“Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.” (Romans 12:2)
“Dear friends, since you are immigrants and strangers in the world, I urge that you avoid worldly desires that wage war against your lives.” (1 Peter 2:11)
Since its inception, the Christian faith has lived in an uneasy tension with the culture that surrounds it. For the earliest Christians living in a hostile Roman Empire highlighted the deep tension between Christianity and culture. They held fast to the core conviction that Jesus is Lord (and not Caesar!) reading the Holy Scriptures which reinforced the conviction that Christians were called to be “in the world and not of it.”
In a ground shaking book published in 1989 Duke Professors Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon (later to be elected a bishop in the United Methodist Church) noted the deep changes going on in American culture and the ongoing tensions with Christian values and conviction. The book entitled Resident Aliens struck such a nerve that it was read by almost every Methodist pastor then serving. Provocatively, Professors Hauerwas and Willimon noted the old Moffatt translation of Philippians 3:20 (“We are a colony of heaven.” In the new Common English Bible translation – “Our citizenship is in heaven.”) and went on to comment, “The church is a colony, an island of one culture in the middle of another” (Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens, p. 12). Profoundly they went on to elucidate; “Christianity is more than a matter of a new understanding. Christianity is an invitation to be a part of an alien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot otherwise be seen without Christ” (Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Alien, p. 24).
We have lived through a long era where American culture has been closely attached to Christianity as the dominant religion of our nation and of so-called western civilization as a whole. In the chaos of our times, fundamental societal-wide assumptions – philosophical, political, and moral – are up in the air. The dreary and depressing cacophony of our present political disputes (both in Washington and Austin, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof) provide all too much evidence of today’s chaos. Like it or not Christians living in our present culture face the inevitable tension between Christianity and culture. The earliest Christians instinctively knew what we often struggle with; namely that biblically faithful Christian give a higher allegiance to Jesus as Lord.
They had it right. To be Christian is to live in tension with the culture around us. Struggling Christians of our age (which includes all of us who profess Christ whether we are United Methodist or some other variation of the great universal Church) irrefutably call us “to be in the world but not off it!” We might all benefit by getting up in the morning and repeating Romans 12:2. “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.”
And yet …. We live in this culture in what is euphemistically called a post-modern (and by some post-Christian) world. To be Christian is to be engaged in the world. The Bible does not teach an indifferent response to the world but a Christian witness under the Lordship of Christ that prays regularly, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Presciently one scholar has written: “The legacy of this is that it is way too simplistic to reduce the church’s current problems to a “progressive” vs. “conservative” struggle. That struggle is there and shouldn’t be ignored, but that is not the point of this article. My point is that all Christian movements in the West have struggled with the transition to post-Christendom. We have reacted in different ways: The mainline churches have said, “let’s accommodate the church’s doctrine to the latest cultural social demands and maybe they will like us again.” [Surely an oversimplification.] The evangelicals have said, “Let’s preach part of the gospel, downplay the negative, costly side, and keep our services lively and entertaining, without a lot of demands.” [Again, Surely an oversimplification.] But neither “solution” is sustainable. We need robust Christian identity, transformed lives, and a kingdom vision for society, all linked with a deep commitment to catechesis. The “bar” must be raised, not lowered” (Timothy C. Tennent, Post-Christendom and Global Christianity (Part I), posted June 9, 2009).
Despite the oversimplifications of such differing viewpoints, the essential thrust of the comment is accurate. Regardless of where one is positioned on the social and theological spectrum of current Protestant Christianity, we are deeply engaged in a struggle between Christianity and Culture in today’s chaos. We are a people of the cross, the graves, the skies.” (How do we both reject a cultural sell-out of Christianity to the present age and stay deeply engaged with the culture and society we called in the name of Christ to transform?)
Roughly a century ago William Ralph Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, famously commented, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” Surely Dean Inge is correct and yet … We must in the name of Christ engage our present age. Christian retreat from the chaos of our times is neither faithful nor helpful. It is at this critical juncture that the Wesleyan version of biblical Christianity speaks again to our time. It is at this crucial temporal and eternal crossroads that the Wesleyan vision of holiness of heart and life address the moral and ethical anarchy of our time. We are not married to the values and outlook of the present age. Simultaneously in the name of Christ, at whose name every knee shall one day bow, we choose to engage our morally chaotic world. Furthermore we recognize that good faithful Christians will differ in viewpoint even as they wrestle appropriately together with how we go about “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
To be continued next week.