Leslie Newbigin was a British missionary who lived in India for forty years. When he arrived in India he saw with clarity the insights and idols of the Eastern Indian culture. While Indian Christians were more susceptible to the subtle pull of “the way things always were” everything was so foreign to Newbigin that clearly saw how certain things, like the immolation of widows or worshiping the gods in Hinduism, was incompatible for with the Christian faith. However, as he lived there for four decades, Newbigin also saw some of the insights of the Indian culture that were more in-line with the Gospel and eventually he became more Eastern in his thinking and being. Then something incredible happened.
Upon returning home to Britain he came and saw Western Christianity through Eastern eyes. He saw clearly for the first time idols within Western culture that previously he had simply swallowed as “the way things always were” and mistakenly assumed they were compatible with the Gospel…when they were not.
I have really been formed by Newbigins understanding of the relationship between the Gospel and culture. Newbigin believed the Gospel always exists within a culture. The Gospel is transmitted by people and communities which inevitably are influenced and shaped by their culture. This was true for the cultures that transmitted the Bible (the Hebrew/Ancient Near Eastern cultures and later the Greaco-Roman culture) as it has been for subsequent generations of Christians (From Germanic tribes that were converted to Egyptian Coptic Christian, etc.).
For Christians, the Gospel should always be positively critiquing that culture from within. The Gospel acts as a lens through which we the insights and the idols of any given culture. The Gospel is how we know where a culture “gets it right” and where a culture “get it wrong.” Where this happens, the Church can affirm from the scriptures where a culture get’s something inherent to God or how He has established church and at the same time be a powerful prophetic voice calling out the problematic beliefs of a culture, inviting change and providing the insights and truth offered by the Gospel.
For example, in Western culture our belief in reason and scientific study has led to many breakthroughs in science and modern medicine. This is a good thing. Our God is a God of order and constancy. The world reflects this and the periodic table doesn’t change randomly. As such, God’s creation is knowable and we can reliably interact with it. It is this constancy that makes it possible to create medicine to cure diseases or plan more bountiful food harvests to feed a hungry world. However, in our individualistic nature we can lose sight of how God exists forever in community and created us to exist in community. The American ideal, the myth of the ruggedly independent individualist, is not compatible with our call to be the Body of Christ. Christians are to be deeply interconnected with one another, not singular superheroes for Christ. This idol in American culture, this value gone awry, has led to a break down of communities, family, and led to feelings of isolation and despair. To use a real life example, one of the main draws of gangs is that they offer a place to belong and something bigger for a person to be connected to, especially to rootless youth, often second generation immigrants. The fact that people are willing to risk death and imprisonment for community and a place to belong speaks to how powerful the need for others really is, despite Western ideals concerning individualism. The Church can provide the powerful truth in affirming this need for community and, just as importantly, work to provide this community.
This, Newbigin believes, is how it should be: Christians understand the Gospel and, with this at their starting point, seek to understand what is good and bad from their culture and act, speak and live in their culture in a new way.
However, there are two other situations that exist more commonly in regards to the relationship between the Gospel and the Culture. First, the culture can be left unexamined by the Gospel. Second, and far more insidiously, the Gospel, instead of critiquing a culture, can bet contorted or misused to affirm the values of culture, including its idols, as “biblical.”
The first option I think is the most common, especially people born into a culture that already has dealings with Christianity. It is especially dangerous to people from such a cultuer that are raised in a Christian home. There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Don’t ask a fish about water.” The truth is simple but profound; whe we grow up with something, we commonly leave it unexamined and actually know very little abou it.
For many Western Christians this means we do not understand our culture and mistakenly believe the Gospel, as it exists in Western culture, is the Gospel. I know I did. While sincere in our faith and desire to honor God, we never stop to examine the dominant culture to the detriment of our faith and witness in this world. We have confused the teachings of Western culture with the teachings of the Gospel. We have confused what it means to be a Westerner with what it means to be a Christian. Lacking the discernment necessary to distinguish between the two, we simply go along with teachers, pastors, and writers who encourage this confusion and affirm Western values uncritically through a questionable use of scriptures.
Where this leaves many Western Christians is in a state of syncretism – that is the belief in two religions, or aspects of two relgions, at the same time. In one hand we hold Western values, many shaped by Secular Humanism, and in the other hand we hold the Gospel. We have the Bible and the Constitution. Instead of giving our first alliegance to the Gospel, identifying the tension between the two and acting accordingly, we leave Western values unexamined or worse, claim that Western values are the values presented in the Gospel, which is not always the case.
This was for me put in high relief as two sisters of mine, Janelle Bobbitt and Melissa Duron began questioning this syncretism. When they began questioning values from culture and asking questions like, “Is it consistent to to teach that euthansia and abortion are wrong (because its against God’s Law), but killing in war and in captial punishment is right (because government says so)?” they were treated by fellow Christians as if they were losing their faith. Other assumed that they, by questioning values from culture that may or may not line up with the Gospel, were questioning the Gospel itself.
Either making this situation worse, or as a result of this confusion, I fear the Gospel in the West has been pared down to things only concerning salvation and ones private morality. The Gospel stops at salvation, sin, personal holiness and final destination. The rest of the Bible never makes an appearance. We are told about how we are freed from the penalty of our sins and made new creations by believing in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ but never told about what Jesus taught for three years. Many of the teachings of Christ are in direct contradiction to Western values, but this tension goes unnoticed and Jesus goes disobeyed by sincere Christians because we have promoted some of these Western values as biblical ones. (A funny, but not-too-funny-when-you-think-about-it, fake ad campaign from Mad TV pointed this out.)
Far from being a clear representation of orthodox Christianity we practice and believe things that are inconsistent with the Gospel and have absolutely no qualms about doing so. Instead of critiquing culture, the Gospel has been made to mirror the culture. Instead of being conformed no longer to the pattern of this world, we have selected read scriptures to suggest that the pattern of this world is the Gospel.
I believe it is this syncretism that has led to the sitaution where the local Church is run like just about any other secular organizaiton. It is because we have accepted Western values about education, leadership, organization, money, and consumerism that we run the local church like a religious industry: We hire religious experts, educated and trained for competency at graduate schools, to help develop and run programs. These programs deliver the “products” that attract consumers who usually are drawn to the best product they can find in town. (Examples of the products I’m talking about here are “good fellowship,” “good teaching,” “good worship,” “good youth programs,” etc.) Church membership then is usually dictated directly by the ability of any local congregation to follow the latest trends and fads of the culture the Christian sub-culture which seems pertually two two steps behind. I am here painting an extreme picture to make my point clear but I think this sitaution is far more pervasive and heinous than anyone is really willing to admit.
This is the iChurch. This is the church in the West.