Christ and culture

The 2007 J. Spencer Nall Memorial Lecture

‘Christ and Culture’ (The challenge – To conform or to transform?)

The key issue I want to address is whether we as Christians will allow ourselves to conform to the culture we are part of or will we seek to transform it by the values and Spirit of the Kingdom of God?

In the past three of the forces that have shaped culture were:

  1. The family, the clan, the tribe
  2. Religion – what people believed
  3. Commerce – how people grew, produced, exchanged, bought and sold things.

From time to time the influence of each of these waxed and waned but there was a kind of balance.

In our time a dramatic change has taken place. The third force, commerce, has joined itself to the most powerful and ubiquitous instrument our world has ever seen – the modern media – in all its dazzling and inescapable forms. This now threatens to overpower the other two.

The marriage was joined through advertising and marketing. Apart from some minor serious journalism that influences very few people, the popular media is primarily about delivering audiences to advertisers. Advertisers are about turning audiences into consumers.

Modern consumers are created by the construction of what has been called ‘Hyper Reality’. (1) Hyper Reality is a construction of desirable but artificial images. “You can be this or feel this if you buy this, wear this or drive this.” These images are then marketed for consumers. Hyper Reality is the product of consumerism. The process is reinforced by the promotion of discontent. “This mobile phone plan is better than the one you’ve got!”

The problem of course is that Hyper Reality is mostly fantasy and delusion. Eventually everyone is mugged by real reality. The consumer path leads inevitably to disillusionment because we know that the acquisition of things on its own does not lead to happiness nor does it construct real personal identity.

In the powerful and disturbing film ‘Fight Club” the writer of the screenplay puts these words into the mouth of one of the disillusioned young men who seek in the violence of the fight club some authenticity, some reality in their empty, superficial, consumer lifestyle.

“We are the middle children of history – no purpose or place. There is no great war for us to fight, no great depression. Our great war is a Spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’ll be millionaires, and movie gods and rock stars. But we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” (2)

It seems to ‘Jack’, the central character, that to feel really alive, to find meaning, can only be discovered through some existential experience of extremes, in their case the violence and the physical pain of the fight club.

Disillusionment leads to depression, anger and violence. It also leads to self-medication to ease the emotional pain or fill the vacuum. This is one of the reasons we now have an epidemic of alcohol and substance abuse. It may also explain the growing incidence of youth violence.

But the results are not only personal and individual they are social and global. Rampant consumerism leads us deeper and deeper into the environmental crisis and accelerated climate change – it is simply unsustainable.

Modern progress has reached a critical point where it is now eating itself, destroying its own achievements; it has turned into social regress.

While we are one of the wealthiest countries in the world with one of the most sophisticated health systems – Diabetes is skyrocketing, juvenile dental health is declining, one in four children have a mental health problem and Beyond Blue tell us that one in five adults suffer depression.

What is required is an alternative Christian Community that models a different lifestyle, one that says no to hyper reality and lives differently. A community that lives simply but joyfully, that is temperate and restrained but generous, disciplined but gracious.

The media Juggernaut is now the shaper of values and meaning for most Western people. It is in the process of overpowering the other two traditional shapers of our culture – the family and religious belief. Even the democratic political process is now captive to this monster.

I begin at this point to emphasise the size and seriousness of the challenge before us.

But this year we have celebrated the 200th Anniversary of an event that can give us great hope – the abolition of the slave trade in British Territories in 1807. A campaign by English Christians led through the British Parliament by William Wilberforce. This is an outstanding model of Christian mission and the transformation of culture.

It was a long campaign. It took them 18 years to get the abolition Bill passed and another 26 years to get all the slaves freed – 44 years! But they persisted.

Why was it such a struggle? It was a long struggle because of the social, economic and political climate of the times. The English upper classes were terrified of a French Revolution on English soil. The parliament was distracted by other issues. England was constantly at war with France and their American colonies. England’s growing wealth was tied to the colonies and the Slave Trade. The British Navy depended on recruiting merchant ships at times of war and the Slave Trade encouraged the building up of the merchant fleet. One of Wilberforce’s most bitter opponents was the national naval hero Lord Nelson! Britain’s leaders were fearful of any social reform at this time.

