Thursday, January 31, 2008

What does it mean to be a "Christian in Context"?

If we truly aim at being "Christians in Context", we have some work ahead of us. Many scholars, pastors and theologians are very good at being Christian: they know Jesus and the Bible like Aunt Jemima knows pancakes. Many laypeople are good at being Contextual: they live, eat, sleep and breathe in a context of Consumerism and mass media inundation.

The problem, then, is obvious: the theologically and biblically astute need to become more culturally and contextually aware and those who are "in the trenches" need to understand the war they are waging and how they should do so.

Enter Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Baker Academic, 2007). This collection of essays, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (TEDS) and a couple of his PhD students, is a great place for both parties we've spoken of to bring either Christ into their context, or their context into their Christianity.

Vanhoozer and his cadre of disciples view the elements of human culture as "texts" to be read and interpreted. Some of the specific texts they tackle in their essays are: the checkout line in a grocery store, a song by rapper Eminem, mega-church architecture, Ridley Scott's Gladiator, the culture of busyness, and even the blogosphere!

The book begins with a chapter by Vanhoozer, entitled "What is Everyday Theology? How and Why Christians Should Read Culture." This essay serves as an introduction to the whole book. It is Vanhoozer's prolegomena and methodology for the specific analyses made by his students in the rest of the book. In my opinion, the whole book is worthy of a thorough read. However, if nothing else, I commend this first chapter to you as a primer on cultural engagement.

Here is a brief rundown on what Vanhoozer has to offer:

1. Analysis of "What Culture Does": Vanhoozer states explicitly that his aim in the book is to keep Christians from being merely passive, undiscerning consumers of culture and instead to be active participants in culture, knowing both how to read culture and how to write culture. This is Vanhoozer's genius. He understands that culture is both an expression of the human heart and condition, but also that culture and cultural constructions shape the human psyche. So culture, if I read Vanhoozer rightly, both provides a context in which the gospel can be "contextualized" and also can shape people in ways that are antithetical to the gospel of Jesus. In this way, Vanhoozer avoids the pitfall of those who see God all over popular culture (e.g. Craig Detweiler), and also avoids the type of cultural isolationism that characterizes most fundamentalists. Vanhoozer urges us to be voracious readers of the "texts" all around us, in order that we might more effectively minister the gospel and also so that they don't have the ability to shape our psyche unawares.

2. Theological Bearings for "Cultural Exegesis (Interpretation)": Vanhoozer doesn't blithely tell us to be engaged in culture. Instead, he offers us four classic Christian doctrines that should encourage this type of engagement:
  • The Incarnation: the supreme revelation of God was the Word inculturated and incarnate in First-Century Palestine. This reminds us of two things: 1) What God wants to communicate is not already available in the culture, but 2) that God spoke into the culture in a very human and relevant way to say what he had to say (ie, Jesus Christ).
  • General Revelation: the idea that evidences and messages from God are all around us in nature, Vanhoozer says, should lead us to conclude that at least some of what is going on in popular culture and the arts is not just babble, but rather an attempt to grapple with the revelation of God that is all around us.
  • Common Grace: If, as the Reformers said, God is still operative even in the unbelievers, perhaps our reticence for cultural engagement is unfounded. Vanhoozer here quotes Richard Mouw, who says "God has a positive, albeit non-salvific, regard for those who are not elect."
  • The Imago Dei (Image of God): Here Vanhoozer asserts that, though fallen, man has not completely lost the image that was imprinted upon him in the Garden of Eden. He wonders aloud if Genesis 1:28 is not a mandate for humans to be, like God, creators and "culture-makers." The implication is: if culture-making is a commission given to mankind, ought not Christians to be engaged in it?
3. A Balanced, Transformative Theology of Cultural Engagement:
As I've noted throughout, Vanhoozer's purpose for urging us towards "cultural literacy" is so that we might be better fitted for kingdom ministry:

The mission of the church is to cultivate the life of Christ in ourselves, our neighbors, and our neighborhoods. This means inculturating the way of Jesus Christ in concrete contexts. The church should be not only a "school of faith" but a "school of understanding" that trains the imaginations of its student-saints to see, judge, and act in the world as it really is "in Christ."

When the people of God fulfill their vocation, the church becomes not a sign of the times--this way lies cultural conformism--but rather a sign of the end time: a work and world of
evangelical meaning. The church's life thus becomes an "apocalypse"--a revelation, an unveiling--that unmasks the powers that be and reminds us that they will not, contra appearances, be dominant forever. The church is to be a glimpse of the new world in the midst of the old, a reminder that the old order is passing away and a standing witness to the new. Accordingly, it is charged with the task of being a permanent revolution to prevailing plausibility structures. To "do church" is to engage in a different kind of politics, the "art of the impossible," an art that challenges our tired conceptions of what is possible. For "with God all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26).



Al Hsu said...

If you liked Vanhoozer's Everyday Theology (I did too), then you'll probably appreciate Andy Crouch's forthcoming Culture Making (releasing this August). It's all about getting beyond merely condemning culture, critiquing culture, copying culture and consuming culture, and says that the only way that we can really change culture is to create culture. Check out

Norman Jeune III said...

Thanks for the recommendation! It looks interesting and I will definitely check it out- thanks for checking out our site too!