How Christians Consume Culture
Passage: 1 Corinthians 8–10
10.08.2017 How Christians Consume Culture
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 8-10
How do Christians engage with the wider cultural world in which we find ourselves? This is a prescient question in our current day and age but it’s not a new one. Faithful followers of Christ have been asking this question and debating this question throughout the history of the church. In fact we have a record of one of the earliest churches asking this very question not one generation after Christ’s earthly ministry.
For us living today, understanding how we can be faithful in the midst of rapidly changing culture can be a difficult, yet vital task. On the one hand, we want to know how to be disciples living in the world ourselves. On the other hand, most of us here also have an evangelical desire to bring others to faith. Doing so requires at least some engagement with the prevailing culture. So this morning we are going to look at how Christians ought to engage culture and we invite our old pal Andy Crouch back with us as a conversation partner. You’ll remember Andy from our sermon How Christians Use Technology and his book The Tech-Wise Family. Today we’ll be using his older book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling as a jumping off point.
One of the first thing Crouch does in his book is point out that all of us, in one way or another, engage, consume, and interact with culture. He writes, “Culture is all of these things: paintings (whether finger paintings or the Sistine Chapel), omelets, chairs, snow angels. It is what human beings make of the world. It always bears the stamp of our creativity, our God-given desire to make something more than we were given.” Culture is merely our way of making sense of the world, making meaning in the world. Culture is what we make of the world. So no matter what, we all engage culture because we all do something in the wider world.
Crouch also outlines that there is no single entity called “culture.” Oftentimes folks will bemoan “the culture” as if there is this monolithic thing imposing its will upon us. But that thing, “the culture” doesn’t exist. There are many different cultures, many different cultural artifacts, and in fact different spheres of culture that combine in layers to make up our life. Who here remembers their first trip to a Starbucks? I don’t know what it was like for you, but for me I felt like an alien stepping into a new world. I didn’t know what a macchiato was or a latte. I didn’t see a list of flavor shots anywhere. Not speaking Italian I had no idea what venti meant. And yet it seemed clear that asking questions was frowned upon. If you got up to the cashier and didn’t know exactly what you wanted, you were going to annoy if not anger the seven people behind you. Starbucks has its own culture, its own language. And it is a culture and language different from other places in life.
Or how about this: Patrick and I will watch tv or movies together on weekends. And when we watch a movie at home he’ll ask me questions during it, we’ll talk about what’s going on in the movie, and we can even sing and dance if we know the songs. He’ll ask me to replay different parts or different songs and I oblige. A couple times over the summer, I took Patrick to the movie theater to see a movie. And he wanted to ask questions and talk and sometimes he even asked for certain parts to be repeated. The act was the same: watching a movie. But we had entered into a different sphere of culture and the movie theater has its own norms and behaviors.
So asking How Christians Consume Culture is to enter into a complex and differentiated space. There is no one right answer. Because there is no one culture. What we are really looking at is how Christians should inhabit different spheres of culture, which ones should we inhabit, and should we inhabit different spheres differently. And with the question framed as such, we now turn to an early church controversy.
In 1 Corinthians 8, church planter extraordinaire Paul is answering a question sent to him from a church that he founded. It concerned how the new Christian community ought to look at food that had been offered to idols. This is a cultural question. And it’s a question that would have been incredibly important to the particular community of Christians in Corinth.
Corinth was a city begun by freed slaves about 100 years before Paul starts a church there. It was a city that had incredible economic opportunity and people with no social standing suddenly found themselves with an incredible amount of clout in a short period of time. It was the very definition of culture making as a young city full of nouveau riche. It was also a religious melting pot. The market and the temple were intertwined such that it was nearly impossible to separate yourself from the various cults of Rome.
Paul goes to Corinth and begins a church here. The members of Paul’s church in Corinth would have been converts from Greek and Roman pagan idol worship, not Jews who followed to teachings of Jesus as in Jerusalem and other areas. They had been called from a former way of life into a new way of living following the teachings of Jesus.
But an open question for many in the church was how much to engage with the things of their former life? In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul takes up a question they church had asked him in their correspondence with him regarding whether or not Christians could eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. And because of the way the market worked, the question really boiled down to whether or not Christians could eat meat as most of the meat available in the market had been sacrificed to one idol or another.
