To engage or not to engage

“Engaging the culture” is an oft used phrase by American Christians, found everywhere from popular magazines to sermons in addressing contemporary issues. Sometimes it becomes a bad cliché. As some have humorously pointed out, culture is all around us like the air we breathe, why then do you need to “engage it”? It is a valid point that we are all thoroughly embedded in our respective cultures. In fact, the most fundamental aspects of culture are the ones we really do not notice. Unless we experience a different culture or there is a radical shift from what it was in the past, we do not realise that as a society we like to behave in a certain way. In that regard we have to make no effort to be thoroughly “immersed in a culture.” We are simply in it. The idea of cultural immersion is to me more or less deals with popular trends which ebb and flow. They usually do not affect the foundation of a society because it’s what is en vogue not anything really lasting.

With all that being said there is some genuine merit to say Christians should engage their culture. To better appreciate this I want to use my country for example. As a Ghanaian Christian the idea of “cultural engagement” does translate well into my context. Ask the average Ghanaian believer and they will have a tough time understanding what that phrase means or may completely misunderstand it. In Ghana we use the word culture interchangeably with tradition so when you mention culture it is really about traditional customs and heritage. In the last century after the British finally defeated the Asante Kingdom, across the ethnic and cultural spectrum, Christianity has grown and become the dominant Ghanaian religion supplanting but not eradicating local forms of paganism which are still intrinsic to our culture. In terms of cultural dominance Ghanaian Christianity is still in its heyday. When you have such a prominent role that is mostly taken for granted, you do not think of cultural engagement.  This was true of the North American church a century ago but after two World Wars and a protracted Cold War, it is no longer the case. In the States the church still has a cultural presence and some good amount of influence even though that is fast shrinking. In Europe it is far worse where Christians are very much in the minority and lack any mainstream cultural capital. Living in a post-Christian America it makes a lot of sense why Christians there use the language of reconnecting with the wider culture. It has truly moved away from them.

Well the present reality of alienation also does not completely put to bed the criticism of the way cultural engagement is broadly used. It is not as if Christians set up a fully hermetic insulated community in that period somewhere in the American wilderness and now is seeking to re-join modern society. They were present during all these changes. As I was reminded recently post, modernism is the dominant cultural mood in the West, with extra emphasis on mood. That is to say it doesn’t present any new ways of doing things but rather scrutinizes and deconstructs the old so it is impossible for it to provide any real answers. If American and Western European Christianity lost out not to a tangible alternative but rather to intense criticism, then Christians themselves were partly to blame for what happened in how they handled these challenges. They were very present in the culture while these things were happening and did not vacate it only to come back to see a new setup. So how is the paradox of being both in and out of the culture resolved since there are valid points supporting each observation?

Though I am not an American nor do I live in America I still think there are lessons that as a Ghanaian believer I can learn from the conundrum. When I really got interested in biblical scholarship somewhere around a year and a half ago I have since noticed there are roughly two kinds of scholarship. Most modern biblical scholarship is very interested in the socio-historical context of the New Testament. Some scholars emphasise the similarities between early Christianity and larger world while there are those who emphasize the differences. I think the sociologist Rodney Stark summarises the reason why there is both continuity and discontinuity with the culture in early Christianity. He said basically that for a new religion to survive in a given society, it must be distinct enough to stand out yet not too distinct as to be un-relatable. It must balance novelty and familiarity, hitting that Goldilocks sweet spot. Of course this does not mean everyone will accept it but it needs to attract enough people from a wide pool to survive and be propagated on a popular level. Now this is still true today. Cultural engagement as a ubiquitous aim does not work but there are certain aspects of culture which do need to be engaged. Therefore there are aspects that do not need to be engaged. In fact there are things which the American church needs to disengage from. The overuse of cultural “engagement”, “relevance”, “immersion” or however you want to call it, as a catch all agenda needs to stop. Christians need to decide issue by issue how to respond to challenges and opportunities.

From what I perceive and I think many Western commenters have pointed out, the way they use buzz words like “cultural engagement” seems to suggest they will be accepted back at the table if they are culturally savvy enough. It’s almost as if Christianity has to become “cool” again, to become relevant as it is usually said. Christianity needs to be dressed as a millennial hipster with skinny jeans and tattoos to appeal to the masses. More mildly put, if Christians are nice enough Western culture will have them back. I think the last 50 years have showed that approach isn’t working. As one commenter so brilliantly put it, Western Christians thought they would spend their cultural exile in Athens only to realise they are in Babylon. Their views are no longer thoughtfully entertained but they are under the constant pressure to assimilate and essentially lose their Christian identity.

Now there are many varied complex responses to the current situation in the West which ironically is almost the direct opposite of what is happening in their former colonies to whom they brought the Gospel. Christianity is thriving in the Majority World whiles it’s in steep decline in the West. For me my favourite response is from Larry Hurtado. In discussing his latest book Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World he argues that what has happened in the West is actually a good thing. Christianity he argues was never intended to become Christendom therefore the failure of Christendom is in some respects not only expected but actually welcome. For him as a scholar of the early Christian era, he observes that Christianity in the West is being returned in many ways to a similar state as the early period which made it so successful. Since what the West is experiencing resembles more closely the 1st and 2nd centuries, he contends that the voices of the New Testament and the earliest church fathers need to be paid much greater attention. They have the potential to be very instructive in current times. In other words they have to go back to the Bible. We need to constantly have the outsider mentality, that fundamentally biblical posture of being in the world but not of it. For me this is the danger I see in Ghanaian Christian that we don’t have that thinking.

I have explored it in greater detail in another post but I feel that Ghanaian Christians should not be lulled into fall sense of security in their superiority like what happened in Europe and North America. Christendom seemed unassailable yet it went the way of all worldly kingdoms. Within a generation or two things can drastically change. We should not take our cultural position for granted. One of the greatest challenge of Ghanaian Christianity is cultural syncretism which has produced a lot of nominalism. The moment nominal believers do not have a reason to be nominal anymore they either choose to be fully committed or completely distance themselves from the faith. If Ghanaian Christianity should get to that cross road, how many will remain rooted in the Church?

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