Sunday, April 25, 2010

Cultural Christianity

Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities wrote an article about culture. He stated that “’Culture’ has commonly become the name for all those things we practice without really taking seriously. And this is why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as ‘barbarians’ with a ‘medieval mindset’: they dare to take their beliefs seriously.” This viewpoint has heavily influenced American thought and life for the past half century. The meaning of the term “fundamentalist” has acquired a derogatory sense. When we hear the term, our first thoughts are not about the fundamental beliefs that define a particular viewpoint. Instead our first thoughts are more likely to be about quaint, narrow, bigoted beliefs held by such individuals. Zizek is correct in assessing how we tend to view fundamentalism.

Unfortunately, we have so closely identified ourselves with this view of culture that it has also affected our religious lives as well. This results in faith becoming something we practice without really taking it seriously. We easily go through the motions – go to church, read the Bible, and pray – without really thinking about them that much. Once they are over for the day we forget them and move on. Dallas Willard, in The Spirit of the DisciplinesThe Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives notes that many Christians believe that being a Christian has nothing to do with actually following Jesus or being like him as long as we believe the proper things about Jesus. With this worldview, the major difference between good Christians and good non-Christians is that one attends church on Sunday and the other doesn’t. It explains why many of the problems, such as divorce rates, among Christians and non-Christians are virtually identical. We can actually find ourselves uncomfortable if we are around people who really do take their faith seriously. I personally ran into this in high school when my liberal pastor was upset with me because I was quietly reading my New Testament on the hour long school bus ride to school. He also threatened to kick my mother out of the church because she was involved in child evangelism. According to him it was OK to be Christian, only don’t let it affect your life too much. It was fine to be a cultural Christian, just not a committed one.

When we look at the men and women highlighted in the Bible, we see a much different picture. As a cultural Christian, Daniel would have eaten the king’s food and prayed behind closed doors. Instead he refused the king’s diet and prayed in front of the open window, knowing that it would likely get him in trouble. As cultural Christians his three friends would have bowed down, saying to themselves that they weren’t really worshipping the king. Instead they resolutely refused. Queen Esther went before the king, even though it might mean her death. Peter and John, when commanded to cease preaching about Jesus, replied that the Jewish leaders would have to judge whether it was better to obey them or God. Each one refused to go along with the culture. Each one took their faith very seriously.

We can’t escape our culture. Living in culture is part of being human. But we can intentionally decide that we will refuse to let it control our lives. We can model our lives after Jesus and live incarnational lives. We can pattern our lives after Jesus, living out his commands. As you examine your life, do you find yourself a cultural Christian or someone who is totally sold out to Jesus Christ?

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