I took a book off my shelf this morning that I haven’t touched in a long time. (Well, I guess I must have touched it six years ago when we moved to Nampa and I placed it on the bookshelf where it has been sitting ever since . . . ) The book is Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr. It was a textbook I purchased for a class at Willamette University 40 years ago.
It’s one of those books you don’t forget after you’ve read it. The point it makes is that what Christ teaches us and what our culture teaches us can be two very different things, and that there have been five ways Christians have dealt with this reality: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture. (I tell you this knowing full well that “culture” is one of those words that tends to put people to sleep, and I’ve used it eight times now . . .)
I thought of this book as I reflected on my week at General Conference. General Conference is the once-every-four-years gathering of United Methodists from all around the world. It was in Portland this year. A lot of the issues that seem crucially important to United Methodists living in Oregon or Idaho are not important at all to United Methodists living in other parts of the world. And vice versa.
There were many Africans in attendance. The United Methodist Church is exploding with growth across that continent. (Five new African bishops were approved last week in response to that growth.) As I was walking from the train to a morning session, I struck up a conversation with a one of them. He was from Zambia.
I commented on how rapidly our church is growing there. He smiled and agreed. Then I suggested that some of the things that go on at General Conference must be hard for him. (I was thinking of the daily “demonstrations” for gay rights, among others things.) He just shook his head and raised his palms, that universal sign that never fails to communicate. Then he said, “It’s your culture.”
His point was that you and I have a tendency to make Christ “fit” our American way of life. It’s “Christ of Culture” for us, not “Christ against culture”. Or “Christ transforming culture”.
Are we guilty as charged? I’ll let you decide.
Of course it can work both ways. My new friend from Africa lives in a culture as well that is sure to influence how he sees things. We all wear blinders. We all have blind-spots. Christ alone is “the way, the truth, and the life”.
I’m sending you the link to one of our morning worship services. The whole service lasts over an hour. I’m suggesting you watch the segment from 14:45 to 36:30. This is the sermon delivered by one of our African bishops, John Yambasu of Sierra Leone. See if you don’t agree that his message communicates across any and every cultural barrier.
In Christ, John
May 19 – Morning Worship “Go to the Lost Sheep at this link > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUS3hkHTRuI