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  • Dr. Vern Charette

CHRIST & CULTURE: ENGAGING THE CULTURE FOR THE GOSPEL

Sometimes one feels like Odysseus in “The Odyssey” as he tried to navigate his ship through the Strait of Messina. On one side he had a six-headed monster called Scylla; on the other a massive whirlpool named Charybdis. Both nautical paths would prove to be a disaster of some kind. If only there was some strait between to avoid the seemingly impossible situation that he found himself.


The strait that we in the 21st century is increasingly finding more and more difficult to navigate successfully is the strait of culture. The Judeo-Christian worldview that was once generally accepted, then tolerated, is now under assault. Those of us who hold a high view of Scripture believe in absolute truth and adhere to a moral and ethical standard derived from the Bible are considered more than just old-fashioned. We are now considered mentally ill, enemies of progress, even evil.


We are not, however, the first generation to wrestle with a hostile culture. Seventy years ago, a seminal book was written by Richard Niebuhr titled “Christ & Culture.” The book was intended to be a contribution to ethics but has come to be regarded as the standard for any discussion on how the Christian faith relates to the culture. Niebuhr shows Christians historically have taken differing positions on how to relate to the culture in which they lived.


One way is the Scylla called “Christ Against Culture.” Niebuhr describes these Christians as those who view culture as evil and are against culture in the sense that they seek to separate themselves totally from it. These are sects that have moved through the years to monasteries or set themselves apart from culture. I call this a Scylla because this separatist mentality runs contrary to the cultural mandate found in passages like Matt. 5:13-16. The church cannot respond by gathering in holy huddles and trying to simply hold the fort until Jesus comes.


Another way is the Charybdis called “Christ of Culture.” Niebuhr describes these Christians as those who view culture positively and are of culture in the sense that they not only accept it but seek to participate with it. These Christians do not see their faith in conflict with cultural trends. These are going to be represented by what is often referred to as liberal Christianity. These are Christians who openly accept the modern cultural views of gender identity, sexuality, and abortion, just to name of few.


Though this Christianity might be easier to hold within the culture, I call it a Charybdis because it is a blatant rejection of Biblical revelation. Sometimes it is claimed that this is done in the name of love, but it is most certainly an unbiblical love if it is void of truth.


The safe path for us to seek to travel is called “Christ Transforming Culture.” Niebuhr describes these Christians as those who understand the tension of living in a world that contains many accepted cultural norms that are contrary to the Kingdom of God. At the same time, this Christian does not seek to abandon culture or accept it but rather seeks to penetrate and engage it with the Good News of the Gospel. It is not the easiest path, but it is the Biblical one.


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