I mention this to encourage us because we also face a social climate that is not conducive to our values and we can easily be discouraged. But they did it and so can we!

Their campaign methods are instructive and a model for ‘faith based activism’. They mounted a media and petition blitz to coincide with Wilberforce’s Parliamentary Bills. (10% of the English population signed the Petition!) They assembled damning evidence of the barbaric nature of the trade. They developed a logo of an African man in chains with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” The famous potter, Wedgwood, even mass-produced it as a pottery plaque! They produced books, posters, they held rallies, they wrote to MP’s. They created a national organization and a huge grass roots movement. John Coffey comments: “There were even boycotts on consumer goods, as up to 400,000 Britons stopped buying the rum and sugar that came from the slave plantations”. The churches were mobilized and “hundred’s of Methodists … signed a petition against the slave trade in the Chapel at the Communion Table of the Lord’s Day.” (3)

The abolitionists were profoundly influenced by the radical New Testament teaching on relationships.

A fascinating example of this is found in Paul’s letter to Philemon. It was written to accompany a runaway slave, Onesimus, as Paul returned him to his owner, Philemon. It appears that both had been converted to Christ through Paul’s ministry. Paul’s appeal begins as a very personal and emotional one (v8-13) but ends with a radical theological idea. He calls on Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but… as a beloved brother… both in the flesh and in the Lord” and as “a partner” (v15-17). In other words as a blood brother, as a brother in Christ and as an equal partner, like Paul, in their common enterprise – the Gospel! This is a radical request to a Roman slave owner.

In Colossian’s 3:10-11 and Galatians’ 3:26-29 Paul expresses this idea powerfully in the concept of our unity in Christ through baptism. “As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed your selves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Christianity draws us into a radical new identity through a radical new community. All our old communities of identity; gender, race, ethnicity, education, economic and social standing are relativised by our baptism into Christ. The old communities of identity often divide us, our new identity unites us. In addition, this particular unity is set against a broader unity laid out in the Bible – the idea that because every person is created in God’s image we are all bound in a common relationship. This together with the doctrine of the incarnation means that every person is precious and must be treated with dignity and respect. The English abolitionists logo expressed it well – “Am I not a man and a brother?”

These concepts of respect for every person and relational responsibility are touchstones of Christian ethics and social decision-making. Eventually this teaching undermined the Pagan ideology that was the basis of slavery. By the 12th C slavery was largely abolished in Christian Europe and by the 14th C rare, with the exception of some parts of Spain with it’s proximity to North Africa. But the rest of the story is not so happy or consistent and it raises the question of Christianity and culture.

In the 16th C two extraordinary acts of moral apostasy took place in Christendom. In 1548 Pope John 2nd issued a decree that it would now be acceptable for a Christian to possess slaves. Then in 1560 Queen Elizabeth 1st, defender of the Protestant faith of England, commissioned John Hawkins, sailor, merchant, naval hero and buccaneer, to get England a slice of the lucrative Trans Atlantic slave trade. The Queens decision was driven purely by economics and so began England’s long and immoral involvement in the transporting and trading of West African slaves from 1560 – 1807, 250 years and some three million slaves.

When European Christian’s looking for religious freedom settled in North America, they later developed the new nation with slaves! Founders of the “Republic of the free” like Thomas Jefferson kept slaves. Eventually they fought a bloody civil war over the issue. There were Christians on both sides arguing for and against slavery. Slavery was not officially abolished in the US till 1865. The effects of that bitter struggle still continue in American society today.

The British “Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge”, an early overseas mission agency, owned slaves in the West Indies. Following the common and barbaric custom they were physically branded, in their case with the word “Society”.

