I’ve had some interesting conversations over the past couple of weeks while I have been processing faith and culture. My past two entries have focused upon the current cultural state of the Church of the Brethren, at least as I have observed it to be. Several years ago I began a theological conversation with a Pentecostal friend (Kenneth J. Archer). The result of this conversation has been a series of publications. Our first installment, “AnabaptismPietism and Pentecostalism: scandalous partners in protest,”[1] focused upon the shared practice of feetwashing. My portion of the article contextualized feetwashing within the Lord’s Supper. Regardless of the details, this conversation has evolved into a relationship in which both parties are continually challenged and drawn away from the popular culture. I’d like to think that a consequence of this conversation has led me to reject enlightenment presuppositions (particularly those surrounding the demythologizing of scripture) in exchange for a more robust pneumatology. On the other hand I’d also like to believe that Ken’s embrace of peace and justice is also due (at least in part) to our conversation.

I suppose the question here is “what does this have to do with the church and culture?” I am growing more and more convinced that it has everything to do with where we find ourselves. I think it’s natural for human beings to group together with others with whom they share commonality. Unfortunately in the wider church community this has been embodied in a form of partisanship that closely resembles the partisan nature of the current political community. We naturally seek out communities with which we agree and set ourselves opposed to those different from us. Essentially this creates a context in which the status quo is held. In a culture that has been so fundamentally shaped by the enlightenment, we find ourselves not only immersed in this culture but saturated by its influence. This is especially illustrated by the way in which two seemingly opposite factions (fundamentalists and liberals) can argue so pointedly from what appears to be two opposite ends of a spectrum while sharing the same fundamental (pun intended) philosophical assumptions.[2] Our entire perception of this reality is false however. It is erroneous to perceive the current climate as a spectrum. The context in which we find ourselves is far more complex. It is more accurate to perceive it as a matrix whose skeleton is enlightenment philosophy. In other words this was never a question of Liberal and Conservative. Such dualisms are but mere illusions which seek to simplify the current contextual reality.

William Cavanaugh argues that nationalism has absorbed the other North American cultures[3] which I believe is accurate. In essence we are living in an age of powerful empires that seek to absorb and consume. What often goes unrecognized is the powerful efforts of these empires to syncretize the cultures they absorb. Therefore, as Christmas rolls around, instead of meditating on the birth of Jesus, we experience a compulsion enter the frenzy of shopping to purchase merchandise for family and friends. Moreover, during the “holiday” season one is far more likely to hear reports of the “market” and how much businesses are selling. The government also gets involved in this by not only publicly encouraging shopping, but the leadership makes the connection of consumerism and patriotism. All these efforts, while seemingly harmless actually change the very nature of the Christian faith over time as individuals continually conform to this culture. As I write this post, we are approaching the Lenten season. This is a season that is set aside by the Christian community to meditate upon the passion of Christ. This time of meditation culminates with the great celebration of his resurrection on Easter. In about fifty days Christian families throughout this country will spend an inordinate amount of money on chocolate and candy, and even highlight a rodent on this memorable day. Now I’ve said all this not to complain or rant, but to describe the ways in which the empires “commandeer” the religious holidays for purposes outside the intent of these days. Capitalism wants to profit from them; consumerism wants to accumulate possessions; and the nation wants to protect its interests. Simply said the situation we find ourselves in is far more complicated than we like to believe. What I haven’t mentioned are the many sub-factions that are also vying for our allegiance and support in addition to empires of which they are a part. An empire’s purpose is about wielding power and influence through coercion in order to attain universal allegiance, conformity, and assimilation in the name of social order. Several years ago the movie Hot Fuzz hit the cinema screen. In this film is portrayed a peaceful little hamlet governed by ta chief inspector and the community watch. In what was a funny cultural critique was marked by the striking words used by the group to justify killing members of the community for the benefit of the social order. There is a particular scene in which the group sits around a table in monks’ robes repeating the line in unison, “for the greater good.” While humorous, this film satirizes the function of empire on society. It acts to absorb and assimilate all sub-cultures (often times coercively) for the purpose of the “greater good.”

So what do we do? James Hunter argues that we must untwine ourselves from these cultures and to be faithfully present in the larger community (while not a part of it).[4]What is not so clear is how this is done. In my reflections over the past weeks I have struggled to get my mind around how a person begins to divorce the very culture which has contributed to the formation and identity of the person. Personally, while I verbally resist and attempt to make lifestyle changes that would help in the process, I find myself failing more times than not. This is why I am beginning to think that the answer is a relational one. I’m not convinced anyone can do it on one’s own. It is too big an endeavor. However, if we open ourselves relationally (entering into serious conversations regarding the Christian faith) to those Christian communities that stand either on the margins of the wider culture or outside it entirely, especially those sisters and brothers in the southern hemisphere, we may discover that divorcing ourselves from the empire may not be as difficult as it may seem.

[1] This paper was published in the Scottish Journal of Theology, 63(2): 185–202 (2010).

[2] See, Nancy Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism (Harrisburg: Trinity International Press).

[3] William T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

[4] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

  1. brad says:

    It’s good to see two brothers have fruitful conversations to stir one another up to love and good works!

  2. Really glad to see you’ve dipped into Cavanaugh’s new one, Andrew! That book is dynamite. The image of the bicycle wheel as American society in “Killing for the Telephone Company,” with individuals-as-citizens being the spokes and the nation-state being the hub is a pretty powerful image. Individuals in such a system don’t have any meaningful connection to each other and really only serve to keep the thing turning.

    The nation-state has sucked out the dense social webs in society and we’re left with this simulacrum of sociality – practice-able only by futile appeals to the partisan political system (voting) which has been completely overrun by corporate interests.

    The church in such a situation is in a dilly of a pickle, to say the least.

    I’m loving these posts, Andrew, keep ’em coming! There are some posts in the pipeline for the new Brethren Life and Thought blog that should resonate with what you’re wrestling with here (at least the one that I just typed up a draft for will, I think).

  3. […] The Empire Strikes . . . again? […]

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