One of the central features of what we might call “post-evangelical discontent” is the general state of being sick of hearing about a “personal relationship” with God as central to the meaning of being a Christian. Talk about “personal relationships” with God is pietistic and individualistic drivel through and through, and we must move beyond it to talk about what really matters, namely embodied discipleship in the church, which is a political, cultural reality in its own right. What is vital for those seeking to move beyond their post-evangelical discontent is to stop fixating on such evangelical niceties and pieties, and understand Christian identity in terms of culture, that is the church as a specific cultural project that, through its own life and the virtues it forms in its members, embodies the kingdom in the world.
Now, to be sure I agree that talk of a “personal relationship” with God is theologically problematic, especially in its fundmentalist-evangelical use. The idea that God is primarily interested in having some sort of emotional involvement with us as precious individual snowflakes is, quite obviously stupid. However, I also find it problematic to move, through a sort of short-circuit from this insipid individual relationalism to construing Christianity as primarily a cultural project. The reason this is problematic is because Christianity is not a cultural project. To be a Christian is not to adopt some new cultural identity, ecclesial or otherwise (as the cross-cultural translatability of the Gospel message in the New Testament shows). To be a Christian is rather to be called to witness to the act of God in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. This can happen in any culture and in many forms, which is part of the beauty of God’s ongoing work of raising up witnesses by the Spirit.
As such, we need to pause in our rightful distaste for false pieties before seeking false sanctuaries in construals of “Christianity as culture.” Statements like the following should be roundly rejected:
If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.
It may interest folks to know that this statement comes, not from the pen of leading authors who write books on theology of culture, or the meaning of being the church in the post-Christendom world, but from Anders Behring Breivik, the architect of the recent terrorist attacks in Norway. I use this quote here not to say that the advocates of Christianity as a cultural project would somehow endorse Breivik’s actions; obviously they would not. My point is more basic: Christianity is not a cultural project and to construe it as such is always to set it in the service of some ideology or politics other than it’s call to witness to Christ. Just as we must reject false pieties, so too must we reject the false security that would have us imagine that Christianity is a culture rather than a calling that breaks into all cultures and forms of social life.