In the modern world, it is becoming more and more difficult to be a Christian. The American culture is now saturated with ideas, behaviors, and lifestyles that are opposed to the Scripture. In the past, biblical Christianity was one of the main influencers of western culture; often the culture mirrored the core values of Christians. But over time, the culture has shifted away from Christianity to the point that it is becoming increasingly hostile.
This issue, of course, is not news to Christians that have been paying attention in the last several decades. But an important question that should be asked is, “how should Christians respond to this reality?” According to H. Richard Niebuhr, in his influential book, Christ and Culture, there are several possible (historical) Christian responses. In this article, however, I want to explore two opposing Christian approaches to dealing with culture, and then propose a solution that combines the strength of both.
The first approach is cultural abstinence, or cultural separation. The strength of this approach is that it seeks to shelter Christians from the immoral influences by separation or lack of participation. For example, this approach insists that Christians should abstain from listening to secular music or viewing non-Christian films, even if the music or films contain some positive qualities. The proposed benefit is that it blocks cultural influences that may corrupt the soul. This approach is often used by parents raising their children.
Cultural abstinence is usually pursued for honest and pure reasons. It’s important to emphasize that there is nothing inherently wrong with this method. And for some people, if their consciences convict them, it is the right course of action. Some people may find themselves easily tempted by the culture, and they should abstain if they feel so inclined, and no other Christian should persuade them otherwise.
However, there are some inherent dangers to this method. This approach sometimes causes the one abstaining from certain activities to become prideful and judgmental toward those who do not share his or her conviction. The irony being that pride and hypocritical judgments are both considered sin in Scripture. If left unchecked, the approach that promises spiritual purity through abstinence becomes the very means of spiritual corruption.
The second approach is the opposite of the first. Those who espouse this method put no limits on how much a Christian could participate in the culture’s art and entertainment—no movie, concert, or art display would be considered out of bounds. Most people would recognize this as dangerous because it floods the mind with an endless stream of immoral ideas and images. Those who follow this method often argue that the culture’s immorality doesn’t affect them. But the problem is that the more a person is corrupted by the culture, the less sensitive they become toward that corruption. However, one positive aspect of this approach is that it may allow a person to understand and communicate to the world more successfully. After all, Jesus was called a friend of sinners (but he certainly never participated in their sinfulness). Considering the fact that Christians are not sinless like Christ and can easily fall into sinful behaviors, the dangers of this approach far outweighs the benefits.
After considering these to opposite approaches, I suggest that it may be possible the two can be brought together and improved by simply changing one’s perspective. Each method has its strengths, but the problem with both of these methods is that they view the culture passively rather than actively—like an unchanging, monolithic force instead of something that can be changed and nurtured in a more positive way. The way Christians influenced culture in the past was by leading—by creating culture, not by complaining about it. At one time, Christians lead the world in fine art, music, literature, and architecture. It could be that way again. Every culture is constantly growing and changing in accordance with its greatest influencers. As Christians, we can bemoan the fact that our culture’s values no longer align with our own, or we can encourage our children to become artists, musicians, writers, architects, and scholars that will shape the culture in a more positive way.
In the end, it seems the two best approaches are a combination of abstinence and cultural nurturing. Though choosing to be active in the cultural (while using discretion in choosing how far, with Scripture as the guide for those boundaries) is often dangerous, in the end it allows Christians to be salt and light to the world. Whereas abstinence may keep the soul safe to some degree, it does not help change the world. Ultimately the solution is about maintaining the very difficult balance between being in the world, but not of it.