Christians vs. The World
What is the deal with the “Culture Wars”?
Christians often have a confrontational relationship with the culture around them. Some characterize this as Christians being “anti everything” and others just get annoyed by their insistence on things like traditional marriage, abortion, cultural Christian artifacts, and so forth. People rightfully ask why it is that Christians seem to be so angry all the time.
There’s a great older book called Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr that details the different ways that Christians can interact with culture. You can be against culture, absorbed in culture, above culture, in paradox with it (we have a secular life and a spiritual life that continually intersect and diverge), or you can view Christ and the Christian as the transformer of culture. It’s very common for Christians to take one of the first two stances – at war with it, or just making Christian copies of things and consuming them. Some set themselves aloof with the third option and sort of ignore the world around them, but the author of the book has a respect for the paradox view and encourages the transformer view.
God created people as cultivators of a garden and I think that analogy can have value today. You can’t cultivate a garden by being angry at it, or by embracing the weeds, or by viewing the soil as beneath you and unworthy of attention. You’ve got to take what’s there and work to make it better, caring for it constantly and bringing great things out.
Does this approach minimize the bad things in the world and just accept them? Not at all. I think it’s disingenuous to our own faith to deny that there are things wrong with the world. If the Bible is clear about a certain subject, then Christians ought to be similarly clear. But this doesn’t mean you have to be confrontational about it. You can believe, as I do, that abortion is wrong, and not picket in front of abortion clinics and criticize people who have had abortions. You can maintain both your convictions and your love for others. For example, you could quit yelling about making abortion illegal and start encouraging women to make different decisions.
There’s a lot of yelling in the world today. Our semi-anonymous culture of internet communication and mass media makes it easy. Solomon is wise when he says “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” There’s a time for harsh words, and there’s a time for gentleness. When Christians are known for their harsh words rather than for their love, they’ve missed the point. There is no Christian nation, our USA not even being close, and much of the culture wars come about because Christians think that the USA is one. We have to accept that and be glad for it.
If it’s not a Christian nation, then we can feel free to hold our own beliefs strong and not seek to impose them on the world around us, as if a non-Christian would want to live by Christian beliefs. We can embrace the world, weeds and all, and take an attitude of seeking to leave this world better than we found it through loving cultivation.
Response from Aurelius
Nice perspective. We tackled this prompt in markedly different ways. In those five responses to culture, I see many of today’s Christians taking a combination of the first and third approach: against and above culture, which is why many Christians come off as angry or culturally divisive. The person that I think best exemplifies the transformative approach is Mother Teresa. She viewed the world around her as a garden begging for love and compassion and therefore devoted her life to loving and helping others.
I agree with you that there is too much yelling in the world today. In my view, yelling, protesting, and picketing rarely produce the desired outcome. On the contrary, quiet fortitude can wake people up, just as Rosa Parks exemplified. We all probably know someone with this type of character. The loud voices of the room become noise after a while, but when the quiet person speaks, everyone listens.
I wish more Christians in the U.S. would share your perspective of accepting and even being glad that the country is not a Christian nation and not try to impose Christian beliefs onto others. Imposing your beliefs on others only perpetuates already-divided camps and comes off as foolish to those who believe otherwise, more eloquently stated by one of my favorite British actors, Stephen Fry, on one of my favorite TV shows, QI. “The myth of the Jewish people having manna dropped on their heads, that doesn’t actually matter… That’s like a Greek myth or any other myth. It’s when it gets to telling people how to behave is where we do draw the line.”
We can all agree on your last point. Let’s leave this world better than how we found it.
If you live in the U.S. or keep up with U.S. news you are likely aware of the political atmosphere’s close connection with religious differences. Christian vs. non-Christian. Right-wing fundamentalist Christian vs. moderate Christian. Tea Party vs. moderate Republican. These divides played a huge role in this summer’s same-sex marriage ruling and they are a significant influence in many other cultural and moral issues.
“Culture war” only makes sense within the context of a single group with conflicting cultures, such as a non-homogeneous country. It’s important to note that every country has some unique culture war but in this post we are talking about the U.S. culture wars. The U.S. culture wars are predominantly religious, primarily between Christian and Other.
To understand the current culture wars requires an understanding of their influences and beginnings. I had to educate myself here, so here’s a recap. The culture wars became increasingly religious in the 80s and 90s even through today but they have more secular beginnings in the 60s. Early issues were civil rights, feminism, minority representation, and war vs. peace. Major issues then became abortion, homosexuality, religious discrimination, and again war vs. peace. Today’s media serve to propagate instead of mitigate the culture wars, with Fox News on one side and MSNBC and CNN in the opposing corner.
So, what can we do about the culture wars? How do they benefit and harm society?
The benefit of the culture wars is they can unite a large group of people into action based on beliefs they strongly support. It challenges people to examine their own beliefs to determine which they stand for and how strongly. Having to pick a side also promotes competition, and competition has many proven benefits and is one of the most natural human endeavors.
The major harm in culture wars is the creation and sustainment of the Us vs. Them mentality. We are all the same species and should embrace our humanity and endeavor to improve our collective existence, not highlight our differences. Even though we will naturally associate with one side based on our beliefs and upbringing, allying ourselves with one side makes it easy to dismiss the other side. We must resist the urge to be dismissive and divisive.
With the holiday season now here, instead of bickering with our loved ones, what if each week or two each of us read an opinion piece from the other side or tried to carry a conversation with someone with sharply different beliefs with the sole intent of respecting an opinion contrary to our own and understanding its premise? It’s not a farfetched idea, but we don’t take the time to do it. It would require just a small effort but the ripples would be long lasting. That is the primary intent of this blog because my coauthor and I believe in the power of respectful discourse. It is not hard to do and I can attest that it is remarkably refreshing to have your opinion respected by someone who disagrees with you while you are being enlightened by genuinely listening to their perspective. It’s a beautiful thing that we should all strive for. We don’t have to be divided.
Response from Antipas
You’re right that this issue strikes at the heart of why we started the blog, so of course we’re going to have the same mind on it. There have been times that I have really enjoyed reading some academically-minded Tea Party literature, because sometimes once you get past the vitriol you find some logical arguments. I may find that I disagree with a premise, or think the argument leaves something out, but understanding the argument is key to understanding why I hold my own position.
The same is true of any issue, whether it’s homosexual marriage, allowing refugees and asylum-seekers into the country, or even something silly like red Starbucks cups. Our world would have a lot less yelling if, before anyone brought out their argument, they listened to and understood the logic from the other side. Your suggestion of carrying on conversations with those who disagree is a great one, and I hope more people do it.
Finally, thank you for pointing out the positive aspects of the “culture wars”. I glossed over these, but you make a great point. I may not like the angry and bitter conflicts that Christians sometimes pick, but this energy can also be harnessed for good – mobilizing to action, for example. I also know that I have rarely understood my own position so well as when I was forced to defend it against an onslaught. Let’s go out and manage the culture wars positively!
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