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The Not-So-Cloistered Walk

I live in the South—a simple place with smiling folks who Hodding Carter described as “polite right up to the point they get mad enough to kill you.”

I’m one of those folks now. It’s taken only four years for a reformed Yankee like me to start whistling “Dixie,” give my daughters double names, savor sweet tea and pulled pork barbecue, and refer to that pesky bit of history as the War of Northern Aggression.

Assimilation is a funny thing. It happens quietly and on the margins, like a trickling mountain stream you don’t notice until you’re halfway off the waterfall. And when you start to identify with a culture, you begin to appreciate it and, eventually, defend it. That’s often the way it is with our tendency to adapt, not just to the regional aspects of our national culture, but to the godless ways of our culture at large.

And therein lies the Christian’s challenge: how to be countercultural when it’s oh-so-easy to slip into an open-armed embrace of secular life. Personally, I fear in many ways I’m both in and of Augustine’s City of Man, and it disgusts me.    

Lord willing, recognition is the first step toward redemption.

In his 1951 book Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr identifies five ways believers engage with their surrounding culture. First, there are Christ against culture believers

—monastic or fundamentalist Christians who deliberately separate themselves from a “diseased” and “damned” culture. (Many modern-day monastics do not go to a monastery to flee culture; Thomas Merton, for example, was a political activist while being in the monastery.) This cloistered remnant stores post-apocalypse dried goods in bulk but has hope in short supply.   

On the other end of the spectrum, Niebuhr’s “accommodationalists” take the Christ of culture approach by paralleling their Christian ideals with a national morality. Resistance is indeed futile, as full assimilation into the culture is the only way to the Father here.

Next there are three intervening categories. The Roman Catholic Christ above culture view sees a culture peppered with God’s blessings, but requires church leaders to adequately reveal them. (This is a gross generality, especially in this day and age. Laypeople in the Catholic Church, like people in any other church, have a great deal of freedom to live as they see fit.) The Christ in paradox with culture believers walk a tightrope between society’s holy ordination and a wholly corrupted human nature. Finally, the Christ transforming culture position presumes a world fallen short of the glory of God but allows for Christ’s redemption in every nook and cultural cranny.

While classifications and reductions of this type are always fraught with peril, Niebuhr does plant helpful markers to gauge how our conception of Christ determines how deeply we assimilate into our surrounding culture.

What route is best: against, of, above, in paradox with, or transforming? I lean toward the last one, since “transforming culture” has that Hollywood-Kuyperian ring to it, and it’s certainly a worthy goal. But objectives and execution are two very different things, and actually engaging in this transformational work may prove much more difficult, and dangerous, than it sounds.

Transformation is a messy process. God seldom works in straight lines. And God doesn’t always make his will crystal clear. God could, but God doesn’t.  

So before donning “Jesus Freak” T-shirts and eschewing assimilation, it’s important we realize the culture we’re countering is much more potent than many pretend. Even foot soldiers in the Lord’s Army lose the occasional skirmish.

Still, Christ will transform this culture with us, through us, or in spite of us. We can live confidently knowing that the war for this world will end, the old order of things will pass away, and victory will be God’s. And as a carpetbagger I can tell you, post-war Reconstruction ain’t half bad.  

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