These disturbing examples raise the critical issue of the relationship between Christ and culture. How does a movement that morally transformed the Pagan world lose its bearings so easily on an issue that is fundamental to its core values?

At times Christianity has had an extraordinary morally transforming effect on its culture.

In his fascinating book “The Rise of Christianity” the sociologist Rodney Stark gives a very convincing account of why Christianity moved from a tiny minority to the majority religion of the Roman Empire by the time of Constantine’s conversion – just 320 years! It was because morally they out lived, out loved, out cared and out served the Pagans. Their treatment of women, children, slaves, the sick and the poor, their racial inclusiveness, their hope, simply overpowered the inequality, racism, corruption, violence and despair of first and second century Pagan culture. (5)

But, as we have observed, at other times Christians have been seduced and compromised by the culture in which they are set. They have been drawn into moral and theological reductionism, where they reduce core values and beliefs to fit the world view and practice of their times.

Borrowing and adapting categories developed by H.Richard Niebuhr (6) as he reflected on this question, the relationship between Christianity and culture can be described in the following ways:

(1) Christianity under the culture. E.g., Persecution by the Roman Empire in the first three centuries; Byzantine Christianity oppressed by Islam under the Ottomans’; the Church under Communism in Laos or China today.

(2) Christianity against the culture. E.g., Where the Church is actively opposed to the dominant culture as in the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany with Bonheoffer and Niemoller or the Solidarity movement opposed to communism in Poland in the 1980’s.

(3) Christianity over the culture. E.g., Where the Church dominates and controls the culture, exerting power over it as in the Holy Roman Empire from the Middle Ages to the 15thC., or Geneva under Calvin.

(4) Christianity withdrawn from the culture. E.g., Where the Church disengages and withdraws into ghettos or closed communities like the Anna Baptists in the 16thC or the Amish in North America or the Exclusive Brethren and some forms of fundementalist pietism today. The motive may be fear of contamination from the culture or a desire to create The Kingdom on earth in an ideal community.

(5) Christianity absorbed by the culture. E.g., Where the Church is seduced by the dominant cultures values and conforms to them, adapting its values and beliefs to fit the culture. The contemporary Western Church reveals many examples of this like prosperity gospel teaching or ordinary Christians adopting the same materialism and consumerism of those around them or the retreat from classical Christian beliefs and Creedal faith. Apartheid in South Africa, tribal conflict in East Africa, and the culture of violence and confrontation in Northern Ireland are all tragic examples in the recent past.

(6) Christianity transforming the culture. E.g., Where Christianity acts like salt and light in the culture, reshaping its values and affecting public policy, like Wilberforce and the 18th and 19th English Christian social reformers. It is worth noting that in the examples of Northern Ireland and Africa mentioned in (5) above that Christians are now leading the reconciliation process and have moved to a transformational stance.

In Australia today the sixth relationship is the one I believe we should be pursuing.

Earlier we looked at the challenge of the contemporary media and consumerism. Another major issue is the contemporary trend towards social fragmentation. This is one of our great transformational challenges. I mention this because it links to the same fundamental issue faced by Wilberforce and the abolitionists – what really unites us as human beings.

We are a culture caught between contradictory desires. Because we are made in the image of God we are made for unity – unity with God and others. But because of our fallen natures we tend to disunity and fragmentation.

We are constantly conflicted – caught between the God placed desire for unity and community and the other desire for ever expanding individual choice – a desire that our Western consumer culture constantly feeds.

On top of all this, globally we now live in a socially and politically fragmenting world. The old unities of national, ethnic and cultural identity are all under challenge and stress by globalism and mass migration.

W.B.Yeats’ poem captures the feel of our times:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity. (7)

The world seems decentered! And yet the deep desire for unity and community persists.

One of the biggest challenges before every Western democracy today is maintaining a healthy multiculturalism.

Strongly influenced by our Christian heritage we continue to work at multiculturalism. There is a vigorous discussion going on about the need to redefine the essential core values of a multicultural democracy but we continue to work at the goal. Why? Because it is a unity dream – unity in diversity.

