There was a Christian ethicist named H. Richard Niebuhr who lived during the first part of the twentieth century. He is most well-known for his book, Christ & Culture (1951) in which he puts forth various theories about how Christ interacts with culture. Sometimes it seems as though Christ is against the culture of society, offering a critique and exposing the institutionalized sin therein, but this is not the only possibility. Niebuhr himself proposed alternatives such as Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture. I am discovering that Christ can also redeem our culture, that which was once pejoratively labeled secular. There remains an unspoken belief that the secular things of this world are antithetical to the sacred things of God, and this is transmitted in many of the policies of the Church. Many churches reject popular music being played in worship. Others refuse to utilize trending digital technology and social media. Some reject the modern standard of relaxed dress, and insist through peer pressure rather than an explicit dress code that all who enter into the church building conform or face condemnation in hushed whispered tones and unspoken looks of disdain. It would appear that there is a long history of the Church setting itself up in opposition to secular culture, but what about our concept of redemption?
I believe that there is nothing beyond the transformational power of Christ. The Psalms declare the mighty power of God unfolding in the action of redeeming: “O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Psalm 130:7 NRS). Leviticus provides for redemption of land: “Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land” (Leviticus 25:24 NRS). Even Revelation is prophesy about the day when the whole earth shall be redeemed, when the old things shall pass away and new things emerge from heaven: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:1-2 NRS). So why do we operate as though secular culture is the exception to God’s redemptive rule? Why should the Church abjectly reject anything cultural that did not explicitly have its origins in the Church? If that were the case, then Jesus should never have performed his first miracle at a wedding celebration, for no where in Scripture is a wedding reception or party commanded. Parties are a cultural aspect that predates the Church of Christianity, and even Judaism. Yet Christ redeemed it not only with his miracle, but first with his presence.
I did not grow up with secular culture in worship, but the compartmentalized existence of my childhood (i.e. this is church, this is school, this is work, and that is home) melted away as technology made it easier to be an integrated person. I can work from home, go to school online while hanging out at Starbucks, live stream worship, and control my house lights from a mobile device. Boundaries are blurred, and I can take my culture anywhere with me, accessing it with the touch of a screen. But we in the Church seem to have sequestered Christ, locked him in a brick and mortar prison, refusing to let him touch the secular as if it were unholy evil. Christ cannot be corrupted. Touching the secular will not destroy his holiness. During his earthly ministry Jesus did visit synagogues, the sacred learning centers in cities and towns. He also visited the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest site of offerings, sacrifices, and worship of God. Yet the vast majority of his time was spent in the secular realm of people’s homes, the commercial districts, the shoreline where fishermen congregated, and along the landscape of hills and valleys. It was there that Christ used parables of everyday events to communicate the Kingdom of God and the Gospel of salvation. If his presence was not enough of an act of redemption, then his utilization of these cultural norms in his teaching and preaching is. Jesus put a Godly spin on everyday things and cultural norms. People could no longer look at a mustard seed and not recall the metaphor for faith. Even the cross, a cultural means of enacting capital punishment, was redeemed into a symbol of faith and triumph over sin and death. Somehow we have lost this truth, and most certainly is evangelical power.
It is time we recall the tenacity of Jesus in redeeming all things. How he took what people knew and felt comfortable with and made them conduits for entering into the spiritual realm. Christ forgave sinners and told them to go and sin no more, but never told them to reject their culture and vilify it. Instead he sent his followers back into the secular culture to engage the people there. They took common meals aka. dinner parties and made them sites for worship in homes as the people reenacted the Last Supper in the midst of their meal together. The Apostle Paul used his secular job as a means to meet new people and speak Christ’s truth in love, converting untold numbers of people, and planting churches all over the Roman empire. New Testament authors used the secular mode of writing letters to outline the conduct of Christians, which has called us into that deep and profound communal love known as agape. If we allow our creativity and our love of Christ to fuel us, then we can put a Christian spin on anything. We will never eradicate secular culture, and I personally do not think we have to, because God has empowered us through the Holy Spirit to be vehicles of redemption. Clergy do this when they preach and use antidotes and personal examples in our sermons. When I hear the song “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers, I think of Paul’s emphatic plea that Christians “bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2 NRS). That song is considered secular, but more people know the lyrics to it than the hymn “Blest Be the Dear Uniting Love” by Charles Wesley, so teach them to think of what they know in a whole new way, a holier way. Maybe we can show the generations that refuse to enter into our midst that we do not reject and hate what did not start in the Church, and model that we do not reject and hate them because they are not currently part of our fellowship, or born and raised in the Church. Maybe we can surprise them and make them wonder if there is more to us than they thought. And just maybe in that space we create through our unexpected response to secular culture, Christ will be brought closer and more readily received into the hearts of many. Is this not our task, our duty, and our divine call?