Can Culture Call Christians Back to Christ?

Consider these quotations, coming from two Baptist preachers speaking at either end of the 1960s:

1. …although communism can never be accepted by a Christian, it emphasizes many essential truths that must forever challenge us as Christians. Indeed, it may be that communism is a necessary corrective for a Christianity that has been all too passive and a democracy that has been all too inert.

…We are challenged to dedicate and devote our lives to the cause of Christ as the communists do to communism. We cannot accept their creed, but we must admire their dream and their readiness to sacrifice themselves to the very utmost and even to lay down their lives for a cause that they believe in, a cause that they believe is going to make the world a better place. One watches that zeal, and one has to say, “Why is it that Christians don’t have this zeal? Why is it that we don’t have this zeal for Christ? Why is that we don’t have this sense of purpose, this sense of dedication for his kingdom?”

2. The notes I hear [from the youth movement of our day] are the insistence that every human being is a person of importance and worth, that material security ought not have the highest priority in life, that love ought to characterize all of our interpersonal relationships, that right ideals are worth suffering for, that honesty should characterize our actions, that unconventional methods may open exciting new doors into the future, and that whatever ought to be done ought to be done now.

It is at this point that Christians have something in common with the youth of the revolt movement. These ideals have been held by Christians for centuries by sometimes have been lost to sight…. This is no time to deplore the new American revolution. This is a time to identify with its valid emphases and to witness about the greatest revolutionist of all—Jesus Christ.

Even if the first quotation isn’t familiar, its source is: Martin Luther King, Jr., preaching at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in late September 1962. While King believed that Communism was antithetical to Christianity in several ways, he quoted the late Anglican bishop William Temple in calling Communism as “Christian heresy,” since it had both “laid hold on certain truths which are essential parts of the Christian view of things” and “bound up with them concepts and practices which no Christian can ever accept or profess.”

Unless you’re a historian of Bethel University or a reader of my 2012 article on “missional Pietists” in The Covenant Quarterly (two equally small groups!), I’d be shocked if you knew that the author of quotation #2 was Carl Lundquist, the president of Bethel (1954-1982) who later presided over the National Association of Evangelicals (1978-1980). It comes from his 1969 annual report to the Baptist General Conference — the same denomination whose national youth director had earlier that year derided anti-Vietnam war youth activists as “nothing more than a sick part of a sick society… first class phonies.” Lundquist made clear that certain elements of the youth movement were “superficial, trivial, hypocritical, rude, and anti-intellectual,” but hoped that his audience wouldn’t tune out a voice that called Christians back to ideals they might have lost sight of.

Clarion story about December 1960 visit to Bethel by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was ultimately unable to speak at Bethel in December 1960, to Lundquist’s regret – Bethel University Digital Library

More than a few times, I’ve thought of these passages from King and Lundquist (who have a slight but interesting connection, by the way) in light of the escalating debate among Christians about human sexuality.

* * * * *

Among evangelicals, conservative Catholics and Orthodox, and other Christians who are disturbed by American society’s seemingly rapid embrace of same-sex marriage, you often hear a couple of concerns about how those who follow Jesus Christ relate to their surrounding cultures:

1. That “affirming” Christians are simply assimilating the values of secular culture.

2. That it’s essential for orthodox Christians to be “countercultural.”

No doubt, it would be troubling if 21st century Christians simply dismissed the authority of Scripture (whether read sola or with the guidance of tradition and a magisterium) altogether and blended entirely into a world that regards other sources of truth as paramount. I’m not sure that’s actually all that common in this case: the LGBT-affirming Christians I know regard theirs as the “biblical” position and are convinced that following Christ requires them to love — and affirm the loving relationships of — their gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender neighbors.

At the same time, it’s good to be reminded that the kingdom of God and kingdoms of humanity are not synonymous, that Christians live everywhere and always as alien citizens. While I don’t feel as besieged as those who advocate something like the Benedict option, I appreciate that they’re giving new thought to what practices are necessary to keep Christians “in the world, but not of it.”

Of course, what I’ve just presented is hopelessly oversimplified. (The very notion that there’s a clear distinction between Christianity and culture is problematic.) So I think Steve Thorngate helpfully complicates the Christian/culture relationship when he asks whether Christianity is always meant to be countercultural:

Steve Thorngate
Steve Thorngate – The Christian Century

To be sure, Christianity rightly includes a measure of counterculturalism. Russell Moore spoke to this well when the Pew religious affiliation numbers came out, noting the problems mainliners and evangelicals alike have had in failing to distinguish ourselves from the wider culture. But when we do define ourselves against it at all, we tend to have particular elements of the culture in mind. A certain sort of social conservative disparages “the world”; a certain sort of neo-Anabaptist rails against “the state”; a certain sort of peace-and-justice liberal lays blame at the feet of “the economic system.” These targets may overlap but are clearly not the same, and even combined they don’t include the entirety of the culture.

If all your views are countercultural, then you aren’t really engaging the culture at all, other than to oppose it; you are infinitely more sect than church.

As an alternative to the “everything [but, really, certain things] is countercultural” response, Thorngate points to the Lutheran view of worship summed up in the 1994 Nairobi Statement, which suggests that there are dimensions of Christianity that are indeed counter-cultural (“Some components of every culture in the world are sinful, dehumanizing, and contradictory to the values of the Gospel. From the perspective of the Gospel, they need critique and transformation”), but also transcultural, cross-cultural, and contextual.

The definition of the last category especially caught my eye: “God can be and is encountered in the local cultures of our world. A given culture’s values and patterns, insofar as they are consonant with the values of the Gospel, can be used to express the meaning and purpose of Christian worship.”

Not to say that every voice from “local culture” should be heeded uncritically. As the Nairobi Statement says of “contextualizing” worship, “Elements borrowed from local culture should always undergo critique and purification, which can be achieved through the use of biblical typology.”

But if they listen critically, with ears tuned by Scripture, do you think that American Christians today can reencounter God and rehear the Gospel even in the most secular voices of our “local” culture, just as King and Lundquist heard Communism and the anti-war youth movement calling Cold War era Christians back to the ideals of Christ?

One thought on “Can Culture Call Christians Back to Christ?

  1. I’m still not sure I should have brought the LBGT debate into this post. I’m really interested in the larger question of how Christians both counter culture and learn from it and don’t want to get bogged down in the particulars of one issue. And I definitely don’t mean to perpetuate the misleading “gay vs. Christian” divide. So consider a different kind of example…

    Here’s Jonathan Orbell calling evangelicals to listen to Ta-Nehesi Coates on race: “Coates’ Between the World and Me, written in the form of a letter to his son, offers white evangelicals yet another opportunity to reflect on issues that have gone unaddressed in our congregations for far too long. Namely, black Americans’ subjugation to a regime of brutal and systemic racial injustice….

    “It may seem strange for an openly Christian writer to argue so wholeheartedly for engaging a thinker like Coates, who describes himself as being ‘raised conscious, in rejection of a Christian God.’

    “Would it not make more sense to write about a thinker who shares my belief in a God of eternal justice? Maybe, but something about Coates pulls me in….”

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