We said this was a cultural issue, but for some in the Corinthian church it was a spiritual one too. Their issue was that idols have power and that in eating meat offered to an idol you are endorsing idolatry and turning away from God. Another camp said that idols aren’t real, the gods they represent aren’t real, so meat offered to an idol is fine. Paul begins his discussion by affirming that an idol has no real existence because there is only one God, the living God, whom we serve. So eating meat, not eating meat, neither is a spiritual problem. God has given us freedom. So this then becomes a cultural issue. How will you choose to interact with this thing that exists?
I want to pause our discussion of idol meat, isn’t that a great sentence in a sermon, and go back to Crouch. Crouch identifies a number of postures Christians have taken when interacting with culture in America in the last two generations. These postures will be helpful in our conversation about the idol meat and even more so as we look to how we should interact with culture today.
The first posture is condemning culture. This came about as a result of secularization in Europe post-world war 2. As secular culture gained more and more traction, a part of the church became increasingly anxious about aspects of culture. And so the posture part of the church developed was to condemn culture and escape culture. So, for instance, dancing was not allowed. Rock music was the devil. This still happens in parts of the church were to remain spiritually pure Christians avoid different aspects of culture and different things in culture.
The next posture that some Christians took was to critique culture. Everything about culture was analyzed and discussed. These Christians sought to engage culture as participant observers. They wouldn’t totally reject culture the way that the condemners did, but they also would maintain an appropriate distance. This continues today when we see magazines like Christianity Today and The Christian Century reviewing, analyzing, and critiquing movies and music. If we had to have a mental picture as to what this looks like, condemners sought to keep a firewall between themselves and culture. For critiquers, a porous membrane exists. There is some crossover, yes. But there’s also still a distinction between Christianity and culture.
The next posture was to copy culture entirely. This posture gave rise to the Contemporary Christian Music movement. Rather than avoid rock music altogether or critique it like it was something to be dissected in a lab rather than enjoyed, some Christians decided to make something called Christian rock music. Copying culture is precisely what it sounds like: taking the form and injecting it with Jesus. So now we have Christian movies, Christian fiction, and Christian stand up comedy. All taking to form of their cultural forebear and the language and norms of Christianity. The downside to this, however, is that none of these are cultural innovations. This is not really a form of cultural creation. These things often become facsimiles, not able to surpass their secular counter-parts in ingenuity or integrity to the particular medium. For instance, Nirvana invented a new type of music. When was the last time a Christian band or artist had such a musical impact?
The last posture we have seen in the last two generations is consuming culture. This comes as a response to the movement of cultural copying as some Christians saw that the Christian versions of culture couldn’t match their secular counterparts. Additionally there were some bands and filmmakers and artists who found such great success in the Christian cultural sphere that they “crossed over” into the mainstream. That combined to lead some to say well why don’t we just consume culture like everyone else? So now Christians are far more likely to consume mainstream culture than a generation ago. However, Crouch notes that in the attempt to be like regular Americans, Christians may consume culture in far greater rates than regular Americans. He says it better, “They are content to be just like their fellow Americans, or perhaps, driven by a lingering sense of shame at their uncool forebears, just slightly more like their fellow Americans than everyone else.”
But back to idol meat. Two of these postures were employed by Christians in the church at Corinth. Some Christians condemned eating food offered to idols. They couldn’t do it. Not unlike rock music, they thought it was the devil. They couldn’t square eating meat offered to idols with their basic beliefs as Christians. And they thought anyone that did was doing something wrong.
The other posture was consumption. The other group in the church said idols aren’t a thing, this meat is like any other meat, and my freedom in Christ means that I can eat this meat. But in their rush to show off their freedom, they ate the idol meat brazenly. It wasn’t so much they could consume, it was almost as if they had to consume. And if they didn’t consume, it would be a problem.
Paul says that neither of these postures is appropriate. Paul tells the people who assume the posture of condemnation that they are giving too much power to idols. Idols aren’t real, only God is real, and their attitude towards the meat offered to idols reveals a spiritual problem. They need to understand, spiritually, that they could eat the meat.
But to the people who assume the posture of consumption Paul says their bent towards consumption is a form of slavery. The consumption camp argued that to show their freedom they must eat the meat. Paul tells them that understanding is not real freedom. True freedom is both a freedom to do something and a freedom from doing that same thing.
The answer comes from being freed from either of these two postures. Paul concludes his discussion of eating food offered to idols by saying this and after looking at this we’re going to spin this forward for how Christians should interact with culture today.
