Culture is dynamic. Fluid. Fickle. Culture changes over time, sometimes with extreme pendular swings. Popular culture reflects shared beliefs, values, and social norms. Each swing of culture has its trends, like currents within an ocean or sea. These trends are movements within the larger cultural context. People usually respond in one of three general ways to pendular swings in culture; to reject, embrace, or engage each swing. Only one of these approaches is effective in bringing helpful change or productive dialogue.
These pendular swings in culture have one fixed point—human nature. Though some cultural swings may be wide or wild extremes, it all pivots on the self, our fundamental nature; not our identity but our being, our innate essence, which centers on self-preservation. On the surface, self-preservation makes sense. It’s expected. Natural. But when the self is corrupt or fragmented, it is not so good. At their basest level, self-preservation and self-preference are bound to conflict with others.
These conflicts disrupt whatever we might share culturally and result in culture clashes. These culture clashes are more noticeable in the cross-cultural situations global missionaries experience but also happen between and within sub-cultures, the smaller currents within the larger context.
Approach 1: Rejection of Cultural Shifts
This is the preferred approach of those who oppose a culture shift, especially when it impacts them personally. It’s not just resistance but rejection, an unwillingness to accept or consider a cultural change. It’s a defense of what was, an attempt to turn back the tide of change.
On the surface, to those opposing change, it seems gallant and right. It takes on a sense of righteousness. And indeed, it may very well be a righteous stance.
It’s not hard to find exceptional examples of resistance to evil. The prophet Daniel and his three cohorts; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refused to worship anyone else but their God, the Most-High God, the Living God (Daniel 3:12–18, 26; 6:10–23, 26). Their stand would have cost them their lives had God not intervened.
But taking a righteous stand against evil requires a willingness to die for righteousness’ sake. And God doesn’t always intervene.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a modern-day example of this. He was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who stood up to the Nazi Regime and paid for it with his life. His testimony is enlightening and relevant to resisting and rejecting an evil cultural and political trend.
Not all resistance and rejection of cultural change are so righteous or wise. The Jesus People Movement and the Charismatic Renewal of the mid-’60s and early 70s, parallel other moves of God’s Spirit in America. The established churches of that time resisted and condemned each of these movements. The resistance proved foolish and fruitless, which reminds me of what Gamaliel, the famous Jewish rabbi, warned Jewish leaders about contending with the followers of Jesus …
…if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it — lest you even be found to fight against God (Acts 5:39)
This serves as a lesson to consider when attempting to resist and reject present cultural trends.
Bonhoeffer’s resistance, as with others like him in the German Confessing Church, did not stem the evil tide of Nazism. It took a world war to overcome it. And yet, the Nazi mindset and influence lives on.
The Jesus Movement and Charismatic Renewal prevailed and reshaped the practice of Christianity during the cultural upheaval of the sixties and seventies. It powerfully impacted American culture. But sadly, its influence faded. What was once a powerful cultural influence became an anemic form of Christianity. Why? I see this as the result of trying to embrace the present waves of the culture surrounding the church.
Approach 2: Embracing Cultural Shifts
The German Christian movement is the flip side of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the German Confessing Church’s resistance to Nazism. This movement was composed of fanatic Nazi Protestants, a politicized church movement devoid of the Spirit of God.
This movement embraced the political-cultural wave of Hitler’s Nazi regime. They reshaped theology to buttress their nationalistic beliefs and distorted the gospel and their portrayal of Christ into their racist image.
Another spiritual movement in America during the Seventies and spilling into the Eighties was a hybrid smorgasbord of eastern religions and amenable philosophies. This broad spiritual spectrum of quasi-religious groups became known as the New Age movement, a full embrace of the countercultural social revolution of the sixties. It epitomized the “Me Generation” of the seventies.
Towards the end of 1969, I moved out of my wanderings through what the emerging New Age offered in pursuit of Jesus. I became one of many in the Jesus People Movement of the sixties and seventies. My wife and I, each on our journey, came into a personal relationship with the Lord as we pursued our own relationship. I remember the day we married for a lot of reasons, but especially because it marked my departure from a time of darkness and wandering into the light of God’s kingdom (Colossians 1:13).
As the seventies progressed, the difference between embracing and engaging culture became evident. The Me Generation fully embraced and typified the chief attraction of the New Age movement, a mystical pursuit of self. Its ripple effect evolved into the I-Generation’s current cultural wave: young Gen-Xers, Millennials, and Gen-Zers. Some may see it as idealized, but the idolized self seems more apropos.
In too many ways, evangelical Christianity in America tends towards opposing or embracing the current cultural wave. Both approaches fail to produce their intended effect. Fighting culture wars is a losing battle and the if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em approach is futile and foolish.
Does this seem too harsh of a judgment?
Consider this. Mere opposition and rejection of the current cultural wave builds a wall neither side can nor will climb. Pursuing this approach by older generations results in the inability, perhaps unwillingness, to reach out to younger generations.
When well-intentioned Christians embrace the cultural flow of expressive individualism of the I-Generation, they are no longer light and salt to the world (Matthew 5:13–15). Instead of influencing the culture for good, they get swallowed up by the cultural tide. This leads to a shallow, compromised, pseudo-Christian faith.
In my next post, we’ll look at how engaging the culture is a better way to deal with cultural change.