Whatever your reaction to the recent Super Bowl game with the ’49ers versus the Ravens, I think it could be argued that the most divisive element was not the game itself (hold or not to hold, that is the question), nor the Dodge Ram “God Made a Farmer” or Clydesdale horse commercials, or even the much-tweeted-about power outage.
The most colorful and varied reactions I observed were all about Beyonce.
Everything from shock to awe, Illuminati conspiracies, lamenting on the loss of decency, passionate defense or critical skewering of Beyonce’s performance prevailed on all forms of social media. I heard people either unabashedly praise her performance or condemn her as the queen harbinger of doom and loose living.
Whatever your reaction might have been, I realize that often Christian’s reactions toward Beyonce were primarily shaped by a general attitude toward culture: are you an optimist or a pessimist?
When we are optimistic toward culture, we often uncritically consume and unknowingly incorporate certain aspects of our culture into our lives without stopping to consider whether they are harmful–for Americans, this manifests itself in individualism and consumerism. On the other hand, when we are largely pessimistic toward culture, we often condemn and critique and hide behind the secular/sacred divide without ever learning to celebrate the truth and redemptive beauty within the world. We are known for what we hate, rather than what we love.
So what is culture’s place in the church? What should the church’s responsibility and attitude towards culture?
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (the man behind the famous Serenity Prayer) understood this question and observed the five following models in the church around him:
1. Christ against culture: a withdrawal model of removing oneself from the culture into the community of the church (Most Pessimistic).
2. Christ of culture: an accommodationist model that recognizes God at work in the culture and looks for ways to affirm this (Most Optimistic).
3. Christ above culture: a synthetic model that advocates supplementing and building on the good in the culture with Christ.
4. Christ and culture in paradox: a dualistic model that views Christians as citizens of two different realms, one sacred and one secular.
5. Christ transforming culture: a conversionist model that seeks to transform every part of culture with Christ.
Pastor Timothy Keller explains these models further this way in his book, Center Church:
“Think of a particular cultural product—say, a computer. The “Christ against culture” person may refuse to use it because it undermines human community. The “Christ of culture” person will adopt it fully, assured that it is something God has brought about. The “Christ above culture” person will also adopt it but only use it for the purposes of evangelism and Christian teaching. The “Christ and culture in paradox” person will use the computer with some wariness and take great care not to indulge too deeply. Finally, the “Christ transforming culture” person will study the effects of computers on human relationships, communities, and character and then develop particular ways to use computers that do not undermine but instead support human flourishing as the Bible defines it.”
Keller admits that this framework is not perfect and no church perfectly fits any one mold. Each model has merits and flaws; however, Keller argues that we should seek to be in balance–in the center–as much as possible, living in the tension between pessimism and optimism.
“The Beyonce question” is important because our reaction reveals something about the nature of our hearts. We are never meant to solely and blindly affirm our culture (optimism), neither are we meant to unrelentingly lament the state of the world (pessimism). One position downplays the nature of sin and fallenness in our world; the other minimizes the redemptive power of Christ to restore and reconcile ALL things to Himself.
The question is not merely personal–we must ask ourselves as a church in this quest for “relevance”–what is our attitude toward culture? If we can’t even understand where we are at, we won’t have the wisdom and knowledge to be aware of our own cultural blindspots or actively course-correct if necessary.
So my question is…What is your attitude? And wherever you might worship, what is your church or religious community’s attitude toward culture?