Church v. Culture: The Phantom War

–Daniel S. Ferguson

I want to say that I’ve heard this at nearly every church I’ve been to, but I honestly can’t think of an exception. What I’m talking about is so ubiquitous as to be essentially unanimous.

I’m talking about the church’s general perception that it is at odds with American culture.

You hear it in sermons all the time: “Culture says ‘Whatever makes you happy,’ but God says ‘Blah blah blah.'”

That setup is so common that I almost glaze over it when I listen to sermons. It’s everywhere. It almost doesn’t matter which pastor you ask: culture is the “enemy,” and the church is in a constant war against it.

I don’t mean that question in the anthropological or academic sense. I’m talking about what pastors mean when they say culture. They don’t mean anything to do with sociology; they’re talking about a specific set of values, influences, and apparatuses that they think stand somehow generally opposed to those of the church.

You don’t have to listen long to figure out what pastors mean by culture. They usually have lists of things: music, movies, television, social media, trends, fads, and even the news. These things, pastors seems to believe, often stand against what the church teaches.

I and many others who grew up in church remember church gatherings where we brought together all our “worldly” music or books and destroyed them together in order to cleanse ourselves of negative or ungodly influences. We Christians even created whole media outlets of our own, creating bookstore chains, television stations, radio stations, and a massive music and movie industry solely meant for Christian audiences or to espouse Christian ideals. Christian music alone pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars a year in sales.

Church, therefore, has its own culture (even its own restaurant chain, seemingly), which stands in much of the same niche space that the general American culture stands in. I believe this is the nature of the conflict, two cultures trying to stand in the same space, rather than two truly opposing cultures. After all, the same pastors who would tell you that there’s a culture war going on would also tell you that this is a “Christian nation.” Those two sentences can’t both be fully true.

The problem isn’t that the two things are opposed; it’s that the existence of two cultures, coupled with language that they are actually opposed from one side, creates a cognitive dissonance in people that both confuses them and conflicts them. I remember, for example, wondering if it were a sin to enjoy the music of Queen as much as I did because it represented a part of the gay culture, which stood opposed (so I was told) to Christianity.

Christians get this sense of otherness from some passages in the Bible that say things like “[we] are not of the world” (John 17:16) and “do not conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2) and “anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4) and “has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20).

From those and other passages, Christians often get the idea that we’re supposed to be “set apart” from the world, which is not a wholly bad notion, but it’s so often taken too far. None of that language is supposed to set up a war between Christianity and the world around it. It’s supposed to warn us against the natural result of simply living differently.

But if you look at the advice for living differently, none of it says to live in enmity against the people of the world. (Even the reference in James that talks about not being a friend of the world doesn’t mean hating on the world; it just means avoiding sinful living.) If anything, Jesus and the whole Bible ask us to treat everyone with an incredible amount of respect, humility, and grace. After all, that’s what Jesus did. If this offends the world around us, so be it, and in certain parts of the world, there is a legitimate cultural war against that.

But not here. What the church usually means when they say culture is actually sin. The things they’re opposing are things that demonstrate or propagate sinfulness, such as certain song lyrics or television scenes. The church stands opposed to sin, so it recommends against them.

But the church often goes way too far in using war metaphors to describe that. We don’t stand opposed to Rihanna or Disney; we stand opposed to sin. And that’s the language we have to start using. Not that we’re against the world, but that we know a better way.

You want the best sex life possible? Game of Thrones has some ideas, but Jesus’ are better in the long run. You want the best romance possible? Taylor Swift has some great lyrics, but Jesus’ commands are better. You want the most peace you can have about your finances? CNBC has some good information, but Jesus knows best. You want to live in freedom? Paul Ryan has some great things to say, but Jesus has an even better plan. You want to live in harmony with everyone around you? Corey Booker has some phenomenal notions, but he learned most of what he knows from Jesus.

And that can be our message. Not that we’re against anyone, but that we’re for what’s best. We just happen to believe that Jesus knows what’s best. We’re not at war. We don’t even want different things than anyone else. We just believe we know the best way to get them, and we’re passionate about that.

Maybe give that a try, and maybe give MTV a break.


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