Several weeks ago I reflected on Bishop William Willimon’s post “The Culture is Overrated”:
So you cannot know Christianity by having it translated into some other medium like Marxism, feminism, or the language of self-esteem. Christianity is a distinct culture with its own vocabulary, grammar, and practices. Too often, when we try to speak to our culture, we merely adopt the culture of the moment rather than present the gospel to the culture.
I find this kind of language all the time when Christians talk about “the culture,” whether about engaging with it or warning against such engagements. And although I find this language to be somewhat wise in asking us once more to take a step back and ask us to whom our allegiance is really owed (to whom we bow the knee), ultimately it paints the portrait of church and culture in too black and white of terms. Actually, it kind of falls, almost against its better judgment, into Martin Luther’s two-kingdom mentality by positing the culture as something that is of the same nature and category as what Christianity offers. That’s just too simplistic and doesn’t acknowledge the nuance of the human experience.
Allow me to explain myself. The Christian life is not one lived against or in distinction from culture but one that is lived amidst and calls from culture to question its own (culture’s) underpinnings. Here I find it helpful to posit a corrective. As Andy Crouch puts it in his book Culture Making, there is not one culture but a plurality of cultures. Culture is that necessary medium between people within a society. And here’s the kicker. As Martin Heidegger says, we are always already “thrown” (he would say into a life-world, but for our purposes here we can just substitute culture). When you were born in a particular area of the globe you found yourself in a world full of pre-existing, culturally conditioned meaning. Even if you were born within the church to Christian parents, the very normal dealings with non-Christians and the goings-about as a member of a community and nation predispose one to a particular mode of interpretation. This is not something that we can get out of, nor is it something that one is called to escape.
We are called to be ambassadors for Christ in our “thrown” situation, within our culture. That does not mean that there are no normative principles within the Christian message. By no means! But it is to call us into an understanding that one will always experience Christ and the world through these prisms. That is not to say that any one prism is fixed and timeless, but that there is always an inheritance of the past onto the present. For example, I do not sit here at my desk and write this article with an “American” prism of interpretation, but as someone who has grew up in Penacook, New Hampshire, as someone who learned about using computers from his dad when he was young, as someone who saved up my money in high school so that I could buy this very same computer on which I write my musings and as someone who has read different philosophers and theologians who shape how I think right here, right now. I approach these things not only from a Christian perspective, not only from a community perspective, but also from personal perspective. And as I reflect on them now, I see that they are all intermeshed in the tapestry that is my self. So to say that Christianity is opposed over and against other forms of interpretation is blatantly false.
This also bears on conceptions of personal identity. An example of this would be a discussion on my Latino identity. Just because I have become a Christian does not mean I stop being Latino, but that I am Latino in a radically new way. Sometimes that might involve discarding certain aspects of Latino identity that do not gel with the gospel message (there could be none, there could also be a bunch.) But it always means creating a new Latinoness that draws on both the Latino and Christian experiences and traditions to showcase the redeeming power of Christ as expressed in my normal, everyday life. However, in approaching God and understanding myself, I do not lose my Latino identity. I always read the Bible and engage in the process of interpretation as Latino and as Christian. The same principle applies to other identities and cultures and subcultures.
Finally, returning to the quote above, we always approach texts as creatures of our own moment and place. This implies that Christianity is not one monolithic culture with rigidly defined rules and regulations that are universally applicable through space and time. (Do women still have to cover their heads in church?) Rather, Christianity always lives in dialogue with its surroundings through the agency of Christ in the world, the Temple of God, Christians.