“Counter cultural” Christianity makes no sense

One often comes across calls for Christians to be “counter-cultural”. This rhetorical figure pitches “the Gospel” against “culture” and suggests that Christians, or the Church, have the responsibility of representing the Gospel in the struggle against a culture deemed hostile to it, hostile to God and God’s message to humanity.

This call comes in two main varieties, with different conceptions both of the culture to be opposed and of the Gospel to be opposed to it. Culturally conservative Christians diagnose contemporary culture as morally decadent and the Gospel as being or including moral prescriptions that would address this, especially in the linked domains of family, sexuality and reproduction. On the other hand socially “progressive” Christians, aligned to the political left, see the key problems as being greed and especially capitalism and environmental degradation and denounce a culture of  “consumerism”. These Christians espouse a gospel with “justice” at its centre.

I suggest that both these views of the relationship of Gospel and culture are wrong in very similar ways: they operate with a view of  “culture” that lacks both theological moorings and any real understanding of the nature of cultural life; and they misunderstand the way in which the Gospel works in, through and under (to borrow a sacramental phrase from Luther) the Church as a cultural phenomenon.

First on culture: this idea has its modern origins in the nineteenth century where initially it was a view that there was an elite “culture” which created fine, “cultured” individuals through their nurture in an inherited system of ideas and sentiments. Through their education (culturing) they acquired the ability to think and feel in more advanced ways. Culture made people better.

Later the idea acquired a different connotation through cultural comparisons, especially via anthropological investigation of alternative modes of life, especially of “primitive” cultures. The idea arose of cultural alternatives, entire modes of thought and feeling, that could be opposed to one another and which formed individuals of different kinds. Culture became destiny and an all encompassing field that determined who one was.

It is “culture” in this sense that forms the opposition in the “counter cultural” Christianities of today.

I would suggest that this idea of culture is and always was a gross over-simplification of the way people live together. Cultures are not and never were unitary in the way suggested nor are people passively shaped by them.

All cultures are overlapping sets of interlocking and interacting cultural practices. Every “society” (the scare quotes express scepticism that any society has clear boundaries and forms a single whole) and every person’s life is a process of negotiation and contestation in which ideas and feelings drawn from a variety of sources are configured and re-configured in shifting and temporary constellations.

This applies also to the Christian. One key cry of the Reformation was sola Scriptura the demand that all Christian ideas and practices be traced to their source in the Bible. This is not an idea without merit but needs to be treated with care. How many of us learned our Christianity by means of an individual and unguided study of these texts? I’d be surprised if any did.

In fact we all come to our knowledge of what Christianity is through immersion in the “culture” of the Church. We learn to be Christians by means of the Church, there isn’t really any other way. The implication of this is that Christianity is one of the cultural forces contending and negotiating in the cultural field. Christianity IS culture. (This is the characteristic claim of the post-liberal theology of the “Yale School” associated with the American appropriation of Barth allied to an understanding of the central role of narrative.)

This doesn’t deny either the central place of the Biblical revelation, the transcendence of God, or the reality and divinity of Christ. It simply makes an observation about how we as human beings of an irreducibly social nature encounter and experience these realities. We become and develop as Christians through a process of enculturation, through participation in (some form of) ecclesial life.

This means that to ask the Church to be “counter cultural” is to ask it not to exist. We should instead demand that it be thoroughly, consistently and self-consciously cultural. It has to understand itself and its place in its setting in ways that allow God’s action in and on the world to work through it in the way intended. It has to be an agent of the Kingdom by means of cultural influence. This may well be its single most important task.

This implies also that we have to lose some of the bad habits I observe of negativity and hostility to the (rest of the) culture. This is indeed a fallen and sinful world but we should recall that we are part of it. The Church too is fallen and sinful. This doesn’t mean that God can’t be present in and to it and the same applies to the rest of our societies.

There is a tradition within Reformation thought of respect for the moral insights of non-Christians associated with the term “natural law” and much stronger in Luther than in Calvin. Those of us in the Reformed tradition may well have something to learn from Luther in this regard.

Let’s look at those outside Christianity who are striving to be good as well as they can as friends with whom we might exchange assistance rather than either as enemies or as those who need pulling onto out heavenly life-raft.

It may be that liberalising sexual and other ethical codes is a process we should try to influence rather than reverse. It might be that capitalist development is (as Marx thought) a useful if temporary stage in social development that should be guided rather than resisted.

This kind of whole-hearted participation in the process of culture is risky and unstable but what’s the alternative? Opting out of history doesn’t to me seem like the expression of God’s Providence or of Christ’s sovereignty.

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5 comments
  1. A very insightful and thought-provoking post Nick. At least, it made me think a great deal… and I presume that you would consider that to be a good thing! I have rather unthinkingly accepted the common line that we should be ‘counter-cultural’ (from both the ‘evangelical’ and ‘progressive’ perspectives) without really thinking too much about what that meant. So your post has been very helpful. Still mulling it all over. It seems to me that the sticking point is the meaning of the word ‘culture’. I imagine that most of those who use the phrase ‘counter-cultural’ intend to think of culture in a similar way to which Paul uses the word ‘world’ in (eg) Romans 12: 2. It might be possible to argue that Paul’s use of ‘world’ in certain contexts (and ‘flesh’ for that matter) had specific meanings that went; beyond the simple definition of these words. Might the same claim be made for ‘culture’ by those who urge us to be ‘counter-cultural’? Not sure. Still thinking…!!!

    • I’m sure you’re right, David, to make the connection between “culture” and “world” and I’m not sure that there’s any good way to manage the “already” and “not yet” of eschatology. I probably err towards over-accommodation with the world in reaction to the (theoretically) world-denying tendencies I sometimes see.

  2. Another interesting aspect to all this is our social identity (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_identity_theory), which often comes from comparison to other groups. I worry when Christians (myself included) start to draw stronger identity from comparison with others rather than keeping a focus on my identity in Christ and drawing my sense of self from my relationship with God. The problem with using a counter cultural identity is that as you suggest, culture is complex, fluid and multi faceted. When I compare myself predominantly as a Christian to a nonbeliever, I risk the elder brother problem of not coping if my brother comes to faith. If the elder brother had remained focused on his identity as a beloved son, he too might have rejoiced when his younger brother returned!

    • Yes, the key problems with claiming to be “counter cultural” are that it firstly assumes the “culture” to be in some way homogeneous and coherent and secondly that it then assumes that Christianity is or could be separate and distinct from that culture.

      This is not completely without Biblical warrant but softens the New Testament call to be other than “this age” or “the world” to such an extent as to lose what is essential in it.

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