Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Danger of Confusing Christianity with Your Culture

[UPDATE: After I published this piece I received some healthy pushback. One of my friends questioned how this was a response to Mr. Shuck and also questioned whether I interpreted Mr. Shuck's article correctly. I'm thankful for thoughtful feedback. It makes me better. I decided to change some of the wording to more accurately reflect what I meant. 

I should not have used the word response. I meant that his article evoked a response in me. In retrospect, this blog post is more of a reflection that was prompted by reading Mr. Shuck's article. Also, I made an unfair, and possibly inaccurate, assumption about Mr. Shuck's use of the word culture. 

I decided to focus less on Shuck and more on the dangers of thinking there is a singular Christian culture. My intent all along was to challenge this belief and not challenge a random person that I do not know.]

A worship ministry of Mending Wings called Dancing Our Prayers

A few years ago I read about a PC(USA) pastor named John Shuck who does not believe in God but remains to be an active minister. Yesterday he published a piece for titled I’m a Presbyterian Minister Who Doesn’t Believe in God.

Here are some examples of what he believes:
  • Religion is a human construct
  • The symbols of faith are products of human cultural evolution
  • Jesus may have been an historical figure, but most of what we know about him is in the form of legend
  • God is a symbol of myth-making and not credible as a supernatural being or force
  • The Bible is a human product as opposed to special revelation from a divine being
  • Human consciousness is the result of natural selection, so there’s no afterlife
I imagine many theologians will respond to one or more of those points in the days to come. Those points deserve a thorough and thoughtful response. In this post, I want to respond to reflect upon a point that was buried in the article. Mr. Shuck wrote, "I think of Christianity as a culture. It has produced 2,000 years of artifacts: literature, music, art, ethics, architecture, and (yes) beliefs."

While I do not know exactly how Mr. Shuck defines culture, many times I hear Christians lump the church together as if we are one homogenous group. While we are certainly united as brothers and sisters in Christ, our values, our interpretation of certain passages, and the ways we worship can be dramatically different. When we lump everyone together like this we risk dismissing all of the manifestations of the Christian faith that do not look, sound, smell, and feel like ours. In conversations like this I often hear, "Aren't we all one in Christ?" Absolutely, but that doesn't mean we are the same. Unity is not sameness. I am not promoting universalism.

Rather, I am arguing that there is no singular Christian culture.


This is Brazilian sculptor Guido Rocha's "The Tortured Christ."
When we talk about Christian art, what is included and what is excluded?
The sad reality is, many of the Christians in the U.S. regularly confuse Christianity with their own culture without even knowing it.

This is a dangerous practice because, when we live out this misguided theology, we end up oppressing others. Conservatives do it. Liberals do it. I've done it. This very misunderstanding fueled all sorts of atrocities in our past and continues to fuel them in our present. Entire people groups have been wiped out in the name of Christ because Christians confused Christianity with their own culture.

Who are your people? 


My friend Corey Greaves feels the pain of this unhealthy approach to Christianity on a daily basis. He is an indigenous youth pastor on the Yakama Reservation in Washington. Corey is passionate about helping people learn how to worship the Triune God in ways that resonate with their culture. He is also one of the funniest and kindest people that I know. He has been a tremendous help in my journey to understand my own ethnic and cultural identity.

Corey (third from left) at an evangelical church with the Dancing Our Prayers team
Corey's Christ-centered ministry, called Mending Wings, has a program that teaches indigenous kids on the Yakama Reservation their native tongue and the history of their people. In a conversation I had with him a few months ago he said, "We have a dying language and culture thanks to the U.S. Government and the Christian church." Imagine the horror of having everything that you value ripped away from you by the church and the government. What would it feel like to be forced to no longer speak English in the name of Christ? Corey's people are living in the midst of historical trauma. This is the world in which he lives and ministers.

One of the many reasons I appreciate my friend Corey is that he is passionate about helping me learn how to worship God in a way that resonates with me. He isn't trying to convert me to the Yakama version of Christianity. He sees value in who I am as God created me to be (sounds like a certain Jewish carpenter circa 26 C.E.).

When I first met Corey he asked, "Who are your people?" This question was motivated by a realization that the Gospel is timeless truth that is revealed in and through culture. As I study Scripture, worship, and pray with some friends from other cultures, like Corey, my understanding of God is enhanced. We need each other for growth, healing, and spiritual vitality.

Culture is key to connecting with God


Culture is a beautiful part of being human. Culture is one of the things that shapes how we read and understand Scripture. Imagine how powerful Jose Ignacio's painting Cristo Campesino Crucificado is to Christians living in war torn Nicaragua in the 1980's. I imagine the metaphors in this painting stir the hearts of those who suffered during this time.

Cristo Campesino Crucificado
José Ignacio Fletes Cruz (Leon, Nicaragua)

Culture is key to connecting with God. In the incarnation, the all-powerful, self-sufficient, creator God entered into our space and our time to communicate his redemptive love in ways that we could understand. God chose a particular time, place, and culture. God speaks to us in a culturally relevant manner that resonates with the songs of our hearts.

God even chose a certain ethnic group to teach the world what it meant to be in relationship with Yahweh. The message was never intended to stay within the chosen ethnic group. In the Old Testament, God's covenant with Abraham specifically stated that Abraham's people were blessed to be a blessing. But some early Christians didn't get it. One of the first arguments in the church had to do with whether or not Christians had to first become Jewish before they could become real Christians (Acts 15). Remember, Christianity started as a Jewish sect. Paul uses his letter to the Galatians to argue that Gentile Christians do not have to adopt Jewish customs to be welcomed into the family of God.

Again, culture dictates the language and metaphors that help us connect with the truth revealed in Scripture. Yet, if we make the mistake that the early church made, and insist that people must first become like us before they can become Christians, we are perpetuating destructive cultural imperialism. 

Where do we go from here?

We must acknowledge that the Gospel is timeless truth but that it is always communicated in the context of a culture.

We must acknowledge the way we worship, study Scripture, and pray is shaped by our culture.

We must acknowledge that our culture (and nation) does not have the corner on biblical truth.

We must acknowledge that our cultural (and national) values are not always in-sync with the Gospel.

We must learn to listen and see what the Triune God is doing in the context of other cultures (and nations).

We must commit to learning from others, especially the marginalized and oppressed.

If we do not, we will continue to preach a "gospel" that is only good news for people who look, dress, and vote like us. And if the gospel is not good news for all people, it is not good news.


Looking to learn more about culture, race, and the Christian faith? Check out these resources!

1. The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Captivity by Soong Chan Rah
2. Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Christian Practices by Frank Viola & George Barna 
3. One Church, Many Tribes by Richard Twiss
4. Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland
5. The Heart of Racial Justice by Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson
6. Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
7. Every year my church in Seattle has depth/discipleship class on faith and race. We have accumulated a ton of great resources. Check them out!

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