The Gospel’s Culture War
by Andrew Shi
David Brooks, a widely respected conservative social commentator, observes in his New York Times column that Christianity is destined to lose the culture war around sex (if you haven’t yet, I strongly encourage you to read the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage). Mr. Brooks urges Christians to direct their social conservative views more towards visible service such as caring for the underprivileged rather than towards defending traditional dogma. Given Mr. Brooks is a man who practices and writes on spirituality, I find it surprising that he thinks faith will win over culture if it simply picks and choose its fights. For one, I’m not even sure that as a Christian I am called to a movement that will win over the culture. That may be the purpose (and end goal) of any minority movement, but is it the purpose of the Church today? What’s more, it disturbs me that the overtone of this piece is that religion’s role in our society should be a tool for peace.
This is a dangerous belief, because not only does it perpetuate a widespread acceptance of moral relativism (so long as any religion can make moral people, it is good), it also pressures Christians to believe that they have to somehow reconcile Christianity to their culture, instead of the other way around. Indeed, if the Bible is treated as only a “moral compass” to help us lead better lives, then of course it wouldn’t make sense to follow it word for word if some aspects of it offend our cultural sensibilities or our individual intuitions.
As if he were responding to Mr. Brooks, Tullian Tchividjian writes in Christianity.com:
Ironically, the more we Christians pursue worldly relevance, the more we’ll render ourselves irrelevant to the world around us. There’s an irrelevance to pursuing relevance, just as there’s a relevance to practicing irrelevance. To be truly relevant, you have to say things that are unfashionably eternal, not trendy. It’s the timeless things that are most relevant to most people, and we dare not forget this fact in our pursuit of relevance.
Both writers are urging Christians to be relevant. Mr. Brooks is urging Christians to find that social justice/spiritual niche in today’s post-modern, progressive culture. Pastor Tchividjiam is asking Christians to rethink what it means to be relevant altogether. He suggests that real relevance—one that passes the test of time—must have some eternal aspect to it.
Speaking of eternal relevance, I turned to Facebook, where every new happening one hour can disappear into the abyss of the newsfeed the next. To do some research for this piece, I posted a status asking my friends to fill out a three-question survey on how they would describe pop culture. I received around two dozen responses. Many people described pop culture as “vain,” “shallow,” “trashy,” but also “fast,” “new,” and “attractive.” I found it fascinating that all of us recognize that there’s something inherently transient about the latest fad or idea yet nonetheless succumb to the irresistible charm of consuming it before asking ourselves why. Like children scrambling for the last cookie in the jar, we hurry to be relevant in our culture—and there’s an added joy to being the first one to get it.
This search for relevance is indicative of our desire for meaning and purpose in life. C.S. Lewis puts it this way in Mere Christianity:
A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
If from our own experience we can testify that our deep desires for meaning and purpose cannot be fulfilled by what is temporarily in front of us, then Lewis may be right in observing that there has got to be something more, something whose relevance is not fleeting.
That something is the Gospel. This word’s Greek equivalent euangelion literally means good news. The Gospel has been good news since the wake of Adam and Eve’s fall when God foreshadowed the coming of a savior in Genesis 3. It was good news when God delivered the stiff-necked and unbelieving Israelites into the Promised Land. It was good news when God promised David that the Messianic King would come from his throne’s lineage. It was good news when Jesus entered the world in a manger. It was good news when He was crucified. It was good news when He resurrected from the dead. This, I believe, is what embodies Pastor Tchividjian’s description of “unfashionably eternal, not trendy.” God’s story from beginning to end shows us the unfolding of this good news.
The Gospel doesn’t reinvent itself every time to keep up with what a culture wants or needs to hear. It doesn’t sensationalize but tells of a historical event quite plainly, leaving the story “to be continued” into the narrative of our own life. Unlike what Mr. Brooks would like to see, the Gospel’s role is not to supercharge a social conservative Christian movement that will make our culture more spiritual or sensitive. Its reality is not meant to bring a little conformation here, a little information there. Rather, the good news of the Gospel is transformation of our entire worldview. That is why it is always relevant.
Mr. Brooks is surely right about one thing: more people now than ever before in America regard the Gospel as irrelevant both in belief and especially in practice. But that is precisely why the Gospel is the most relevant thing our culture could crave for this moment.