Making Sense of Culture Making, Part 5: The Jesus Effect
In Culture Making’s previous chapter, Andy Crouch took some of the familiar Biblical stories concerning the origins and history of Israel and placed them within a proper historical and social context — a very thought-provoking process that breathed some new life and understanding into said passages (for me, at least). He continues that approach in the next two chapters of Culture Making, which look at Jesus and the Book of Acts.
Crouch starts his chapter on Jesus by drawing a stark contrast between the image that we all too often have, and the image of Jesus as He most likely was as a 1st-century Jew:
It helps if we back away for a moment from our Anglicized version of his name and call him Yeshua; better yet, Yeshua bar-Yosef, and do our best to envision him, a bronze-skinned young Middle Eastern man, lying down next to a low table to enjoy a meal with his friends.
The effect of doing this can be revelatory, because it helps us to recognize Jesus’ humanity. It can be tempting to think of Jesus as a sort of heavenly Superman because He was the Son of God and subsequently forget that He was also the son of Joseph, a humble carpenter living in a rustic corner of Israel. For Crouch, this is a very important distinction because it firmly roots Jesus within a very specific cultural milieu.
Luke’s genealogy of Jesus does not just make the point that Jesus is ultimately the “son of God” — it also makes the point that he is fully and completely human. To be human is to have a cultural inheritance, to be part of a tradition of making something of the world. To be human is to have a father — even in the uniquely miraculous circumstance of not having a biological father. Jesus, like every human being since Adam, arrives in the midst of not just “culture” but a culture, a specific cultural tradition of a family, a language, a people, a nation… He was a cultural being. It he had not been, he would not have been human at all.
In the person of Jesus, God saw perfectly fit to fully inject Himself into human culture and cultural enterprises. Crouch spends a good deal of ink exploring this idea, noting that Jesus, as a 1st-century Jew, would have certainly studied and observed the history, rituals, and other fundamentals of Jewish culture at the time. He would’ve attended weddings, funerals, and other gatherings. He would’ve had a vocation, learning carpentry in his father’s shop. He would’ve suffered under, and questioned, the Roman subjugation of his homeland. And he would’ve done all of this for the first three decades of his life on Earth.
As I think about this, I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ quote: “God likes matter. He invented it.” I think you could easily rewrite that to talk about culture. In other words, God liked human culture. He became part of a culture. As Crouch notes:
Jesus a cultivator of culture. He did not just acquire enough maturity to get about his real, “spiritual” business of saving the world and then wash his hands of responsibility to tend and conserve his cultural heritage. He spent prime years simply absorbing, practicing and passing on his culture — not preaching, not healing, not introducing the dramatic innovations that would bring him into conflict with the nation’s leaders.
As has been mentioned in Culture Making’s previous chapters, the Church has had a tempestuous relationship with culture, oftentimes resorting to more negatively oriented approaches to it (e.g., condemnation, critique). That, or there’s a temptation to downplay the more mundane aspects of culture as somehow less important because they’re not “spiritual,” they’re just something to pass the time until we get to Heaven. But as Crouch notes, Jesus spent the “prime years” of his life doing little to nothing of the sort (so far as the Bible tells us). He spent those years living a perfectly ordinary life as a 1st-century Jew in all of its mundanity, in all of its humanity. A thought that might give us some pause before we dismiss this mortal coil too readily.
However, Jesus simply doesn’t stick with the cultural status quo. Once He begins His earthly ministry, the changes are dramatic. Take, for example, His approach to meals. In 1st-century Israel, meals had an important cultural function: they helped to solidify one’s stature and position within society. Yet Jesus brazenly crosses those lines by both dining with tax collectors and other sinners as well as inviting those same sinners to meals at the houses of Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders (i.e., Israel’s most righteous and law-abiding citizens).
All such changes and challenges to the status quo were intended to realign Israel’s cultural priorities, to bring them back to the cultural mission for which God had originally set them apart — to be a nation wholly dependent on God. This culminates in the Sermon of the Mount, where Jesus issues some of the most famous sayings of all time. Throughout the Sermon, He takes passages from the law which would’ve been so familiar to His audience, and radically re-interprets them.
