beyond outrage . . . a call for a theology of culture

Two recent posts are offered on the approach fundamentalism needs to be taking in the 21st century. The first is outrage is easy, the second is outrage is easy . . . or is it?

My arguments in outrage is easy . . . or is it? fall along what I consider to be traditional fundamentalist argumentation in the last half of the 20th century, i.e., an opposition to compromised associations. I think the argumentation is valid, yet the argumentation fails if the issues over which I object are inconsequential.

Let me try to illustrate [I know that I am often guilty of obtuse language]: Person A engages in practices/preaching that the Fundamentalist shuns and proclaims wrong. Person B does not engage in those practices/preaching but is willing to overlook these matters and joins with Person A in cooperative religious efforts. The Fundamentalist, according to my argumentation, shuns Person B because his association with Person A constitute a violation of clear commands of Scripture to ‘touch not the unclean thing’.

If the practices/preaching of Person A are not, in fact, wrong, then the Fundamentalist is wrong in shunning either one.

Regardless of any other factors, this is the crux of argument against compromised associations. The shunned preaching or practices must be sufficiently antagonistic to the cause of Christ to warrant the shunning [to whatever degree the shunning takes place].

I say ‘sufficiently’ because we are all fallible men and we tend to want to give others the benefit of the doubt to some extent – or at least, we ought to. I say ‘to whatever degree’ because there are what some call ‘degrees’ of separation. It is not my purpose to agonize over such degrees here. I am simply looking at the essential argument as I made it in the earlier post.

It seems to me that the issues we most argue about today in the shunning/separation/fellowship debates is largely culturally focused. Whether it be the culture of music, motion pictures, dress, the use of alcohol, or any other issue you care to name, the argumentation is largely focused on culture. Some say the problem is simply a matter of taste. In the area of music, the ‘good old hymns’ of broad fundamentalism are nothing more than the popular music of the late 19th to early 20th century. Some might add that culture is not theological, no doctrines are at stake, your criticism is nothing but Pharisaism, etc.

In this article, I am going to contend that the challenge to orthodoxy we face today is a much more subtle attack on orthodoxy than we have faced heretofore.

Historical development of theology

A cursory survey of the history of doctrine shows that at various stages in church history, different doctrines came to prominence at different points in time as unbelief constantly challenged the church. Early on, doctrines concerning God, the Trinity, the person of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and so on faced challenge and resulted in consequent statements of doctrine by the orthodox believers of the time. Other doctrines were fleshed out later in response to other errors and challenges to orthodoxy.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the whole scope of Christian doctrine came under attack in what is called the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. The challenge of the day was primarily theological.

In the middle of the twentieth century, a different challenge attacked orthodoxy. New evangelicalism was a more subtle challenge. It wasn’t theological but philosophical. Orthodoxy had concluded based on theological error that men must be excluded, or, failing that, the orthodox would have to exclude themselves. The new philosophy led men to include those in theological error for various motives: the opportunity to preach the gospel, a wider audience for an orthodox message, increased prestige for orthodox scholarship and so on. The challenge of that day was primarily philosophical.

The old battles are over

The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy has ended. The lines of demarcation are well established. Orthodoxy is one thing, modernism and error quite another.

New evangelicalism launched a new battle. That battle, too, is largely over. Battles were fought, decisions made, and the fundamentalist position is clearly distinct from the broader evangelical position. Some dispute this, declaring that fundamentalism is too difficult to define. Evangelicals, especially including the ‘conservative evangelicals’ don’t have a great deal of difficulty with definitions. They know what fundamentalism is and that they are not it. The battles over theology and philosophy are largely over. Orthodoxy is no longer really challenged here, except in the wavering of some nervous or defecting fundamentalists.

There is, however, a current battle. The current battle is, as I mention above, the battle over culture. Some younger fundamentalists (and the conservative evangelicals) seem to be articulating a position that only battles over theology are legitimate, no one can do battle over non-theological matters such as music, alcohol, dancing, and the like. As long as doctrine is ok (especially if the doctrine is Reformed), no criticism is allowed. But culture, as a neutral object, or at least as an insignificant object, must not become the focus of division.

But is this challenge non-theological?

An illustration

In thinking about this, I am reminded of many conversations I have had with a friend, a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, and a man who is what Americans would call a ‘Native American’. Up here the currently politically correct term is ‘First Nations’, but my friend calls himself a ‘trendy Indian’.

My friend wrestles with his traditional Native culture and its legitimacy for the Christian life. What to do about Native culture? Currently, there is something of a revival of Native practices going on in our area. Some of the ancient culture has long been lost – my friend can’t speak his ancestral language and no one on his reservation knows the language anymore, as far as I know. Yet there is a push to reinstate Native ways of doing things – Native courts, Native justice, Native culture.

Part of culture is just the way things are done. Some parts I especially appreciate, like, for instance, Native food. Our local Natives cook a kind of fried bread they call bannock. I don’t think it is necessarily local, I have heard of this kind of bread on the Prairies also. I have eaten a fair quantity of it. If you offered me some today, I would certainly take you up on it. Our Natives are skilled at smoking salmon. Their traditional recipes are ‘finger lickin’ good’ [to borrow from another culture]. Unfortunately my size shows that I am particularly given to these aspects of culture.

