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Christianity is not a cultural project

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.

24 Comments

  1. Mike Wells wrote:

    Good to have you back!

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Evan wrote:

    Could you say some more about why you think, in your second paragraph, that the “translatability” of the Gospel or the fact that being a Christian “can happen in any culture and in many forms” are demonstrations against Christianity as a culture or a cultural project? I don’t see why “Christianity as a cultural project”, if someone wants to defend such a thesis, would exclude these sorts of cross-cultural instances that, I agree with you, are clearly present in the Scriptures and throughout the life of the churches.

    Is any particular “translation” of the Gospel across cultures or any particular instantiation of “being Christian” in different cultures or forms something that is outside of “culture”? What form would it take other than a cultural one?

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 6:14 pm | Permalink
  3. Brad E. wrote:

    I wonder, Halden, if your post might be clarified by defining your use of “culture” and “cultural project,” etc. Tanner does an excellent job of this in her Theories of Culture, in response both to what she terms “modern” anthropological understandings and to postliberal theological ones.

    Inevitably, theology (and the church) will contain various kinds of internal life identifiable by the designation “culture,” as well as overlapping areas with surrounding “cultural” forms — but what this actually means is almost entirely blurry and subject to personal (even arbitrary) interpretation until terms are clearly set out and defined.

    In any case, what a profound and terrifying connection to Breivik’s words. Thanks for making it.

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Permalink
  4. Aaron R wrote:

    Evan nailed my first objection. Just because something is translatable cross-culturally doesn’t mean it transcends being a part of culture. An incarnational Christian sensibility would strongly affirm that Christianity is always already cultured, and because it is embodied, is also a (sub)culture, de facto.

    Second: why either/or? Why not both/and?

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 9:05 pm | Permalink
  5. dan wrote:

    Well, now, I don’t know about a few things here.

    Regarding the relational side, would you prefer the language of mystical union? A lot of Christians whom I respect certainly had an intensely experiential side to their faith(s). Hell, I wouldn’t be a Christian today if I hadn’t had certain experiences in my life.

    I think a lot of Conservatives have a backlash to the admittedly problematical relational stuff that goes around in their circles because they have never had any sort of encounter with (or experience of) God — let alone anything that could be described as a “relationship”. The shift to a cultural project then becomes a way of not having to undergo the trauma of abandoning one’s upbringing along with the values, morals, and identity developed during that time. Not true of everybody, of course, but I think it is true of many.

    My biggest issue with the post, however, is the core assertion:

    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 is a completely meaningless statement on its own (non-sensical, really, if I could draw on Wittgenstein). I would like to see you expand it without falling into the camps which you criticize.

    Much love!

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 1:42 am | Permalink
  6. bruce hamill wrote:

    My question has to do with definition of culture also. In what definition of ‘culture’ is witnessing ‘to the act of God in Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection’ not a cultural act or for that matter a cultural project. I too don’t see why such behaviour might not be a cultural reality which by virtue of the divine apocalypse also transforms all cultural forms it interacts with.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 2:23 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I agree entirely with your point about relationship/experience of God, etc. That’s actually one of the things that I think is problematic with the rejection of “my personal relationship with God”; by abandoning “relationship” for “culture” we find a way to stay Christians without it having to really be about God being living and active in our lives and the world, and thus we can perhaps mitigate the trauma of God’s absence.

    And yeah, what I mean by “witness” is not developed here. I hope it’s somewhat developed elsewhere in past posts, but briefly what I mean is that being a Christian means to be called to testify, in word and deed to the resurrection of Jesus. This means being given over to obedience to Jesus’s call to liberation from the powers, it means a life of self-giving service to those enslaved by the powers, it means a whole lot of other things as well. But, my main point is that it does not mean the establishment and maintenance of any particular culture. Rather it is a call to Jesus’s “way” which takes many forms in many different contexts and is never reducible to them.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Broadly speaking, what I mean in this post by “cultural project” is the claim, which I see often advanced by folks such as David Yeago, Robert Jenson, Jamie Smith, Hauerwas, and other folks associated with RO, that the church is a specific culture and that the task of the church is to preserve the integrity of this specific cultural complex.

