Life at the Intersection: Can the Bible Address Culture?

What a weekend!

I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking this weekend.

I’m finally getting my study set up so that I can get back to work on a book that I’ve been writing and some other projects that have been sitting on the sidelines for the past few…gulp…years. Here’s hoping that life will cooperate with me so that I can get things back on track.

Anyway, part of that busy weekend involved another discussion with someone that I’ve interacted with recently here on the blog: atheist Amateur Exegete.

A Twitter-friend of his who is also a pastor, who is doing a seminary project, hosted a discussion on the intersection of the Bible and culture titled, “Reason, Religion, and Culture: focusing on the Bible and the role it has in culture”. Our host, Doug, was hoping that he would have had a little bit of a crowd for the discussion, but they were in the midst of a snowstorm so it didn’t work out so well, plus we ran out of time, so we had to cut it short.

Amateur Exegete posted his opening speech over at his blog, so now that I’ve got half a second and everything all together here’s not only the video of the discussion, but also my opening speech, which I titled, “Culture at the Crossroads”.

I had fun, putting it right up there with my Dogma Debate experience.

Culture at the Crossroads

Whenever we speak of “culture” we speak of ideals. We are necessarily employing concepts that are, by themselves, philosophical and theological at fundamental levels. More importantly we, like so many cultures before us, find ourselves at an intersection in history looking at a road sign trying to determine which way is the correct way. We can turn right or we can turn left. The cacophony of voices from the back of the bus of culture shout angrily about which way to turn, each claiming to know the promise that each path holds, each promising that the road takes one to a happier place. The problem that you face is that you represent the deciding vote. You represent the one that the fate of culture depends upon. You are the culture taken from the abstract and made concrete. So, which way do you turn?

It may seem that I have saddled you with an incredible burden, but it is the burden that every member of every society actually bears. If you were the one to make the decision, which way would you turn? Why would you go that way? When you listen to the arguments from either side, what are you judging the arguments upon? How are you even determining whether or not an argument is being made? What are you assuming when you start considering the propositions put forward and can those propositions be held consistently across multiple categories and contexts?

One might assume that the subject can be considered neutrally, that we can simply run an experiment and see what results. The inherent problem with such assumptions is that neutrality is a false starting point. To begin analysis assumes certain facts about the world that are themselves not in evidence.

For example, to ask the question, “Would you like it if I punched you in the face?,” assumes that the person should care about being punched in the face or not, and that their opinion actually matters in a grand sense, and the person asking the question is truly concerned about the response beyond mere rhetoric. Similarly the statement, “No one deserves to be punched in the face,” assumes that there is a standard by which one can meaningfully draw such a conclusion about what “one” deserves, and culture does its best to communicate this.

“Culture” by its nature and etymology has a religious substructure that is used as the medium by which values are promoted, articulated, and justified. This is a fact that can be demonstrated historically in that most cultures, prior to the founding of the United States, were anchored in a particular religious affiliation. It’s why there was, and still is, much underlying tension in Europe, because of old religious convictions that were ultimately transmutated into a particular regional and national identity. In coming to the era of its founding, the father’s of this nation made a decision not to identify its culture by a specific set of religious dogmas, but in what was ultimately common between men, and that the rest should be left to the conscience of the individual and not mandated in law. The problem is that culture has an extremely short memory, and will often find a multitude of ways to amuse itself rather than engaging in meaningful reflection upon the past.

To that end, most will simply take for granted certain facts rather than asking questions about the reasoning for those assumptions. The tendency at large is never to ask, how did we get here and what are the justification for valuing “A” over “B”, rather it’s to just ignore the past or to demonize it without recognition of the fact that no thought is ever truly in the present with us, but is itself in the past and, if the person were consistent, would ignore or demonize it as well. No one wants to start with a blank slate and say, what would it take to get started? What would be required to generate relationships, not just between parts, but actors? The Christian assertion, first and foremost, is that God has done this already and models for us, in his Triune nature, patterns that are to be embodied, patterns that find positive representation meant to be embraced, as well as negative representation meant to be avoided, in Scripture.

See Amateur Exegete and my first encounter: Squaring Up and Squaring Off

The culture that can rightly be called “Christian” is not defined by dogmatic adherence to a set of particularly identifiable doctrines, but in the boundaries of relationships that extend from God to and through his creatures. This begins by recognizing that it is God who defines the relationships as creator, and works it’s way out either in obedience or disobedience, in accordance to the desire to maintain that first relationship, for it is in that relationship alone that others can be rightly defined. It is against the narrative of Scripture, which serves as a template, that one can find these patterns given a living voice that articulates a promise to all who hear the call of the One who speaks through it.

In order to hear the voice speak clearly, it requires one to draw close, to put aside certain assumptions, and be willing to learn and to work because, like any other relationship, it requires a willingness to work and a heart that has been bent to be responsive to the voice.

As such it requires something that the larger culture often rejects: an attitude of true humility that actively denies the inherent impulses and destructive arrogance of mankind that does its best to distort relationships until people ultimately wind up discouraged and alone.

The promise of God, found expressed in Scripture, is one of family, made both possible and real in Christ Jesus, who came to heal the rift made between man and God by giving his life as a ransom for many. The promise of Christ is in the adoption into God’s family and the restoration of the true Father to the lives of every person who draws near to God through Christ. For it is only in the proper alignment of that relationship that all other relationships can be defined and aligned.

At the crossroads of culture, the Christian claim is that right or left is the wrong question. The correct question is what is the will of God that needs to be worked out? To assume that apart from humble submission to the roadmap that has been given to us that one can arrive at the proper destination is the height of human hubris. For in order to get to a desired location, one needs to know what the destination should be and how to get there. There are two ways to get there. The first is to stumble blindly into the dark future where untold dangers lie, and the other is to walk a narrow but well defined path, that while difficult, delivers one safely to the destination.