical issues for us who affirm the ultimate authority of the Word of God.
  • Kingdom: this is a significant debate with numerous questions about what the kingdom means and how it is ushered in and its relation to the church, and how Christians ought to engage in culture and what Christians can expect of culture, among many other related matters.
  • Culture: though Christian fumes remain, and though we were never a Christian nation, we were a nation that was strongly influenced by Christian principles, but that has and continues to change drastically and rapidly, and the “intolerance of tolerance” is one of the key marks of this culture. During these changes, the twin temptations are to move in an accommodationist (liberal) or a separatist direction.
  • Contextual Theology: this is driving a lot of theologizing that is being done today, which often results in the culture being the lens through which the biblical text is interpreted rather than the other way around, which leads to biblical revisionism and liberal theology.
  • Religious Freedom:  this is narrowing more and more, and the focus is on freedom of worship and freedom from religion, not freedom of religion, and this has profound implications on Christians living in the world but not being of the world.
  • Persecution: Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world, and though it includes death in some Islamic countries, it also refers to other kinds and forms of persecution. But rather than engage in a victim mentality, which Evangelicals are prone to do, we must know that this is the precise manner and context in which the gospel transforms, seasons with salt, illumines with light, etc.

In sum, we need to figure out how to live the Christian life with faithfulness in a post-Christian day.

I have considered doing a pre-conference on Trinitarian Theology. This is an important issue for Evangelicals to know and understand, as there are many changes taking place in Trinitarian theology, and not all are good!