It is often observed that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus takes the commandments of the law, which applied to external behavior, and applies them to the internal state of human hearts — but his prescription for changing the heart involves changes in culture. Prayer will no longer take place primarily on street corners but in private rooms. Divorce and remarriage will no longer be blithely tolerated as long as the divorcing party follows the letter of the law. The cultural practice of swearing oaths will be eliminated. The language and the look of prayer and fasting will change. The followers of Jesus will begin to demonstrate a new set of horizons for human life to their neighbors and even to their enemies — the horizons of shalom, the horizons of true humanity living in dependence on God.
Sadly, this radical re-interpretation did not sit well with the ruling authorities, and thus we come to the darkest point in the Bible, and, for Christians, the darkest point in history: the Crucifixion. For Crouch, this is the moment when Jesus steps into His true vocational role — i.e., the “calling of the cross” where He would “take upon himself all of Israel’s failures, all of its cultural dead ends, the accumulated history of independence from God that had led to a seemingly inescapable, permanent state of exile.”
Crouch spends a bit of time discussing the cultural corruption represented by the cross. The cross, as Crouch notes, is a stark symbol of our own sense of brutality — it “refutes progressivism, the idea that human beings can steadily improve their way into blessedness.” But for Christians, the cross was not the final word. It may represent a cultural dead end, but it was not the cultural dead end. For after the crucifixion comes the Resurrection, the most staggering event in all of human history.
[W]hat has not been so widely commented on is the way that the resurrection was a culture-shaping event — in fact, arguably the most culturally significant event in history. This is not primarily a “religious” matter. It is fundamentally a statement of bald historical fact: the resurrection, if indeed it happened as Jesus’ followers proclaimed, changed more of subsequent human history, for more people and more cultures, than any other event we can name. And if the resurrection did not happen, then something else of extraordinary historical power happened in the amazingly short span of time in Judea and Palestine in the 30s and 40s of the common era.
Crouch spends much more time discussing the Resurrection, including some beautiful meditations on the Resurrection as the “hinge of history” and its transformative effects on even the most basic and fundamental aspects of culture — purchase a copy of Culture Making to read them for yourself — but I want to quickly jump to the book’s next chapter, which deals with the book of Acts.
I must confess that Acts is a book of the Bible that I tend to gloss over in order to get to the “good stuff” of Romans. But once again, Crouch does some eye-opening work. In Acts, we see the earliest efforts of the Church as it begins to proclaim the Gospel of Christ, and we also see how that proclamation inevitably begins to re-shape the prevailing cultures at the time.
Acts is about culture. Cities, as we see in Genesis 11, are the place where culture reaches critical mass. And Acts is about cultures (plural), for the cities of the Roman world, no less than our own, were heterogenous and frequently turbulent mixtures of people from many nations, brought together by economic opportunity and held together in uneasy peace by Rome’s far-flung power.
The first example that Crouch notes is Pentecost, in which an incredibly culturally diverse crowd of believers experienced the sudden translation of language, so that there was no confusion amongst them. With Pentecost, God introduces a significant cultural reversal.
At Pentecost, as commentators both ancient and modern have observed, the curse of Babel is miraculously undone. In the wake of Babel, God chose a single ethnolinguistic group to be his people in order to be a blessing to the nations; Pentecost is the beginning, as Peter declares, of the “last days” in which that blessing will be broken open and poured out upon every cultural group, every “nation.” And just as the curse on the citizens of Babel was a dramatic divine intervention in human affairs, so its reversal comes as a gift — a supernatural (or more to the point, supercultural) overcoming of separation. God is on the move in history, and his world will no longer be contained within the story of just one cultural group. Indeed, the challenge to faith and dependence will be posed and will be available to every cultural group.
This brings about the second example, the increasing focus on the Gentiles. Up until this point in the Church, its existence had been primarily Jewish. But soon, the apostles and the rest of the Church have increasing contact with Gentiles, with non-Jews. And as Gentiles become increasingly accepting of the Gospel — Crouch notes some very dramatic instances, e.g., the Ethiopian eunuch, the Roman centurion Cornelius, the diverse leadership of the Antioch church — a cultural clash is brewing.
On the one hand was a sentiment best captured by Peter’s beautiful words in Acts 10:34 – 35: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” On the other hand are those who insist in Acts 15 that Gentiles need to be circumcised — a tradition with deep roots and significance in Jewish culture — in order to become true Christians. In other words, how tied, culturally, would the Church be to Israel? How culturally-specific must the Church be.