    So when I say that Christianity is not a cultural project what I am saying is that the call of the Gospel is not a call to establish and maintain any particular culture or form of cultural life. Rather the call of the Gospel takes many forms in the different cultures it encounters, hence the translatability issue. So obviously its not a matter of being “outside” of culture or anything like that. Rather the point is that the Gospel is not reducible to, or extendable as a particular cultural reality, it always transcends and places us in tension with culture.

    To put it another way, I’m basically riffing on Kierkegaard’s point in Attack Against Christendom that the call to discipleship will always place us in tension with any given cultural order.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink
  9. Evan wrote:

    I’m still having trouble understanding how the call to Jesus’ way and witness doesn’t mean establishing a culture of some sort. For instance: the United States is in many respects a warmaking culture from which we Christians should distance ourselves as witnesses to the prince of peace who liberates from the powers. If, then, our witness were to be one day heard and heeded… if the United States government and various private contractors decided not to “study war no more”… wouldn’t that create some kind of new culture, one established in our witness to the resurrection of Christ from violent death? Of course the Christian life isn’t reducible to such cultural projects, and isn’t tied of necessity to any particular culture. But how is this witness not decidedly geared towards culture-making?

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink
  10. Ted Grimsrud wrote:

    I am thinking what you are saying could be analogous to how we might think of the “land.” There is no particular piece of land that is “holy;” to think there is sets one up for idolatrous violence to possess this “holy” piece of land.

    But the gospel must be “landed,” lived out on actual pieces of land. It’s not a mystical or otherworldly way of being faithful.

    Would you be saying, Halden, then, that the gospel is always lived out in actual cultures; but a “cultural project” is an attempt to create a “holy culture”?

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink
  11. bruce hamill wrote:

    I still think that naming Yeago, Jenson et al doesn’t really constitute a definition of culture… Let me push back on my question further, with another one. Could you consider that “being given over to obedience to Jesus’s call to liberation from the powers, [in] a life of self-giving service to those enslaved by the powers” might be a kind of culture?

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Bruce, how about you define why we should think of Christianity as a cultural project and what exactly that means?

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Ted, I think this is very much what I’m trying to get at here.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Permalink
  14. Peter K. wrote:

    Jenson on Christianity and culture:

    “By a definition that seems plausible, a culture is a group of deliberate human practices and artifacts that mutually and independently of the momentary intents of their users make a functioning system of signs. The church – with her strikingly odd meal and bath, with her particularist holy writings, eccentric forms of leadership and counter cultural discipline, and with a hundred other distinctive gestures and habits – of course always fit this definition.”

    “Each of the three [triune persons] is a sign of the other two, and is actual at all, to be that sign, only in that he is, antecedently and in turn, signed by the other two . . . God is nothing but culture, and just so is infinite culture….[The church] is commanded to shape itself as deliberate yearning for the culture God is . . . its language and visible artifacts and music and choreography are to suggest the richness and subtlety of the sign-system God is.’’

    –”Christian Civilization,” in God, Truth, and Witness: Engaging Stanley Hauerwas

    This is what must be said No to. To relate to God as a sheerly self-referential sign system–a culture–is to turn God into a god, Christianity into cult-ure, the self-justifying maintenance of the cult of this god, who wields his (and for Jenson it is most definitely a “he”) cultish power in competition with the powers of this world. The people of baptism and eucharist can never be this, for they worship God, not a god, the Mystery whose presence in this world is that of a man who refused to fight for cultural territory and space and allowed himself instead to be pushed out of the world onto the cross. The God apocalypsed here is no “infinite culture,” but an ec-centric movement of love that undoes the pretensions of every culture so that those in them might be freed from the rituals of cult into the liberty of doxology, the glorious freedom of the children of God.

    Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Amen and amen.

    Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  16. Brad E. wrote:

    More as a comment on Jenson: Doesn’t his (admittedly playful) suggestion of the triune God as a self-enclosed system of meaningful signs without need for reference outside of “himself” work powerfully against his own doctrine of God, in which, because of the act of God in Israel, in Christ, and in the church, God cannot be defined without reference to the history of creation and redemption God has self-determinately entered into?

