Faith and Culture: Uneasy Partners

YanceyThe final section of Philip Yancey’s new book Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? looks at faith and culture. The first chapter considers the uneasy partnership between Christians and power (politics) while the second, entitled Holy Subversion, considers where we should go from here.

In the chapter on the uneasy partnership Yancey begins by considering the limits of political power and the importance of faith in a moral and free society. He brings up Jürgen Habermas’s remark, “A liberal democracy requires of its citizens qualities that is cannot provide,” and continues:

In a similar vein, Martin Luther King Jr. said that the government can requires a white man to serve blacks, and can stop whites from lynching blacks, but no government can force a white person to love a black one. That requires a transformation of the heart, the province of religion. (p. 238)

Interestingly, I heard a southern pastor make the same point in a sermon last Sunday. Love cannot be legislated, it requires a transformation of the heart. A few pages later Yancey notes: “the New Testament presents government as necessary, even ordained by God, but certainly no sponsor or friend to faith.” (p. 240-241) To meld faith and power, politics to tightly seems doomed to failure. Both the Old Testament story and the history of the church tell similar stories. Power and the pursuit of power corrupt humans. The state controls bad behavior. Christian faith should transform the heart and this cannot be legislated.

Yancey makes five observations and suggestions.

1. Clashes between Christ and culture are unavoidable. The pull of culture will often conflict with the surrounding culture. This should lead us to action. But it is also important to compromise and prioritize. He quotes C. Everett Koop who saw the all or nothing approach on abortion as counter-productive. How many lives might have been saved if a few limited exceptions had been made in the initial fight against abortion (life of the mother, defective child, even rape and incest). “That would have saved ninety-seven percent of the abortions since then.” And perhaps it would have kept the battle lines from being drawn so tightly and allowed time to work on heart and understanding.

Modern democracy, which grew out of Christian soil, compels us to recognize other’s rights even when we deeply disagree with their positions. We seek to persuade but not to coerce. More, the gospel commands me to love my enemy as well as my neighbor. (p. 247)

2. Christians should choose their battles wisely. Too often battles are ill-chosen and even irrational. “Too often the agenda of religious groups matches line for line that of conservative – or liberal – politics and not the priorities of the Bible.” (p. 249) Issues like healthcare for the poor and protecting widows and orphans should be considered on biblical grounds not political grounds.

3. Christians should fight their battles shrewdly.

To gain the hearing of a post-Christian society already skeptical about religion will require careful strategy. We must, in Jesus’ words, be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. I fear that our clumsy pronouncements, our name-calling, our stridency – in short, our lack of grace – has proved so damaging that society will no longer look to us for the guidance it needs. (p. 249)

4. In engaging with culture, Christians should distinguish the immoral from the illegal. It is not true that everything immoral should be made illegal. Most of the ten commandments cannot be turned into legislation. We can legislate against theft, but how about coveting? We can’t make pride illegal – although it is, perhaps, the root of sin. And we can’t legislate the Jesus Creed. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself. Everything is summed up in these two commandments, but they have to come from the heart, they cannot be coerced or legislated.

Although Christians have an obligation to obey God’s commands, it does not necessarily follow that we should enact those moral commands into law. Not even John Calvin’s Geneva would dare turn the Sermon on the Mount into a legal code. The late Kurt Vonnegut, a satirical American author, wrote: “For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the beatitudes. But – often with tears in their eyes – they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the beatitudes, be posted anywhere.” (p. 251-252)

If we don’t live up to – or even admit and proclaim the command to live up to – the positive moral teachings of the New Testament, centered on love and patience, and peacefulness, care for the poor and powerless, generosity, self-control, … well then why should anyone consider us more than hypocrites? The demonstration of love is far more powerful a force than legislation against immorality could ever be.

5. The church must use caution in its dealings with the state.

The church works best as a separate force, a conscience to society that keeps itself at arm’s length from the state. … Jesus left his followers the command to make disciples from all nations. We have no charge to “Christianize” the United States or any other country – an impossible goal in any case.

When the church accepts as its main goal the reform of the broader culture, we risk obscuring the gospel of grace and becoming one more power broker. This is how many in the secular world view us now, as a right-wing conspiracy intent on passing laws against them In the process, they miss the good news of the gospel, that Christ died to save sinners, to free us from guilt and shame so that we can thrive in the way God intended.

The state will often try to use religion for its own purposes, but when it does so, the gospel itself changes.(p. 253)

This view of Christianity (evangelical Christianity) as a right-wing conspiracy intent of power runs rampant in my world.

Holy Subversion. Yancey provides some thoughts on the difference this should make in the final chapter of the book. Rather than a powerful force bringing salvation to the world, top down, he suggests that we are called to holy subversion, bringing change through individuals from the bottom up. Faith grows best from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down. (p. 259) This doesn’t mean inaction. Christians can and should act in the world as pilgrims, on a journey alongside those around us. Christians can also find a place as activists taking on important issues and making a difference. “Church history has seen many activists who take on causes such as slavery, racism, war, poverty, and women’s rights. Gradually, like a melting glacier, change takes place and what first seemed subversive becomes an accepted feature of the landscape.” (p. 266) Some level of activism should be present in us all. Finally, Christians can act as artists touching the heart and soul of the culture. “God must love art because most of the Bible is expressed in the form of story or poetry.” (p. 269) We would do well to imitate this approach. Jesus gave his most enduring truths in the form of stories and illustrations that drew the listener in.

But the greatest of these is love. Let us not forget.

How should we as Christians act in culture?

When does our action – however well intended – undermine the gospel?

How can we be a holy subversion?

This book, by the way, would make a good discussion starter in many different settings. In addition to the book there is a Vanishing Grace Study Guide with DVD (or without DVD) available to facilitate discussion.

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you would like to comment please see Faith and Culture: Uneasy Partners at Jesus Creed.

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