1 Corinthians 10:23-33 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
Paul says that what is required isn’t a posture. Instead in some instances we should do one thing, in other instances another. That’s not a posture. It’s employing gestures. And if I can eat in some circumstances and not eat in others, that’s freedom. But notice how Paul reframes the conversation not around say my choice to eat meat or not, as if I’m the only important person in the world, but to how my actions, how my interaction with culture is affecting other’s faith. Paul says if it will put you in community with non-believers, feel free to eat. Don’t make them feel bad. Paul says if you’re eating with someone to whom your consuming idol meat will offend their conscience or hurt their faith, don’t eat. Don’t cause people to stumble, rather do things to the glory of God so that people may be saved.
So what we see here is that none of the postures we identified before are sufficient. We can’t have a one sized fits all approach to culture, at least not one that we have employed before. There will be times when we consume culture. For instance, pumpkin spiced lattes are a cultural thing. And they are meant to be consumed. There will be times when we need to critique culture. There are a lot of places where we can find God in culture, grace in culture, stories of redemption in culture. Think about the show This is Us if you watch it. Part of what we find beautiful about that show is people finding healing and redemption and growth in community. Which is also what we do here at church. Critiquing parts of culture can help us share faith and grace with people as we use a common language.
There are times when we need to condemn things in culture. Parts of culture that objectify humans, parts of culture that damage humans. There are things in culture we need to denounce. And at times there are parts of culture we ought to copy. Especially if we can copy well.
When we employ all of these gestures effectively, we exhibit true freedom. But what posture or postures can we assume that allows us to make these gestures effectively? Is there a posture that Paul is describing in 1 Corinthians that we can assume as we seek to engage culture in our time? I would say yes there is. Aren’t you glad?
Crouch says that what is needed today are the postures of cultivation and creation. We’ll start with cultivation. If you are gardening you’re trying to cultivate certain types of plants. You want bushes to grow, but only so much. You want flowers to grow in certain places. You have an idea in mind, and objective. Which is what Paul is talking about in his letter. We want people to come to faith. We want people to come to know Jesus. We want people to come to love God and to see God’s love for them. So we want to cultivate things in culture that help people see God at work in the world.
This means at times we’ll condemn parts of culture. Like a gardener taking weeds out of a flower bed, if there is something that would inhibit another’s faith it need not be a part of our lives. For instance, we use grape juice here for communion. United Methodists have used grape juice for communion for a long time now not because we think wine is inherently evil. Instead we know that our use of wine would keep others from the table and could harm people if they are someone they love struggles with alcohol addiction. So we use grape juice so all can come.
There are some parts of culture we’ll want to grow. Those that help people see God at work in the world, who help people come to faith. I once heard that Mozart’s father had him tour all over Europe because people at the time had stopped believing in miracles and Mozart’s father wanted to show them God’s latest. There are miracles in our culture and we can help others see God behind them.
The other posture we need to take is creation. Because while we can do some work to cultivate culture, our work of cultivation won’t itself change culture. Crouch says, “The only way to change culture is to create more of it.” If you wanted to extend a flower bed, if you wanted to relandsape your yard, you can’t cultivate your way there. At some point you have to engage in some creation.
If we really want to impact culture on a root level, we have to create culture. We have to offer people a new choice, a better choice. If we want people to go see Christian movies, Christians need to make better movies. If we want people to listen to Christian music, Christians need to make better music. If we want people to not choose soccer on Sunday mornings and instead come experience worship, our worship needs to be more compelling than soccer. And we need to create forms of culture that don’t yet exist. The Gospel as literary form didn’t exist until people needed a new way to tell about what had happened in Jesus Christ. Hagiography came about as people wanted to talk about special lives that God made possible for the people called saints. Hymns weren’t a thing until they were. We need to create new forms of culture that connect people’s lives to Jesus. We need to create something that’s better. That is the only way we can impact and change culture. Is by getting our hands dirty to create things that are better choices than the ones people are already making.
So how do Christians consume, engage, interact with culture? As cultivators and creators. We cultivate and curate, to the best of our ability, things in culture that build up. We remember that while all things are permissible, not everything is good for us. We remember that while all things are allowed, not everything builds us up. We cultivate the things in our lives that help build up. Whether that’s building us up or whether that’s using our freedom to help build someone else up. We let go of things that hurt us, hurt our faith, or that hurt the faith of others.
And we try to be creators. We try to create new things in culture that can help change the culture around us to be about building up. To be about grace. To be about redemption. We need to do hard work to create new forms of culture that help people encounter the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ.
How do Christians consume culture? Not for our own glory, but for the glory of many so that they may be saved. Let us pray.