Engaging the Culture: A Biblical Perspective

345px-ChristCleansingI recently had a conversation with someone regarding the Jehovah’s Witness position on the celebration of holidays. For those who are not familiar with the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they prohibit their members from celebrating holidays, both secular and religious, because many popular holidays have an apparent pagan origin and seek to exalt humans instead of God. A quick keyword search on their website provides a breakdown of their claims against specific holidays.

I mention the Jehovah’s Witness position not because I wish to debate the origin of any holiday or festive practice, but because it reflects a bigger and more important issue at hand. The overarching theme behind this issue is the relationship between culture and faith. How can we, as Christians, engage the culture while effectively and faithfully proclaiming the gospel? Are we able to find any points of contact between a culture and the gospel while evangelizing and catechizing?

The Jehovah’s Witness position on these questions is a strict one. Anything originating from pagan customs is automatically and permanently unclean. However, what does the Bible tell us? Are there elements in non-Christian cultures that can act as a springboard for evangelization? If so, is it theologically permissible to take advantage of such things? In this post, I want to point out a few biblical examples that provide support for connecting our faith with our culture.

The first example that comes to mind is Paul’s missionary work in Athens, specifically his sermon in the midst of the Are-opˊagus in Acts 17:22-25. Here is the text:

So Paul, standing in the middle of the Are-opˊagus, said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.” (RSV)

What is fascinating about this passage is that Paul uses the Greek pantheon and this vague, unassigned altar as the foundation for his kerygma. Despite having a plethora of gods and goddesses, the Greeks feared that they were missing an important piece of their religious puzzle. Therefore, this altar to an “unknown god” helped ensure that every deity, known and unknown, received praise and honor. It is in the context of this religious cultural belief that Paul proclaims the truth of Christianity. In effect, Paul comes along and tells the people, “I know who you are actually worshipping with this altar. Not only is my God the missing piece, but he is the entire puzzle!”

There are two things especially noteworthy about this scene. First, Paul does not dismiss or reject the ambiguous altar of the pagan culture. Rather, he understands the people’s recognition for something more than their known pantheon and he seeks to satisfy their religious desire for the fullness of truth. For Paul, the most effective way to do this is by encountering the pagan culture in order to elevate and transform it through the gospel. Second, Paul does this without corrupting the message of the gospel or the truth of the Christian faith. He does not claim that God is just another deity to be included in the pagan pantheon, but instead God is the only deity and is unlike the pagan idols. Paul saw in the Athens’ culture a longing for truth, which he then used to correct their false beliefs while at the same time teaching the truth of the gospel. This cultural connection provided a great opportunity for evangelization.

Another biblical example that provides a possible connection between culture and faith is the narrative of Noah and the Flood (rest assured, I am not referencing the new Russell Crowe movie). As several scholars have pointed out, there is an incredible resemblance between the story of the flood in Genesis 6-9 and Akkadian myth Atrahasis.[1] In fact, these stories are so remarkably similar (a deity sending a flood, a pious human building an ark/boat, animal representatives to repopulate the world, the deity’s promise to never send another flood and the pious man’s sacrifice to the deity at the end) that many scholars conclude the biblical author adapted the Atrahasis myth for his own deluge account. If this is true, then the biblical author saw it appropriate to utilize the common religious beliefs of the Ancient Near Eastern culture in order to promote Yahweh. In other words, the biblical narrative seeks to reinterpret the Akkadian flood story to express profound theological truths: monotheism, the effect of human sin and the covenantal relationship between God and humanity. Thus, the biblical author did not shy away from the neighboring pagan myths, but likely reformulated the themes to evangelize and catechize his readers.

Finally, if I may sneak a non-biblical example into this post, the early Christian rendition of Jesus in connection to the Greek god Apollo provides another example. As historian James Hitchcock explains, “Before they developed their own styles, Christians used familiar Greek imagery, so that the earliest images of Jesus were of a beardless young man – the Good Shepherd – based on representations of the god Apollo and thus immediately recognizable as divine.”[2] The use of these pagan representations and artistic styles helped the Christians convey the divinity of Jesus to the Greco-Roman culture. It is not hard to imagine the great opportunity such an image would have created for evangelization and catechesis as a pagan beheld the image and inquired about the deity.

These examples provide a great lesson for Christians today. Our faith must reach out and encounter the culture, not to assimilate with the culture and become deluded, but to elevate it to the truth of the gospel. Admittedly, the examples above are very risky. They dive into the heart of the pagan religious culture to proclaim Christ. While I cannot recommend these or similar acts without prudent discernment and the moving of the Holy Spirit, they show that we should not shy away from the culture. Pope John Paul II describes this as inculturation, which “means the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures.”[3]

Our evangelization efforts must not be afraid to meet and engage people in their culture. If nothing else, the Incarnation of Jesus should teach us that lesson. Additionally, much like Jesus physically touching the leper in Mt 8:3, it is possible for the gospel to encounter the pagan world and transform it without becoming unclean.

 

[1] There are actually many other Ancient Near Eastern texts that express themes similar to the biblical flood narrative, such as the Enuma Elish, Epic of Gilgamesh and the 175th chapter in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

[2] James Hitchcock, History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 46.

[3] Redemptoris Missio, 52.

2 thoughts on “Engaging the Culture: A Biblical Perspective

  1. I ran across your blog via the “biblical studies” tag, and this entry particularly caught my eye. I wrote on a similar topic about a year and a half ago [http://spiritswitness.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/reading-acts-with-others/], but mainly I think the work of Kavin Rowe, some of which I cited in my post, might be of especial interest to you on this topic. (Full disclosure, he is my doctoral advisor.) If you don’t already know his work, you may be interested in his readings of Christian cultural engagement in his second monograph, World Upside Down, and in his Achtemeier award-winning essay, “The Grammar of Life” (New Testament Studies, vol. 57 [2010] pp. 31-50). He is one of the most sophisticated and careful exegetes of Christian Scripture I know, and, in my view, very helpful on issues concerning how Christians engage in dialogue with others.

    • Hi Celia,

      Thanks for leaving this comment! I will definitely look into Rowe’s work in addition to your own post. I do not believe I have read any of his work, but I will add it to my list!

      Brad

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