But can the dream stay alive in a decentered and fragmenting world? Can the dream overpower the nightmares of Racism, Xenophobia, extreme nationalism and fundamentalism?

Can the dream of unity and community stay alive without the revitalisation of its spiritual and moral source?

Let me remind you of that source – it is the N.T. and the Gospel.

Col 1 “…in him (Christ) all things hold together … God was please to have all his fullness dwell in him and through him to reconcile to himself all things… by making peace through his blood shed on the cross.” (8)

Gal 3 “…there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (9)

Can we re-cast this vision of Christ as the source of unity, the centre for a decentered culture – the way to coherence in an incoherent world?

Can we re-cast this great transformational vision?

To be a transformational force we must remember that the Church and the individual Christian can never be neutral to the culture; we either work on the culture or it works on us. Therefore we should be constantly assessing and critiquing the culture and our part in it with the values of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God. Passivity is not an option! But as we critique it and ourselves we must stay engaged because the surrounding culture is the arena of our mission. When Jesus said “as the Father has sent me so I send you” he was sending us into our culture with the good news of the Kingdom of God. Eugene Peterson in “The Message” translates Rom 12:2 “Don’t become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead fix your attention on God and you’ll be changed from the inside out.”

A question we should be constantly asking ourselves is: “In what ways am I allowing the culture I live in to compromise or reduce my Christian faith and practice?”

Wilberforce and his circle of friends in the “Clapham Group” used their influence to reshape British society in the early 19th C. Indeed many of the social values we take for granted today in Australia were pioneered by them. They created 69 different societies dealing with a great range of social issues including prison reform, child labour reform, factory reform, public education, gambling reform, the prevention of cruelty to animals – the list goes on. They also formed many evangelistic and overseas mission agencies. They managed to hold together what we have often separated – social justice and evangelism. They were very clear that individuals needed to be brought to personal faith in Christ; they understood that God desires to reconcile people to himself and to transform them. They were also clear that at the same time society could not be allowed to be dominated by greed and self interest, it had to be moderated by public policy that protected the poor and the powerless. Society also needed to be transformed. Nothing has changed these two needs in 200 years.

In this anniversary year of the abolition of slavery in British territories and the recognition of the profound influence of the “Clapham Group” we could take up the challenge to form “Clapham Circles” today and try to influence our profession, our business, our company, our political party, our community with the values of the Kingdom of God so that both individuals and our society might be transformed.

Peter Corney


(1) Mark Sayers “The trouble with Paris” DVD Room 3 Productions 2007

(2) Chuck Palahnuik, from the movie script of ‘Fight Club’

(3) John Coffey Cambridge Papers Vol 15/2 2006

(4) St Paul The letter to Philemon N.T (NIV)

(5) Rodney Stark “The rise of Chistianity” Random House 2006

(6) H.Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) “Christ and Culture” First published 1951. Torch books 1956

(7) W.B. Yeats “The second coming” 1920

(8) St Paul The letter to the Colossians 1:15-20 (NIV)

(9) St Paul The letter to the Galatians 3:26-28 (NIV)

Recommended Reading

“Saints in Politics” by E Marshall House (George Allan & Unwin, 1976)

“Vital Christianity – the life and spirituality of William Wilberforce” by Murray Andrew Pura (Clements Publisher Toronto 2003)

“Jubilee Manifesto – a framework, agenda and strategy for Christian social reform” Edited by M. Schluten and J. Ashcroft (Published by IVP. UK)

“Christ and consumerism” Edited by C. Bartholomew and T. Moritz (published by Paternoster 2000)

“Above all earthly powers – Christ in a Post Modern world” by David F. Wells (Published by IVP UK 2005

“The culturally savy Christian” by Dick Staub (Jersey-Bass 2007)

“Just generosity” by Ronald Sider (Baker 2007)

“Justice in the Burbs” W & L Samson (Baker 2007)