In the first of this three-part series, I reflected on the temptation toward power and control that emerges from our pain and fear, and that we each have personal work to do that allows us to remain trusting in God rather than our own strategies to make something ‘work.’ The second part explored the two main temptations of the Church through history: to escape the world or to get so close to the world systems that we become shaped by the world rather than us shaping it.
In this final part, I want to explore how we, as the people of God, can be a “faithful presence” in society. As I discussed in the last article, we need both parts of this equation. We need to be those who are deeply faithful to the ways, work and words of Jesus, and we need to be formed by the story, vision and right desires that God has set before us.
Throughout history, and with this high calling, many Christians have decided to separate themselves from the world to such an extent that they have ended up without any meaningful witnessing presence in the world. If a desire to be faithful can lead to separatism, then a desire to be present, (or as it is more often called, to be relevant), can lead to syncretism. Syncretism is when the ways of the world begin to be mixed into the way of being Christian, effectively undercutting the faithful witness of the Church.
In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch names four postures the American Church (and by extension, much of the evangelical world which it shapes) has held in the last decades when it comes to relating to society and the culture it creates. We can see this in many contexts but for the sake of summary, I will reference how this relates to the attitudes towards movies.
The first posture is to condemn culture. This is the fundamentalist church posture. With a deep concern for faithfulness, there is also a concern of being infected by culture. While it is true that cultural artefacts like movies can slowly shape us in ways that harm our faithfulness, this group fails to be a meaningful faithful presence in society because all they can do is condemn and opt out of the world they see around them. The message is “don’t go to the movies.”
The second posture is to copy culture. This is the evangelical church posture that wants to be relevant to the society around it. Coming out of the reactive fundamentalism of their parents, evangelicals want a non-embarrassing witness which attracts their non-believing neighbours. One of the founders of the seeker-sensitive church movement called for Christians to develop "a safe place for a dangerous message.” Church buildings were built to look more like shopping malls and movie theatres, all to attract people to what they already liked. It gave rise to the forms of church that I recently heard cynically referred to as a “Coldplay concert with a TED talk.” Christian movies, music and books are made with Christian values and messages as alternatives to non-Christian culture. The problem with this is that we are always behind the curve. If we continually take our cues from the surrounding culture then what we create is always, at best, 30 seconds out of date. The message is, "let’s make Christian movies.”
The third posture is to critique culture. This is the posture of reformed intellectual Christianity. Christians in this posture recognise that much of the culture around them carries messages and meanings that could be engaged with for the sake of revealing the God behind the creation. This is the movement that either diagnoses the ills of cultural movements or names the ache for God that exists behind the cultural products of the society that surrounds them. The problem with this posture is that its only tool is critique. Similarly to the copy culture posture, it is a reaction to a cultural creation and doesn’t offer anything other than cold, deconstructing critique. This posture starts book clubs and movie reviews discerning the code beneath the code but actually leaves most observers cold. The message is "let’s write long-form critiques of movies.”
The fourth posture is to consume culture. This is the posture of the majority of Christians today. Embarrassed by their grandparents who opted out into fundamentalism, cringing at their parents for trying to ‘copy cool,’ and too confused to analyse, we simply consume. If the world is talking about a Netflix show, we watch it. If the world wants the latest iPhone, we buy it. The message is “let’s watch all the movies.”
At this point, you may be wondering what the fifth posture might be that Andy Crouch endorses in his book. Surprisingly, instead of offering a single posture, a kind of "one ring to rule them all” approach, Crouch defends all four.
He acknowledges that there are things we need to condemn. There is no redemptive value in pornography or sex trafficking, and the only worthwhile response to these is to condemn them. There are also things worth copying. Long before CCM artists began to sound like U2 and Coldplay, Luther and Wesley were putting Psalms and hymns to drinking songs. Likewise, architecture for churches and cathedrals have always drawn from their surrounding cultures to make them architecturally sound and beautiful. There are also things worth critiquing. A large proportion of art these days is designed to be critiqued, its purpose being to create reflective meaning and form. Finally, there are cultural goods worth consuming. I can enjoy a beautifully-made meal, cup of coffee or the odd Netflix show and that is entirely appropriate given what those things are.
Crouch argues that these options are all appropriate in different contexts, and the key is discernment. When gestures turn into “postures,” we have created a problem. Let me give you an example:
Thirteen years ago when we came to South Africa, we were joined by a man who had recently left the military after a number of tours in Iraq. As we walked around the foreign context of a mission outreach, we began to notice something peculiar. Our friend would walk around greeting people in a friendly but curt manner. His body posture was tense, and at times it seemed like his hands were in front of him carrying an invisible item. We soon realised this invisible item was his rifle, and he held the tense posture he must have held when walking through towns while in Iraq. His body had learned a way to carry itself in places of uncertainty and discomfort that was difficult to shake off. The posture held in conflict is not the most helpful posture in a mission context.
There are times in my day when I need to crouch down to the floor to pick something up, but if I spent all day crouched down, my muscles and bones would begin to conform to that posture, making other gestures much harder to engage in.
Crouch argues that when these appropriate gestures of condemning, copying, critiquing and consuming become hardened through thoughtless repetition, we end up feeling like the gesture we have chosen is the only one available to us. Once our gestures harden into postures, the other gestures seem simply too hard to consider and adopt. This process of hardening into a posture is further endorsed and celebrated when we find a like-minded tribe. Our tribe reinforces our posture, and we suddenly find ourselves believing our posture is right and other postures are wrong.
Without realising it, we effectively discard the crucial discernment process of relying on the Holy Spirit. Each of these legitimate gestures can become our way of no longer doing the hard work of relying on our connection to God by the Holy Spirit to engage in discernment. As I said in the very first part of this series, relying on a rule is much easier than sustaining a relationship. But the problem with no longer relying on God to help us discern the way we interact with society leads us to a place where we can no longer be a faithful presence.
The problem is far bigger than just not being able to act or respond rightly to our world. The tragedy is that we are no longer the place where the world encounters the living God because all we have become is a people witnessing to our reliance on a tribal coping posture.
If we, as the people of God, are to embody the hope of God for the sake of the world, we need to relinquish our trust in hardened postures towards the world and instead receive 'hearts of flesh’ which commune with the living God and lead faithful lives marked by the presence of God.