Sunday, June 8, 2008

The church is the transformative agent of Christ’s love within culture through the direction of Scripture and the power of the Spirit

Pass the Popcorn Analysis: Engage culture without assuming it

(ABP) -- I’ve got to be brutally honest; I’m not a Rob Bell fan, although many of my students are. He has two best-selling books: Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (2005) and Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality (2007).

Additionally, he has completed three “teaching” tours, the most recent in 2007, where he visited America with his “The Gods Aren’t Angry” tour. Each tour was staged in a secular venue with theatrical lighting and the ever-hip, culturally relevant Bell at its center.

Although I disagree with much of Bell’s theology, this does not mean that I don’t appreciate what he is attempting: an engagement with culture. “Culture” is the matrix of human activity and structures that give life significance. In Christian theology, culture, like humankind, has experienced the Fall.

As sensationalist and provocative as his titles are, Bell is attempting to be relevant to “fallen” postmodern culture. Many young believers and spiritual seekers, feeling disenfranchised from the modern church, have flocked to Bell’s tours, podcasts and books. In Bell, they have found a kindred spirit -- someone who has experienced their disenchantment with the modern church, yet one who seems to have found a way to connect them to an authentic, relevant faith in God through Jesus Christ.

Regardless of what position you take on Rob Bell, he forces each of us to deal with the issue of culture and its relationship to our theology. This is an age-old struggle. It is the struggle of the Israelites with the Canaanites, Jesus and the various Jewish sects, as well Paul and the Greco-Roman culture of his day.

Theology and culture are locked in an eternal struggle until the end of days.

Interestingly, Christians can claim that the Bible lands on both sides of the debate. On one hand, Paul seems to encourage an engagement with contemporary culture in the form of his sermon on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22ff).

On the other hand, Paul states that we should not “conform” to the world in his letter to the Romans (Rom12:2).

But if it is an age-old struggle, why then has it erupted with such a vengeance today?

A simple explanation is that culture is changing at a faster pace than ever previously understood. Technology advanced at such a rapid pace in the 20th century that it outpaced our ability to understand its moral implications. So, culture becomes a swamp of ethical and theological questions amidst a global technological explosion.

Complicating this situation, it would also seem that some of the philosophical concepts that helped sustain our modern culture are being questioned today. Thus, although the scientific, technological and philosophical ideals of modernity have been a great benefit to us, these ideals simply aren’t enough to sustain us spiritually.

Consequently, we now live in a culture of difficult change where the very basis of modern Christianity is being questioned at every turn. How are we to proceed as faithful followers of Christ in such a chaotic cultural climate? How can our theology meet this challenge?

Let me suggest a two-fold answer: engagement, not assumption.

First, we must engage culture, which I believe to be the very heart of our Christian mission. This is the legacy of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) and the witness of Paul on Mars Hill (Acts 17). The church is the transformative agent of Christ’s love within culture through the direction of Scripture and the power of the Spirit (Luke 10:25-27).

Nevertheless, in this engagement, we do not assume or acquiesce to culture. Christ transforms it (Romans 12:2; 1 John 2:15).

As Christians, we have something unique to offer to our world -- the witness of Jesus. As Baptists, we affirm the centrality of Christ and the authority of Scripture as our sole rule of faith. That is the “what” of our assumption.

The Scriptures, as the book of the Spirit, then give guidance in regards to the “how” of our practice. What the Scriptures do not address directly will stand in tension with our engagement of culture.

A vigorous attempt to understand and engage culture, without surrendering to its secularizing philosophical tendencies would benefit the church well in the third millennium.

So Rob Bell and others of the emerging generation, you’ve thrown down the gauntlet to us all. Thank you.


-- Jay Smith is assistant professor in the School of Christian Studies at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas.

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