Christians are part of culture and culture is part of us.
Photos by Ben White
In the popular 1990 film Home Alone, Kevin is a boy who has accidentally been left behind from the family Christmas vacation. He manages to do most things on his own, but is afraid of the basement.
Every time he creeps down the stairs, he sees the furnace flare up with eyes of fire, and a large mouth that opens and closes and threatens to gobble him up. As Kevin begins to take responsibility for his life – grocery shopping, cleaning and even protecting the house from robbers – his confidence grows.
In one scene he puts an end to the fear. While doing his laundry in the basement, he sees again the monster of his imagination growling before him. This time he looks at it with the confidence of experience, and simply says, "Aw, shut up!" The furnace closes, the room is quiet and Kevin gets on with his work.
Life in Canadian culture can sometimes leave us feeling like Kevin. We feel we are left alone to defend the Christian faith. We see and hear the monsters in the basement all around us, telling us we are under fire and under threat.
But when we look at our culture carefully in the light of day, we may find things are not as scary as we first thought. Perhaps the monsters are mostly creatures of our imaginations, fuelled by the fear of change and unbridled rhetoric.
Yes, the Church is declining.
Yes, the Christian influence in Western society is waning.
Yes, culture is secularizing at a rapid rate.
No, the Church doesn’t enjoy the same cultural position it used to.
In response to a secularizing culture, and a declining Church, many Christians have retreated to a cozy room of comfort and locked the door – the spiritual equivalent of hiding under the covers.
There are two problems with this retreat from culture. First, there are fewer and less scary monsters than we imagine. Although we are experiencing a great deal of cultural shift that leaves us feeling unsettled and disoriented, God is still on His throne, and His Church is still on mission in this country.
We enjoy an immense amount of freedom to worship and live out our faith with commitment and enthusiasm. Christians enjoy many privileges too, from tax laws favourable to religious organizations, to a general moral influence that resonates in many local communities as it does in our national consciousness.
Many events have played large in the national media that seem to undermine Christianity in Canada. Sometimes they make us afraid our faith is under fire. However, when put to the test through courts of law or public protest, a reasonable and fair outcome has often occurred. Instead of assessing our cultural position soberly, we panic when we confuse our loss of privilege with persecution.
Perhaps we feel our loss of position in culture so acutely because we became too accommodated with the principalities and powers of secular nationhood and global economy. We expect to have power, authority and cultural advantage. Our ruined comfort irritates us like a bad spring in an old mattress. We’d rather try to find a new position in bed than get up and face the world with the gospel of Christ. We become our own worst enemy.
This leads us to the second problem with a retreat from culture – the culture needs us.
Christians have too quickly withdrawn from reminding decision makers and secularists that the foundations of our country depend on an understanding of the dignity of humanity and the sovereignty of God that comes from a Judeo-Christian understanding of society. We don’t have to be numerous to be equipped to present God’s wisdom and love beyond the walls of the Church. But we do have to be gentle as doves, and wise as serpents.
And we must be present.
And of course, we are present. It’s not as if there is the friendly Church and hostile culture. That’s not the way culture works. Christians are part of culture, and culture is part of us. When we talk about how "they" have rejected Christ and "they" have moved so far away from the gospel, what we are usually talking about is our friends, our neighbours, our loved ones, ourselves.
This is our culture. One we participate in every day.
This recognition helps us overcome fear and misunderstanding of our position in a new cultural reality. "They" are not some bogeyman ready to pounce in the basement. "They" are our friends and loved ones.
Want to know how the culture is thinking? Ask your brother, your grandkids, your neighbour. Think about the aspects of culture that shape you and make you think and act the way you do. Go to a film, listen to music, sit in a coffee shop. The gospel is always delivered in a cultural package – and good thing too because otherwise human beings would be lost.
As it is Jesus came to earth in a place and time and entered cultural existence. He reaffirmed God’s creational mandate to grow culture as a positive human task. Jesus rebuked those aspects that inhibited the growth of the Kingdom of God and defeated them on the cross. His resurrection victory over death happened in a culture – and is relevant to every culture on earth. Our job is to share this incredible news in our culture, no matter how it changes.
Our main task is not cultural preservation, but missionary witness.
That colleague may never meet another Christian besides you. Your non-Christian family look to you for an example of Christ’s love. We are the encultured gospel witnesses.
But from politics to workplace, our fear and frustration take over. We are afraid of ridicule, condemnation, discomfort. It’s not always easy to live for Christ, and He told His disciples they should expect strong opposition. However, in our context, it’s often a lot easier than we imagine it to be.
Part of the fear is that we are not equipped to share our faith, let alone live it out consistently ourselves. We found it easier to live for Christ when people shared some of the basic assumptions about life. People might not have believed the Bible, but they respected it. They might not have followed Christ, but they had a general idea of what that meant. Now we have to start over and that makes us afraid.