When the dust had settled and the crucial voices of Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, had been heard, something extraordinary had happened. A group of Jews who spent every day in the temple, celebrating the return of the Messiah to fulfill the promise of Israel, determined that ethos and ethnos, as central as they had been in sustaining a witness to the world’s Creator for over a thousand years, would now be less important than faith in the Lord Jesus. And conversely, faith in the Lord Jesus could now be proclaimed and demonstrated in every cultural setting.
While this seems rather obvious to us living in the 21st-century who are direct beneficiaries of the decision, one can only imagine the sort of cultural shockwaves this sent off throughout the 1st-century Church. For starters, it led an increasingly diverse Church to begin a massive project of cultural discernment. As the Gospel moved into a new cultural setting, new believers were forced to consider their own culture, and what aspects were complementary to the Gospel and which aspects were contradictory. It’s perhaps telling that the church council only recognized a handful of things that were definitely outside the Gospel’s purview:
The Council’s letters discerned features of Gentile culture that were not merely ethos, just “custom,” but that made a dead end of the world: the cult of idolatry that worshiped the creation in place of the Creator; the consumption of animals that, in the ancient worldview, still had the blood of life in them rather than being humanely slaughtered; and sexual practices that fell short of God’s intention for human beings.
Everything else was fair game, or perhaps to be more accurate, left up to personal discernment and conviction. Of course, the debate has not ended there. To this day, Christians still wrestle with the culture, attempting to discern that which is good and true and acceptable, and that which is not. Indeed, how we in the Church are to interact with the surrounding culture is a never-ending question. Crouch ends the chapter with one potential answer to that question that is truly poignant, not to mention convicting.
Referring to Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity — which I have not read, but would like to now — Crouch notes the early Church’s response to several epidemics that nearly decimated the Roman Empire. While the pagan elite and priests fled infected cities and left the sick behind, the Christians stayed put, ministering to and serving all who remained, regardless of their beliefs. Many Christians fell to disease as well, but the result was also incredible growth: “The church would grow, not just because it proclaimed hope in the face of horror but because of the cultural effects of a new approach to the sick and dying, a willingness to care for the sick even at risk of death.”
Crouch goes on to note other ways in which the early Church, motivated by the Gospel of Christ, impacted the prevailing culture, from the treatment of women and minorities to the rescuing of unwanted infants who would be left to die in the wild. Crouch ends the chapter with two important statements. First:
[I]t would have been a dramatic and depressing turn of events if the Spirit’s work suddenly disappeared from history into the realm of the merely and purely “religious” matter of private worship and inward sensations. God’s plan for history had never been to escape from history.
I’ve read and heard numerous statements from non-religious people who say that they are fine with Christians doing their Christian “thing” so long as it’s kept “private.” Unfortunately, Christianity is not a “private” religion in the sense that Christians are expected to keep their beliefs, and the effects of those beliefs, bottled up inside. As we see with the 1st-century Church, the doctrines of Christianity, based on the Gospel of Christ, speak into the world in which we live. It has commands and precepts that (ought to) dictate how we live, how we treat others, and how we are to react (e.g., condemn, critique, copy, cultivate) the surrounding culture.
But lest we Christians become smug and proud, and start throwing our weight around, Crouch writes:
Christian belief was neither just the product of social forces in Roman culture; nor was it a culturally inert “private” matter. The belief of Christians that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead made them culture makers, and the culture they created was so attractive that by the fourth century A.D., an entire empire was on the verge of faith.
What are we as Christians doing to make our “culture” attractive to those around us? When people see Christian “culture,” do they see something that they want to run to, or run from? Something that they want to emulate, or something that they want to castigate? We hear about the “culture wars” all of the time, and like any war, they’re loud and destructive, marked by heated rhetoric and condemnation.
If we look to the 1st-century Church as any sort of example, we don’t see that. Rather, we see a prevailing trend of Christians carefully and tenderly providing the basic necessities of existence — food, water, friendship — to their neighbors, regardless of their belief. We see Christians moving into the lives of those who had been abandoned and tossed aside by those in power — be they plague victims, women, or unwanted children — and doing so in ways that were often very costly. They made the Gospel attractive by seeking those who were lost and sacrificially serving them.
What would it be like if that was what people had in mind when they talked about the Church, that it was an entity that very publicly pours itself out for others regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, or even belief? What would it mean for us if that was how we seriously and intentionally approached the surrounding culture? What would it mean for me?
This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .