Saturday, August 27, 2011

Halden is back in action at Inhabitatio Dei: Christianity is not a cultural project

Halden is back and his post "Christianity is a not a cultural project" is interesting. I can't say I agree with its substance but that's because while I grant the legitimacy of the critique the alternative is too much a work in progress to describe adequately. Halden writes that post-evangelicals are moving away from a "relationship with God" talk because that is "obviously stupid". Is it? When the scriptures variously attest people interacting with Jesus and Abraham or Moses speaking with God are not Christians understandably interested in the potential for " a personal relationship with Jesus?" After all, the whole sales pitch of the Incarnation is that Jesus lived and walked among us. Jesus' teaching about how the Father knows the number of hairs on our head suggests that while the "relationship" is not of the same sort as you or I might have in the flesh to say there is no relationship of any kind might be tough to back up. Why pray at all if there is no element of relationship between God and His people?
On the other hand, Halden's got a point about the equal and opposite problem of viewing Christianity as a cultural project. Viewing Christianity as a cultural production enterprise is not really the opposite of a personal relationship with Jesus spirituality. In fact the two are usually wed in all sorts of ways. Even in comments on Halden's posts we can see Christianity described as a culture. Driscoll spent years talking about Mars Hill as forming a "counterculture". When conservative Protestants employ the term "counterculture" to describe their own social system you know that progressive terminology is meaningless and fully assimilated into the mainstream. If Mars Hill constitutes a "counterculture" as a megachurch/nascent denomination then the religious progressives must grant that many of the terms associated with Christianity as a cultural enterprise over against the American mainstream are completely meaningless. As some theorists would put it, the nature of hegemony is such that it appropriates the terminology of truly countercultural movements and vitiates that terminology of its ontological power. There we go, I could have a career in academia, eh?
But if the Christian experience does not necessarily consist in a personal relationship with God that looks anything like any other kind of relationship we have with flesh and blood; and if the Christian experience does not necessarily entail a "cultural enterprise" in the same way as others what does it entail? Very often what Christians really mean when they talk about a "cultural mandate" often looks suspiciously like a blank check from Jesus for them to keep doing whatever it is they already want to do and have baptised in the name of Jesus. If they can simply prove that whatever they're on about isn't against Jesus' teaching then it can be assimilated into a "cultural mandate"
I agree with Internet Monk that many Christians don't hear voices in their head they can describe as being God. I also note and not just in passing that there are plenty of Christians who have no problem saying "God told me X" who are skeptical that God, who apparently tells them all sorts of stuff, tells anyone else much of anything. There are preachers and super-Christians who trust that the Lord tells them to do this or who are not so trusting that the same Spirit they say speaks to and through them does so as readily or reliably through other people. In the realm of preachers as public figures it's curious how many people who cite their personal relationship with Jesus often invoke it as part of a "cultural mandate". In other words, Halden may have some points about certain types of criticisms of the "personal relationship" spirituality or "cultural project" but history has shown that these two intersect and intertwine at least as often as they diverge.
What is more, can't we observe that throughout history the alternatives to these two threads are, well, more of the same? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. So there's a hegemonic right leaning patriarchal "Christendom". What does it get replaced with? Something ostensibly different but often the same. Pacifists, as David Martyn Lloyd-Jones noted, are often so verbally violent about their ideas they attribute to Jesus they end up defeating the stance of pacifism they claim to stand for.
So it would seem the Christian lives in a Christian community (ugh, the buzzword "community" has annoyed me ever since my college days at a private Christian school). Lots of people talk about community and in my experience the people who bloviate most about "community" tend to be the people who least understand community. It's like someone who talks about friendship or decides that friendship isn't strong enough of a word and has to come up with something else--in the end the whole spiel becomes a distinction without a difference. It is impossible to avoid a definition of "community" or "Christian fellowship" that doesn't end up being the sort of hegemonic enterprise the rhetoric and rhetoritician would attempt to battle.
But speaking as someone who considers himself an evangelical Protestant I think there's still merit to some of the criticism. I do think that what ends up being scary for evangelical Protestants who don't hear voices in their heads; and who realize that Christianity as "cultural project" can often do nothing more than baptise the idols and principalities of one's own time and place; is that we begin to realize that our very experience of who Christ is is mediated. Some (not all) Protestants prefer to avoid this kind of discussion because we'd like to emphasize the priesthood of all believers.
The trouble I've seen in my life is that many of the people who camp hard-core on the priesthood of all believers don't seem to have any clear idea what that priesthood entails. It's a bit like Matanya Ophee's acerbic shot at guitarists--many of us who play classical guitar talk about how the guitar is a miniature orchestra and Ophee's snipe reminds us that most guitarists have no idea how to conduct. We end up making not only idle boasts but boast about things that we couldn't back up if our lives depending on it.
The super-spiritual person who talks about what the Spirit told him or her this week and leans on super-spiritual insights may be called a Montanist. A self-appointed prophet may believe he/she gets emails from God directly into the inbox of the brain. They may also feel obliged to spam us by literal spam or TV or radio or whatever. If I may be so bold, these sorts of Christians who often take refuge in a personal oracle approach to God; who double down on the "personal relationship with God" can often be precisely those people who have no truly communal walk of faith. There are spiritual alliances and networks, to be sure, but no truly "family" in Christ.
However the alternative is an equally false one. The cultural project, the cultural mandate, the "Christian culture" is no better precisely because it simply becomes a group norm, the kind of group norm that will eventually decide that the ear is not properly a part of the body because it is not an eye. The nose is more a part of the body than the fingernail on the left pinky. Scripture teaches that we do have both a corporate as well as an individual standing before God through Christ. If we fail to remember both of these aspects then history will never stop being full of sad object lessons in how bad things go if, as C. S. Lewis put it, we take a certain truth too far.

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