Friday, August 29, 2014

Is There A New Model For Christians Engaging the Culture...Even Politics?

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I must admit that I don't love thinking or talking about politics a great deal. As I've said before, it tends to stir up the pot and lead into areas of conversation that I don't know a lot about. If I'm going to get into a heated discussion, I would prefer that it be over theology, biblical studies, or even bacon rather than politics. However, I can't let myself slide on the subject and still consider myself an aspiring Christian intellect. must all understand exactly what role we, as Christians, have in engaging our culture--even the messy quagmire that is politics.

Previously, I have written about examining the subject through the lens of H. Richard Niebuhr's five Christ and culture paradigms. To be honest, I really only tackled three of them (Christ against culture, Christ transforming culture, and Christ and culture in paradox). The main reason for this abridged treatment was that I was sticking with material that I had written about earlier and considered the stronger models. There are elements of these three that I like, but none of them completely rings true for me as a stand-alone approach. 

A Critique of Niebuhr's Whole Framework

 In his book Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century, Dr. Timothy C. Tennent critiques Niebuhr's Christ and Culture paradigm in four ways:

"Niebuhr's understanding of culture was constructed on the foundation of secular anthropology...Because he understands culture as 'the work of  men's minds and hands,' he inadvertently secularizes culture, creating an unbiblical dichotomy between human cultural activity and Christ...To bracket God from culture is an effective denial of the Incarnation, whereby Jesus stepped into our history--into human culture--as a particular man...[His] entire perspective on culture assumes a Christendom framework...[And his] conception of culture is not set within an eschatological framework that sees the future as already breaking in to the present order...Niebuhr never articulates an understanding of the Holy Spirit as God's empowering presence bringing the New Creation into the present order. Instead, his secularized view of culture, which puts God in a supracultural category, robs his entire project of the eschatological perspective that is so central to all Christian thinking" (163-166).
Dr. Timothy C. Tennent

A New Model?

Critiques are all well and good (some people seem to think it's a spiritual gift), but is there a helpful solution--another way of looking at this whole Christ and culture interaction? Dr. Tennent says, "Yes," and proposes a Trinitarian, "New Creation" Theology of Culture. He presents it this way:

The Foundation of the model is that...

1. The Father is the source, redeemer, and final goal of culture.
    "God is a sending God. However, it should be clear that whether God the Father is sending prophets, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, or His church into the world, His ultimate purpose is to draw entire peoples and cultures and, indeed, the entire cosmos into communion with His divine life" (177).

2. The Son is God's embodiment in human culture.
     The life of Jesus shows us that God the Father validates "the sanctity of human culture." Jesus was a real person who lived in a real culture. But Jesus' life also provides us "the basis for cultural critique."

3. The Holy Spirit is the agent of the New Creation
     At Pentecost, Christ empowered his followers to be his witnesses in the world--witnesses of the New Creation--by giving them the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the One who transforms.

Once he lays this foundation, Tennent moves on to spell out the key features that emerge from the New Creation model. "First, as Christians, our primary cultural identity is in the New Creation...Second, we recognize that ultimate meaning can be found only in the triune God...Third, the church is the corporate, community witness to every culture of the New Creation" (187-189).


You may be thinking, "Great! That may be a better model for thinking about missions and how we interact with culture in general, but how does this new model really speak to how we tackle politics in particular?"

Here's how I see it working. Christians are called to be involved in God's transforming work in the world because in the cross and resurrection the New Creation has begun, even though it is not fully realized. We should fully engage our culture as citizens who's home is in the New Creation. This means calling out the sinful patterns of this world by preaching and living out the Gospel. The hope and the transformation is found in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ rather than in a political system.

Christians have effected change in our world and politics in such ways as helping to end slavery in the Western world and ending apartheid in South Africa, but Christians don't always persuade governments towards a Christian-worldview.  If culture refuses to change or maintains laws which Christians deem immoral, the boldest and prophetic statement the Church can make is one of civil disobedience, saying, "We must obey God rather than any human authority" (Acts 5:29). Jesus told His disciples that He was sending them out as sheep among wolves after all.

In America we have presupposed a Christendom framework for far too long. Look around. Christendom has collapsed, and the Church doesn't have the power it once did in this country, or the rest of the West for that matter. Christendom is about having the balance of power. But neither the early Church (pre-Constantine) nor Jesus Himself wielded power. The examples of Christ and the early Church are of loving sacrifice as witnesses to the truth. The Gospel is about the weak things of the world shaming the wise--strength in weakness.

So, if it is possible to achieve healing for the broken structures of our world by speaking within the political sphere, just as Joseph, Esther, or Daniel did, then I believe Christians have the duty to be involved in the process. But, if governments are unwilling to surrender to the Gospel, our duty is to peaceably stand for the truth through non-violent resistance and civil disobedience.

What I propose is not the most popular model at the moment, but it is the one that I find in Scripture. Does this model make sense within the canon of Scripture? What arguments do you find that may contradict this view? Please share your thoughts.

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