Not only do we struggle to explain our faith to others, but when we are challenged, we’re not always sure what we believe ourselves. We hide from the conversation because when the questions come, we don’t know what to say. Or we become dogmatic and shut the conversation down.
When we know and understand our own faith well, and grasp its philosophical and historical viability, we can engage conversations with humble confidence.
We need to gain a perspective that will help us connect with non-Christians. Rather than indicating, "The Bible says," we address apologetic questions of why the Bible is important to begin with. What evidence is there for the existence of God? Was Jesus Christ a figure of history or fairy tale? Why do we need faith at all?
If we are honest, these are questions we have had too, and that admission allows us to engage them honestly. If we don’t know the answers to these and similar questions, then we need to do further reading and study, or take a course.
A faith worth living is a faith worth working at over a lifetime.
My own experience of engaging culture with faith is a distinctly positive one, and a daily adventure. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. Neither do I wait for someone else to validate my faith before I commit to living it out. Everywhere I have gone in recent years, I have spoken freely of Christ, borne witness in communities and on campuses, and never felt silenced or shut out.
There will always be people who disagree. Why shouldn’t there be? Let them shout. But I have encountered a genuine curiosity from people everywhere, and from all strata of society, who have fewer and fewer venues for discussing matters of faith and spirituality. They welcome conversations where they can explore the concept of God without condemnation. We must step up to the responsibility of hosting these discussions, and pointing people to Christ when they seek Him.
So rather than nagging the culture to adjust to the Church, perhaps we need to adjust to living in a pluralistic context. It’s time to stop feeling threatened and embrace the adventure. We can learn to express our faith in ways that don’t assume privilege, but recall that we have been privileged. We can do the hard work of learning to express our faith well in diverse contexts.
Maybe we will need to learn some philosophy or take religious studies. If we fear that will erode our faith, then perhaps our faith is resting on the wrong foundation. We have depended on the culture for too long to prop up our faith rather than owning it and seeking to walk more deeply within it.
If not to ourselves, we owe this to a generation growing up with challenges many of us can’t imagine.
We don’t need to panic that we need to defend God in a godless world. God is at work and will defend Himself. But when we get involved with defending the rights of persecuted Christians around the world, we will see ourselves more clearly – that whining about what we’ve lost becomes a self-indulgent distraction from exercising our discipleship.
Perhaps it’s time to learn and teach how to live our faith in contemporary culture with love and joy.
Our rights as Christians in our culture need to be monitored and carefully guarded. At the same time we can embrace our responsibilities. Let’s stop this seemingly endless cultural lament and get on with the serious and joyful work of the gospel. After all, it’s not our work, but the Holy Spirit’s to change a heart and a culture.
That we are invited to partner with God is an extraordinary privilege. Our work is to be prepared in season and out of season to give account of the hope we have within us. Hope is a most precious commodity in our world today.
HELPFUL TIPS for bold cultural engagement
- Take stock of what freedom and privileges we have as Christians living in Canada, and give thanks for them.
- Don’t expect everyone to assume your values. If they’re not believers, why should they?
- Recognize that freedom of religion means freedom of religion for everyone or no one.
- Choose your battles. Is that thing you are fighting about worth the time and energy you are giving it? Is it a central principle of your faith?
- Celebrate the victories when religious freedom is recognized and upheld.
- Recognize that culture is not the enemy, it’s simply our context.
- Look for God-given opportunities rather than thinking you have to create them all the time. God is at work in a situation long before we get there.
- Point out with appreciation the Judeo-Christian foundations of the things we value as Canadians, including individual freedom and human rights.
- Admit our failures as Christians and churches. This keeps us humble and prevents us from being smug. We have been part of the powers and authorities that created some of our historical messes.
- Remember there are different Christian perspectives. We won’t always agree on the best way to live in our culture. But if Christ is at the centre, we should not erect barriers between one another. Christ’s way is always higher than ours.
- Take up the challenge of engagement, not exile. Uncircle the wagons and invite others into a conversation, not an argument.
- Organize a study group or take a course to examine some of the questions you find most challenging.
- Remember we live in a democracy, and have a right and responsibility to have our voices heard. We have potential to continue shaping the landscape.
- Keep global Christianity in view. Considering the actual extent of persecution some Christians face gives us a much more balanced view of our own situation.
- Consider how churches on the margins in Canada have thrived. Power is not required for Kingdom position.
- Focus on the needs of others rather than our own position. What is our main task right here, right now?
- God can defend Himself. We are but witnesses to His gospel, which is always good news.
Anna Robbins is associate professor of theology, culture and ethics, and vice-president of Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, N.S.