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Faith In Culture: (Pt 1) What Is Culture and How Do We Relate to It?

June 25, 2014 by Jay O'Brien 0 comments

Posted in: Faith In Culture

The Gospel lives in conversation with culture, and if the Church holds back from the culture,                                 the Gospel itself falls silent. – Pope John Paul II

Every Christian, everywhere, in every generation has consciously or instinctively lived in tension between their Christian faith and contemporary culture. Each of us has been shaped knowingly and subconsciously by our culture. Our take on beauty, food, proper human interaction, space, music, time, and taste are culturally conditioned. How we view human identity, sexuality, meaning, and purpose is shaped by the values, technologies, and agendas expressed through corporations, media, and personal interactions. In light of this reality how do Christians believe and apply the gospel?

Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring this question through a series of blog posts. This conversation is ultimately a precursor to a discussion group we are having this summer titled “Faith In Culture.” You can catch the details for this group below. I’ll begin the conversation by defining “culture” itself and presenting three paradigms for relating to it.

What is culture?

In the book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, Ken Myers describes culture as a “dynamic pattern, an ever-changing matrix of objects, artifacts, sounds, institutions, philosophies, fashions, enthusiasms, myths, prejudices, relationships, attitudes, tastes, rituals, habits, colors and loves, all embodied in individual people, in groups and collectives and associations of people, in books, in buildings in the use of time and space, in wars, in jokes and in food (34).” He summarizes his definition by saying culture is “What we make of the world.

Contrary to the thought of many Christians, the influence of culture on human thought and interaction isn’t bad. It is inevitable. Culture itself isn’t evil, but neutral, encompassing the convictions and understandings of people who are dynamically influenced by technology and others.

How have Christians engaged culture historically?

Richard Neihbur’s foundational work Christ and Culture outlines 5 ways in which Christ interacts with culture. To simplify the conversation I’d like to boil it down to three ways Christians engage culture: reject, receive, and redeem.


Niebuhr calls this “Christ Against Culture” and describes it as, “The counterpart of loyalty to Christ and the brothers is the rejection of cultural society; a clear line of separation is drawn between the brotherhood of the children of God and the world.” There are times when the church must outright reject practices of the dominant culture.


Lamin Sanneh labels this “syncretism” and rightly points out that there are indeed moments when the right response for Christians is to embrace culture. Whether it’s advancement in medical practice or redeemed social practices related to slavery, a Christian should not view all cultural advancements as causes to stand against.


Lastly, there are cultural practices that should not be received, but should also not be outright rejected either. Rather, there are views and practices that can be redeemed. Toward this end Sanneh writes, “Reform is a prophetic stance that attempts to keep one foot the kingdom of the world and another foot in the kingdom of heaven. The result is not a condemnation of culture (though that is one possibility), but instead it focuses on the continual reformation of ethics and behavior thus celebrating, condemning, and critiquing culture while anchored in the text.”

The debate among Christians is when to employ which stance toward culture. What cultural practices and beliefs should be rejected, which should be received, and which should be redeemed? Check back in for part two as we engage this question and discuss the gospel informed indigenizing and pilgrim principles.

For further study check out the resources below and if you’re in the Columbus area this summer consider joining the discussion at “Faith In Culture.” To sign-up or for more information email me at Here are the details:


Faith In Culture

WHEN    6:30-8:00 p.m. Thursday evenings from July 17 – August 14 (5 weeks)

WHERE Brazenhead Pub, 1027 W. 5th Ave., Columbus, OH 43212

WEEKS (1) 7/17 – Christ & Culture: Navigating through the Chaos

             (2) 7/24 – "By What Authority?”: Evaluating Biblical Authority in Pluralistic World

             (3) 7/31 – Science & the Bible: Must I Choose One?

             (4) 8/7 – The Problem of a Good and Powerful God in a Sick and Suffering World

             (5) 8/14 – Sex, Culture, and Gospel Identity

WHO    Jay O'Brien (ThM. Dallas Theological Seminary, Lead Pastor at Scarlet City Church) and Tyler Yoder               (PhD candidate at Ohio State University) will be leading the discussion. All are welcome to join.



Resources for further study

Christ and Culture, Richard Niehbur

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Lesslie Newbigin

The Missionary Movement in Christian History, Andrew Walls

All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, Ken Myers

Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, Lamin Sanneh

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