But there are other aspects of Native culture that are problematic for Christians. My friend has a painting that portrays Jesus as the shepherd of the sheep. At a first glance, the painting communicates the tender care our Lord has for his sheep. The artist is a Native. There are aspects to this painting that, after my friend explained them, are somewhat troubling. In the background, an Indian tipi (plains Indian symbol) is included. Native symbols are painted on the tipi, on the robe Jesus is portrayed as wearing, and on other parts of the painting. The Holy Spirit is represented in a beam of light proceeding up from Jesus into heaven – it, too, is a native symbol. My friend explained that it is the symbolism that is troubling. On the painting is something called ‘a Peyote spot’. This references some aspect of the Native shamanistic religion. The symbols on the robe and on the tipi likewise have some religious meaning, as does the symbol for the Holy Spirit.

My initial reaction toward the painting was positive. As further explanation came, I saw that there was more to the painting than first met the eye. I am not certain that a Christian should allow this kind of cultural expression in his home. After study and with discernment, what appeared at first to be an innocuous expression of culture (‘it’s just culture’) becomes perhaps something much more repugnant and perhaps dangerous to Christian doctrine and experience.

Some Christians would scoff at my secondary reaction. I know of some Christian groups who, in their ministry to Natives, allow prayer to ‘the Great Spirit’ in their Bible study sessions. ‘It’s just culture.’

A call for a theology of culture

I once told my friend that all cultures contain expressions of evil, since the human heart is desperately evil and wicked. The problem for the Christian is discerning where and when to turn away from expressions of evil in any human culture, whether it be ‘Native’, ‘white’, ‘black’ or any other ethnic group. In another recent conversation, another friend said to me, “We need a theology of music”. He was suggesting that we need a theological basis for arguing for the very conservative position on music that we both hold. I think he is right in that statement, but I think that we need to go further than just the area of music. We need a theology of culture.

This is the battle we are being called to fight today.

The Christian theology of culture is rooted in the holiness and purity of God. It involves loyalty to God and his standard of perfect holiness first of all. It is illustrated negatively in the syncretism of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the Old Testament “behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” (See 1 Ki 12.26-31). The Northern Kingdom could protest that they were still worshiping the One True God and justified their practices on the basis of pragmatism and politics. This was the first step to full blown idolatry, which became the downfall of the Northern Kingdom.

Judah, the Southern Kingdom, likewise plunged into syncretistic idolatry, mixing the worship of the One True God with all kinds of pagan practices. The men of Judah saw no inconsistency with their practices and their approach to the prophets of the One True God for God’s mind about their practices. See Ezekiel 14.1 for an example and other passages in Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

In Ezra 4, we find the returning exiles preparing to rebuild their temple. The Samaritans approach the Jews and ask to join in the building of the temple of God. Here is their justification:

Let us build with you, for we, like you, seek your God; and we have been sacrificing to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us up here. [Ezra 4.2, NAU]

These enemies of the true God claimed to be followers of the true God. They ‘sacrificed to him’ as did the Jews. They claimed to have been doing this ever since the King of Assyria brought them into the land. Do you realize that they were telling the truth?

These indeed sacrificed to the true God, at least ostensibly, for when these people were imported to the land by the Assyrians to colonize and intermarry with the few Israelites that were left, the Lord sent lions among them and slew some of them. The reaction?

2 Kings 17:26 So they spoke to the king of Assyria, saying, “The nations whom you have carried away into exile in the cities of Samaria do not know the custom of the god of the land; so he has sent lions among them, and behold, they kill them because they do not know the custom of the god of the land.” 27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, saying, “Take there one of the priests whom you carried away into exile and let him go and live there; and let him teach them the custom of the god of the land.” 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away into exile from Samaria came and lived at Bethel, and taught them how they should fear the LORD. [NAU]

Was this a revival of true religion? Did these colonists really worship the true God? Well…

2 Kings 17:29 But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the houses of the high places which the people of Samaria had made, every nation in their cities in which they lived. [NAU]

No, this was syncretism, the mixing of religions. The colonists decided since the ‘god of the land’ was angry with them, they had better be sure to worship him, too, along with all their own gods. It is this syncretistic worship that they followed for hundreds of years. When the Jews returned to the land and prepared to rebuild their temple, it is this to which the Samaritans claimed their share in the worship of the true God. They had been sacrificing to Yahweh all these years. They wanted to join with the Jews in their new temple.

How did Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the leaders of the returned Jews respond? Was it this?

Sure, join the party. We realize that in the “left hand[1]” you are sacrificing to the true God. In your “right hand” we have differences, but really, that is just culture. We want to impact your culture, but we won’t throw any rocks at it. In fact, let’s “rock on” and build the temple together.

Is that what they said? No, this is what they said:

You have nothing in common with us in building a house to our God; but we ourselves will together build to the LORD God of Israel. [Ezra 4.3, NAU]

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There is a doctrinal battle being fought today. It is far more subtle and difficult to discern than the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Much thought needs to be given to fleshing out a Theology of Culture that more clearly articulates opposition to syncretism and faithfulness to God. The anti-God music of the world needs to be discerned and shunned. In the links to my previous article, Piper and Driscoll were talking about “right hand” differences of “style” and “left hand” unity of doctrine. These “right hand” differences need to be called what they are: syncretism. Men are consorting with the god of this world and calling it spiritual, holy, and good. Will God in heaven answer such? Will God in heaven answer us if this is the path we tread as well?

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[1] See my previous article for references to the “left hand” and the “right hand”. Also see the concluding paragraph here for a brief explanation.

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