Thursday, May 24, 2007

Willson: Christ and Culture in Light of the Gospel

The Gospel Coalition breakout session I attended was by Sandy Willson (pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis), whose topic was Christ and culture.

His experience is that the more he's been engaged in culture, the better he's come to know Christ. The whole world belongs to Christ. You cannot do theology without cultural contextualization.

Definition of Culture

Here is his working definition:
a social environment in which we define the meaning of life (including the meaning of truth, goodness, and beauty) through the means of worship, beliefs, values, traditions, language, social and political organization, art, technology, and social customs.

Culture is the corporate expression, in some ways, of what a human being is.

Our task is to proclaim and demonstrate Christ to the world, carefully engaging the culture without making inappropriate assumptions.

We are facing what Paul faced when he was called to evangelize Antioch (Acts 11). It was a very multicultural city, and the gospel just exploded there. It ended up being the staging ground for the Pauline mission.

We need to be aware of and avoid two dangers:

1. Assimilation (being co-opted by the culture--typically the danger of those on the Left; but at least they are addressing the dominant questions). The reason this happens is lack of confidence in the Gospel. An example of this error is the Colossian heresy.

2. Withdrawal. An example of this error is found in Galatians. Typically the danger of those on the Right--though it happens on the Left as well. John Sommerville on the irrelevancy of the secular university: they don't want to talk about religion, though that's what people care about and where they are at. Evangelicals paral

Willson has been influenced by Don Carson's forthcoming book on Christ and Culture Revisited (Eerdmans). Carson interacts thoughtfully with Niehbur, who used the following categories:

Nieburh's Categories for Christ and Culture

1. Christ against Culture. Tertullian (Christianity is a "third race"), medieval Judaism, Quakers, Amish. Perhaps Stanley Hauwerwas would fit in this category.

2. Christ of Culture. Schliermacher, Ritschel, mid-20th c mainline denominations. Christ is revealed in every culture. Sort of a gnostic view. Carson says that this is not even a Christian option. Niehbur has allowed a gnostic view to be considered a legitimate option.

3. Christ over Culture. Roman Catholics, Thomists, Christian Right. The church takes charge of the culture.

4. Christ and Culture in Paradox. Lutheran. Christians are to be in the world, but no confidence the world can be transformed, so we overwhelm it with salt and light. But there's no clear definition of what you do once you're in the culture from a worldview standpoint.

5. Christ Transforming Culture. Augustinian, Calvinistic. We are to reshape the world, creating fields of discourse in every discipline.

Carson's view: The proper approach is a blended approach, based on the circumstances.

How the Gospel Enables Us to Engage Culture Properly

The reason for this blended approach is because of the gospel itself. The gospel does five things that enables us to engage it properly:

1. The gospel enables us to affirm the positive aspects of every culture. Acts 17: Paul is apoplectic at the gods because God's glory is being stolen. But Paul starts by observing that they are religious people. He loves sinners, and because of the gospel he's able to see with new eyes. We need to go into culture and listen.

2. The gospel enables us to adapt to the neutral things in culture.
If you don't put your focus on the main thing, it's amazing what else we will focus on (money, power, customs you don't like). It's the duty of every one of us to adapt to our culture, not for our culture to adapt to us. Christ experienced the ultimate culture shock in his incarnation. We must be willing to adapt to the neutral things around us. We have to learn to use what's around us. The theology of Christianity (as opposed to say, Islam) is to preserve culture.

3. The gospel enables us to denounce the evil aspects of every culture
. Jesus and Paul do this regularly. When Jesus tell us that we are salt and light, what does this say about the world? It's dark and decaying, and the world desperately needs the truth of God.

4. The gospel
enables us to build a model society. See the Gospel Coalition's theology of ministry statement. David Anderson (pastor in Maryland): to build a multicultural church you have to be able to die to your native culture in order to create a society within the church. Newbigin: the church is the greatest apologetic to the world. In Acts 2, people were asking what they must do to be saved. People aren't asking that anymore because of the nature of the church. Also, the church must also practice church discipline. There's almost no discipline in evangelical churches. If we are going to transform culture, we are going to have a transformed culture under our own noses. The gospel allows us to confront the sins in our own family without losing hope.

5. The gospel empowers to seek the shalom of every culture. Gen 1:28 (cultural mandate); Matt 5:13-16 (salt and light), model fo the ministry of Jesus (teaching the truth of God, proclaiming the gospel, and dealing with the tangible needs of people).

How Do We Do This?

1. We have to enter serious dialog with unbelievers around us. The gospel deals with the heart, and you don't know their heart till you listen. Why do they reject the gospel? What are their ultimate values? What do they really care about?

2. We have to preach the gospel into the broader culture of your people and the people you want to reach. Tim Keller: preach to the empty pew (the people you want to be in your church). When you start appealing to the arguments of the broader culture around you, you start appealing to your church members, too (who are influenced by the broader culture). You're engaging their culture and issues they are wrestling with, though they might never mention it in Sunday school.

3. We must serve the culture, particularly in partnerships. Jesus drew crowds through serving people, then he would interpret the meaning of his service. But if we're not serving, we have nothing to interpret.

You cannot engage Christ and culture without a cross: the cross of Chirst, and the cross of the Christian. The reason we don't engage the culture is because we are where Peter was before the resurrection: without a cross. When culture is engaged Christianly, by men and women bearing the cross, God is praised.