Monday, March 22, 2010

Cultural Effects: The Right to Believe

Another characteristic of American culture, and how it affects our Christianity.

Individual Freedom of Conscience

American culture tends to think of religious experience as personal, private and largely emotional, while public, professional, and intellectual life are something separate from faith. This is part of the “separation of church and state” that, on the good side, allows for religious pluralism within the United States, so that forced conversions or persecution of members of other faiths is generally not part of the national history of the U.S. (the Mormons may object to this generalization). Christianity is allowed to develop a lifestyle and worldview among its members apart from the mandates of the government (though this lifestyle clearly has not occurred apart from the cultural influence of political theory and events).

This cultural characteristic is positive in a huge way: in the majority of human experience, religion has been taken as a legitimate cause for internal repression or outward aggression by rulers and their armies, occasionally out of misguided conviction, but more often, it seems, as a pretext for greed and power. The consistent call through the Old and New Testament to worship God from the heart, not merely with outward conformity, makes forced conversions unproductive, if not counterproductive, to shaping true followers of Christ.

The weakness that this tolerance can cause is accepting that their individual choice has no implications for public living, but only affects what a person does, as it were, “on his (or her) own time.” The basic Christian act of evangelism is attacked by some as improper, at least "in a professional setting." The frustrating and easily misdirected task of applying Christian principles to political action keeps believers swinging between alternating extremes of overemphasizing the political activism allowed in the American system and retreating from the governmental sector with the conclusion that faith belongs only in the private and social realm, and cannot be effectively applied in the political process.

A Christian view on freedom of conscience allows for dialogue, recognizes evangelism as distinctive to the Christian life, and acknowledges that God is the one who ultimately brings people to faith - state mandates or forced conversions will not bring about genuine belief by all who profess faith because it is necessary or advantageous. It allows the gospel to affect every area of our life - private, professional, public - without accepting the secular definition of tolerance that requires all to set aside a belief in truth and accept the dogma of relativism. As people in a fallen world, as citizens in a diverse nation, we allow those in false religion and unbelief to worship as they choose. As Christians, we work hard to persuade them of the truth with loving concern, recognizing that the right to believe whatever one chooses does not mean that whatever one chooses to believe is right.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Influence of (American) Culture Upon a Christian's Worldview

There will be more posts on this topic coming, looking at various distinctive elements of American culture, and how they affect our way of doing church and living our faith - some good, some bad.

The extent to which our culture shapes our perception of what it means to be a Christian can be quite surprising, and even unnerving. Yet discovering how culture influences our view of reality is highly valuable, as it is a step toward discovering the blind spots in our worldview. By understanding the distinctive elements of an American approach to life, we are in a better situation to evaluate whether the assumptions we identify contradict distinctively Christian thinking, and bring our lives into closer conformity with God's pattern, allowing for the beauty of cultural variety while accepting the universal claims God makes on his image-bearers. One of the distinctive elements of American culture is...


The extreme concept of individual identity and right to self-determination dominates American culture. This sense of independence and personal rights distinguishes our culture from others, bringing positive and negative results. The stamp of the image of God on humanity gives value to every person, and a culture that affirms the dignity inherent in being a human individual fits with a Christian worldview. However, when a healthy concept of individuality progresses to become individualism, problems can occur. The effects of individualism on American Christianity are legion, and a few significant effects are discussed here.

The idea of a right to choose one’s own religion coupled with the desire to determine one’s own destiny has led evangelicals to incorporate Jeffersonian ideals into church structure. Nancy Pearcey observes that, during the Second Great Awakening, “The priesthood of all believers was taken to mean religion of the people, by the people, for the people” (275). This meant the rejection of traditional and hierarchical church structures as authoritative. Just as the nation rejected traditional forms for the “rule of law,” where a document (at least in principle) set the parameters for law, so evangelicals seek to go directly to the text of Scripture, individually determine its meaning, express a personal view, and vote or otherwise influence practice accordingly.

The result is congregational rule and a very loose view of membership: it is an at-will agreement for mutual benefit - result. Spiritual life is viewed as viable apart from a community: “In many churches, the individual alone with his Bible is regarded as the core of the Christian life” (Pearcey, 293). A church is thus viewed as the sum of its members, who are all basically equal. This implies that leaders can be removed easily if the people are unhappy with them - they are not entrenched with nearly the same firmness of authority as in traditional church structures, but are allowed to lead by the consent of the majority of the members.

A celebrity mindset has taken the place of the hierarchical structures rejected by most of American Christianity, so that celebrity status does more to determine the widespread influence of a church leader. This allows individuals to decide whether they like a leader or not based on charisma, dramatic ability, public image, and oratory, then freely make a choice whether or not to follow that leader’s influence. The choice can be reversed, and this kind of "following" does not usually mean incurring any obligation or membership commitment as part of an institution. This fits with the analysis of cultural anthropologists Stewart and Bennett that “Personal relations among Americans are adapted to gaining emotional benefits from social interaction while preserving independence and avoiding obligations” (89). Church affiliations are evaluated according to how well the church environment suits the individual, and are all too often treated with very little commitment to be involved and committed to life within that Christian community.

1. Pearcey, Nancy. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Wheaton:
Crossway Books, 2004.
2. Stewart and Bennett. American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural
Perspective. Rev. Ed. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1991.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What is spiritual growth?

I've contemplated over the past few years what exactly it means to grow spiritually. How should I evaluate progress in my Christian walk? At one point I evaluated my spiritual condition by whether I felt close to God and could sense his presence. But some times in life he feels very distant, yet I am growing in producing the fruits of salvation that the Bible speaks of: Christ-like character, perseverance in faith, and a worshipful attitude towards God (sometimes felt with awe and ecstasy, and sometimes acted on even though I can't feel it). Here are some words I put down pondering spiritual growth as change (conformity to Christ's image), steadfastness (remaining faithful even when life's circumstances harangue me with difficulty and doubt), and what Jonathan Edwards would call "Religious Affection" - a sense of wonder and joy over who God is and delight in learning his ways and serving him. Even if the artistry of the composition doesn't impress you, you can give me feedback on the ideas.


From the moment I first
Was touched by grace
My deepest desire
To grow, to grow

In moments of business
Dry spirit and lack
My vision is blurred
What is it to grow?

To be touched by love
By the Spirit conformed
To Christ's pure traits
To change, to change

To stay on the course
Enduring with strength
When all fall away
To remain, to remain

To relish the sight
Of his glory and grace
Delight in his wonder
To be amazed, amazed

When character changes
When faith stays the same
When hearts overflow
To grow, to grow