Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Counter-culture v. gospel culture

In the introduction to his Western Culture in Gospel Context, David J. Kettle surveys a variety of models for Christian witness:

  1. The witness of traditional religious conformity, which at its best seeks for all aspects of culture to resonate with a Christian worldview, and at its worst leads to nominalism or (worse -) Christian imperialism. 
  2. The witness of traditional religious symbolism and art, which though it can often preserve a sense of the transcendent and sacred can also become opaque and tokenistic. 
  3. The witness of an appeal to cultural identity, which takes seriously the influence Christianity has had on Western cultures but can all too easily lead to a tribalism which excludes non-Western Christians and non-Christian people and influences in the West.
  4. The witness of a parallel Christian culture, that avoids many of the pitfalls of closing the gap between church and culture by seeking to maintain this distinction, but can tend towards a kind of gnosticism that in attempting to keep the world out of the church (perhaps inadvertently) keeps the church out of the world.
  5. The witness of consumer religion, which has uncritically adopted the dominant spiritual paradigms (business shamanism, individualist consumerism) of Western culture and adapted Christianity and the church to reflect it.
While this typology is new (and I'd suggest, provisional and not exhaustive), none of the particular models is. I've heard many faithful and thoughtful Christians advocate the best (and some of the worst) of each of these models at some point, but the third seems to be increasingly popular in conservative Christianity in the simplistic formulation "Australia is (or was founded as) a Christian country," usually implying that other Christians are more Australian and should have more power than people of other faiths or none. 

However, it was how Kettle presented the fourth model that especially caught my attention. He says that those whose agenda it is to oppose or resist culture (that is, be counter-cultural) are no less captivated by culture; it remains the host culture and not the gospel that determines how Christians witness. This is seen most clearly in the peculiarly modern form of fundamentalism that arose as a response to modern liberalism. The fundamentalists thought they had avoided the cultural compromises of liberalism, but were no less shaped by their modern context. But the same possibility awaits me: as I seek to engage the individualism and consumerism of Western culture my priority needs to be not responding to greed and selfishness in its current cultural manifestations, but rather the generosity and hospitality of God in the gospel. 

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