01 May 2016
Those of us who are Christians often lament how our culture has become alarmingly hostile towards Christianity. We are told to keep our own faith to ourselves and not to bring our religious values into the public square to influence decision-making. Our children get ridiculed by their teachers and classmates when they express belief in divine creation, intelligent design or uphold sexual morality. The media loves to caricature the church as outdated and Christian leaders as frauds and hypocrites.
In the face of such challenges, it is easy to either retreat into our church ghettos where we can carry on comfortably with our own way of life, or to capitulate to culture and live no differently from the world except, of course, when we are in church. If we succumb to either option, we would have overlooked the fact that this was exactly the kind of environment in which Christianity got started—and thrived.
Christianity began as a tiny sect in a backwater region of the Roman Empire; an unpromising breakaway group from centuries-old Jewish religion. In fact, the word “Christian” was coined as a derogatory term to deride its followers. Christianity preached a messaged that was totally out of sync with its surrounding culture: a crucified-and-resurrected messiah. The very idea was outlandish to Greek thinking which dominated its first-century world, and highly offensive to Jewish sensibilities. In the Greco-Roman setting where it made perfect sense to multiply and co-opt as many gods as possible to cover all the bases, Christians refused to back down from the incredible claim, even on pain of death, that Jesus Christ alone is Lord and God, and all the rest were but dumb and useless man-made idols. It also refused to accept the rule, practiced since time immemorial, that might makes right, asserting instead that women and children, slaves, gladiators and foreigners, the poor, the sick and the weak, all had equal value and dignity as bearers of God’s image. It brought about a greater sexual revolution than the pill ever did, successfully challenging and changing society’s attitudes towards promiscuity, polygamy and homosexuality. Within a few hundred years, it had completely undermined and transformed every aspect of life in the Roman Empire.
So successful was Christianity at subverting and transforming culture that the effects would last for nearly the next two millennia, long after the power of the church had waned, and even after the basic tenets of Christianity had ceased to be accepted by the majority of people in Western societies. But the charade can only go on for so long. The culture wars that raged over the last century happened because Christians had stopped being the dominant group but had not yet come to terms with the fact that they were now living in a culture that was increasingly pre-Christian. And they only had themselves to blame, because all they had left was a just a veneer of religiosity dressed in Christian garb, without the power to transform hearts, families and nations. It has always intrigued me that so many American Christian leaders still criss-cross the globe teaching other people how to do church, when the church in America has effectively lost all influence over its own culture.
Jesus described his followers as salt and light. These images powerfully convey the idea that we are to bring about radical transformation to our environment. To do so requires that we neither cut ourselves off from, nor capitulate to, culture. Instead, we are to identify with culture without compromising scripture. We are to reject the values of fallen human nature while loving and serving our fellow human beings. We are to “seek the peace and prosperity the city” we are in, while living as citizens of the heavenly city. In short, we are to do what the Son of God did when he came in the flesh. He became like us without ceasing to be himself. Only by applying the same incarnational approach can we redeem our culture for God’s glory.