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  17. Peter K. wrote:

    I actually think this bit about God being infinite culture is Jenson’s doctrine of God showing itself for what it really is, namely, the metaphysical under-pinning of the deification of Western christendom. It is the church that Jenson understands to be a self-enclosed system of signs and to say “God” is simply to say that this ecclesial culture is the emergence in time of the world’s ultimate future. God, for Jenson, has no reality apart from the resurrection of Jesus, but Jesus is “risen into the church and its sacraments” and so the reality of God is identical to the existence of the church’s deified culture. Jenson’s doctrine of God, finally, is one massive abstraction from Jesus’ lived action in favor of an ecclesial metaphysical scheme. “Jesus,” for him, names finally not “that one” from Nazareth crucified under Pontius Pilate who as “that one” reigns now as Lord, but the central mediating moment in God’s quest to become “all he every could be,” which, as it turns out, is the self-referential high culture of Western christendom. “Jesus” turns out to be the central Vorstellung that gives way, in the resurrection, to the Begriff that establishes the ecclesial community, in good Hegelian fashion. This is the idealism at the heart of all of Jenson’s thinking, turning “act” into an occasion to think “being” – “being” being finally what is self-enclosed, self-referential, “shining within itself” as Hegel puts it in his Logic. Jenson’s Systematics is a doctrine of Ecclesial Being “shining within itself,” we might say.

    Monday, August 15, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Permalink
  18. Brad E. wrote:

    That sounds about as bad as a doctrine of God (and of Christ, and of the church, and of…) could be. Is this your interpretation of Jenson as a whole? where he is now? one overriding reading that results from his corpus? Or do you think there can be positive or constructive readings of his work? That is: If this is true, it’s a bleak assessment, and a more or less entirely negative judgment on Jenson’s theology. Correct? Or is there more, another side to be heard?

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  19. Nate Kerr wrote:

    I think Peter has said exactly what needs to be said about Jenson’s doctrine of God and his theology as a whole. And while more could be said from all kinds of angles, I really do think nothing more than that really needs to be said, as such.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  20. Brad E. wrote:

    Nate, I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic. I’m just interested if Peter — as someone who has worked personally with Jenson and read most everything he’s written — thinks Jenson’s theology has constructive/positive aspects to offer to the church and to theological thought, or if this is a kind of holistic judgment on Jenson’s theology after a serious long-term engagement. Though again, I may not be reading your tone correctly, if you are being serious, I’m not looking for what “really needs to be said, as such” — just Peter’s opinion.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink
  21. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Brad:

    As for me, I am seriously offering my honest assessment of Jenson’s theology (which I mean to offer in light of what Peter has said, and so in some sense as consistent with what Peter said). And that assessment is just that Jenson’s doctrine of God is precisely “systematically” determined (without remainder, I think) in just the way Peter articulates it. Certainly, one may affirm certain things which Jenson says along the way, but to affirm them in a way that does not speak of that God whose metaphysical analogatum is precisely that Church-as-culture, which “in its own proper entity,” eternally “is in God’s intention antecedent to the gospel,” is thus no longer to confess the God that has determined to be Godself as the analogans of this “high culture” — as “high culture”-itself (think: Being-itself), as it were. One may of course affirm a certain theologoumenon along with Jenson in this way, that is, in a way that refuses precisely this God. But my point is that as such one is no longer affirming that theologoumenon from within this particular “systematic” doctrine of God, and so one is not really affirming or even actually articulating what Jesnson says when he deploys that theologoumenon, and so is not really affirming anything that Jenson is saying, theo-logically speaking. Because as such, and on the terms of Jenson’s own system, one is not really confessing or proclaiming the same “gospel.”

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 12:16 am | Permalink
  22. Bud wrote:

    :(

    Thursday, August 18, 2011 at 8:29 pm | Permalink
  23. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    I haven’t been reading blogs for quite some time now. Just wanted to say how refreshing I find your post here. Thanks. I hope we hear more of this kind of thing.

    Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 8:41 am | Permalink
  24. Thanks to Peter for the choice quotation from Jenson and commentary (a month late!).

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

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