Culture for human beings is like the water that fish swim in. Water is so necessary for life, and so pervasive, that fish don’t realize that there may be another larger world beyond their ocean or fishbowl. Fish depend on water to live. Likewise, we all assume our culture is life giving because it surrounds us. We learn to breathe it and survive in it because, if we don’t do that, we believe that we will die. We all accept the utter necessity of our particular culture for life, without actually thinking much about that assumption. That is what living in a culture means.
But we Christians are told that we are “not of this world,” and must be “counter-cultural.” “Even religion itself can become enslaved unknowingly to the deceptive values of the culture, and hence the constant need of the prophetic tradition of self-critique.” What does being ‘counter-cultural’ mean, in practical terms? First of all, it means that we ought to live in constant tension with the conventional culture. To do that, we Christians must create and live in an alternative culture that we strongly believe is essential for life. Resolving the conflicts between the common culture and the alternative culture when we make choices determines how we deal with life. If the common culture is very powerful, and the alternative culture is weak, then we Christians will make choices and live pretty much the same as everyone else. If our alternative culture is strong, we Christians will make different choices than others, and live according to Jesus’ reality.
For most Christians, their local church is the only source of an alternative culture. And when local churches lose their ‘saltiness’— their radical differences from the common culture – then churches become weak influences on the way that Christians make choices and live. But since, in America and Australia we Christians live in societies that have largely marginalized churches, the conventional culture is persuading people, even many Christians, that the Christian culture’s ‘saltiness’ just doesn’t make sense any more. “You are the salt of the earth.” [Matthew 5:13] The common culture does throw us a bone: It is OK to retain a semblance of church (so you can feel good about yourself that you ‘really’ are a Christian) but it is definitely not OK to be ‘salty’ and to try to live differently and perhaps even change the common culture and the world.
This in a nutshell, is the cultural argument for why local churches must be transformed, to increase their ‘saltiness’ and their ability to grow a strong alternative culture that can help Christians conflict with the common culture and more strongly bring Jesus’ ideals of reality into the world. Charles Taylor saw this in its largest historical context: “God is gradually educating mankind by transforming it from within. . . We are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee.” It is up to us, the people in the pews, to see this now and decide to act.
© 2011, James Harlow Brown. All rights reserved.