Decomposition of Christian culture
November 22, 2008
bible / church / culture
To continue my series, I want to briefly look at Christian culture as it typically exists. It is interesting that my lack of diligence in this series allows this particular post to occur when it is, as the last few weeks have been an interesting look at Christian culture in the United States.
In recent years, there have been a good number of books to remind us of the cultural situation in which Jesus lived, and show us the comparisons that exist today. This does include politics, but it goes far beyond that, which is why this post deserves to be separate.
So, in the time of Jesus, of course the Roman Empire was the dominating daily force on society as a whole, and in Judea as a specific region. The various cultural and religious leaders of Judea defined their leadership methods, attitudes, and goals to a large extent by their relationship to that Empire. I think it is impossible to overstate the importance of this fact.
I want to look at these various leaders, and see how their influence has entered Christian culture as well. You can find more about these groups in the writings of many New Testament scholars, as well as in The Secret Message of Jesus.
- The Zealots
The Zealots were a sect of which Simon, one of Jesus’ apostles (though not the same as the Simon who carried his cross), had been a part. They believed that the Roman occupation of Judea could end if they would rise up in a righteous revolution. During the time shortly before, during, and shortly after Jesus, Judea was a volatile region, in part due to these kind of ideas. Of course, they expected the Messiah to be a warrior, and it is clear that Jesus does not fit their criteria.
We have seen this influence Christian culture throughout the centuries, especially in the structuring of what we now know as Western culture. We have seen ourselves fighting against enemies, whether real or imagined, in a holy war to establish the kingdom of God.
- The Herodians and Sadducees
The Herodians and Sadducees believed it was unwise to resist Rome, both because of its insurmountable military power and, possibly, because it was often financially or in other ways beneficial for them to take positions in various high places.
We have much of this in Christian culture. I think we have seen some of this in the Religious Right, and may see it in the Religious Left if it does not guard itself carefully as it develops. The Right, over the past few decades, allowed its entire identity to line up with that of the Republican Party. Everything that was okay for Republicans was okay for Christians. Many preachers got fat paychecks, big audiences, and did untold damage to the kingdom of Jesus.
- The Essenes
The Essenes were a sect of which John the Baptist is believed to have been a part. They are also among the reasons that we have the Dead Sea Scrolls today. They looked at the culture of their day, with its excesses and idolatries and corruptions, and they decided that they should create a refuge, out in the desert, far from culture.
In the desert, they were able to live lives seeking the holiness of God and rejecting the various evils of the world. They stood as a contrast to any who sought something different than what the world offered them.
Throughout church history, we have had examples of this attitude toward culture. In the third and fourth centuries, again in the context of the Roman Empire (though it had by this time been baptized into a form of Christianity), the Desert Fathers and Mothers retreated into the desert to live in the presence of God, away from the falsehoods of civil religion and society. We have many wonderful writings and stories from them.
Again in the Middle Ages, the monastic movement did the same thing, and it is due to them that we have universities, and in all likelihood it is due to them that the texts of Scripture were preserved, although most people did not have access to them.
Today, we can still see this in various monastic movements (though, the new-monastics tend to, for the most part, move away from this desire for isolation and move into a desire for engagement), groups like the Amish, and many others who retreat into the ivory towers of academia or ministry (not that these fields are always ivory towers to which one retreats).
When I was in college, one of my professors spoke often about his personal visits to monasteries, and how easy and wonderful it could be to live a life in this kind of way, but that God desired for him to be a part of culture. I can resonate with this.
- The Pharisees
The Pharisees are among the groups that most Christians think they know best. Generally we portray them as being hypocrites, legalists, and so on and we use the term as an insult. In actuality, they were a group of people who profoundly understood the Torah, and profoundly rejected the idolatry and rejection of Torah that the Old Testament prophets saw as leading to the Babylonian Exile. They never wanted that to happen again.
In attempting to purify their lives and their beliefs, they saw it as essential to live holy lives and lead others to live holy lives. They saw the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the publicans, and the Sadducees and Herodians as reasons that Messiah needed to come and free Israel from the tyranny of Rome and the sinfulness of their surroundings.
We in the church have been incredibly good at modeling our lives after this pattern, especially in cultures where the framework of the society does not follow the church. Consider the United States. In recent weeks, we have seen sadly comical reactions from the conservative church to the election of Barack Obama, as well as to the idea that our country might come close to allowing gay marriage. There have been outright statements that we are being led toward the destruction of our society, but that’s okay because we’re really going closer to the return of Jesus.
The cultural mission of Jesus had things in common with, and yet stood in contrast to all of these groups. He refused to set up holy wars against Rome, refused to benefit from the Empire around him, refused to leave the people he loved without an incarnational witness, and refused outward purity at the expense of grace and mercy.
What I have tried to present here is how similar we are to the Jewish leaders who we have blamed for missing Jesus. Jesus didn’t fit their criteria for a Messiah, and he often doesn’t fit ours either. We will miss him as they did, if we do not change.
If we are to follow the message of Jesus, we cannot define ourselves by our relationship to the culture around us. In recent weeks, I have heard a resurgence of the phrase “culture war” from the mouths and keyboards of Christians. We cannot fight in a culture war. It must end, or at the least we must not be a part of it.