Fifteen years ago I interviewed for entrance to a Master’s of Urban and Regional Planning program, and as these type of interviews often go I was asked to tell a bit about myself and why I wanted to become an urban planner. Not knowing the rules of propriety on these type of things I began to explain to them that I was a Christian, that I had been heavily impacted by Augustine’s work City of God and because of this believed that as a Christian I wanted to work to make the city a great place for all people to live, whatever their faith may be. My host looked back across the table from me and simply responded, “oh… I’m an atheist.” They accepted me for admission and gave me a scholarship and I was off to transform culture.
I started my life in a rural Pentecostal church led by some Jesus Freaks that had gotten into James Dobson. My upbringing was full of my family trying to making sure that we did not do that which the culture did - we were against culture. The TV show “Who’s the Boss” was off-limits because Tony and Angela lived together, even if he was her housekeeper and they were only friends. It had the appearance of evil and that was enough. He-Man and She-Ra were out because they both clearly were involved with the occult - as were the Care Bears. Mr. Rogers should be watched only in moderation, for of course he was really only about being a nice person (aka works righteousness), and he was a Presbyterian which made us additionally suspicious.
I wound up going to a Presbyterian (of all places) college ministry when I arrived at University of Washington. While there I had a radical change of heart about how to approach the world. I had two major voices: one was from my pastor and the other was my professors in my Comparative Religion major at a public university. My pastor, Mike Gaffney, was always going to Genesis 12 to talk about how we were supposed to be a blessing to culture, yet at first I couldn’t understand how that worked if we were always making sure to tell people that we don’t celebrate Halloween because it’s “the devil’s day.” As my professors started pointing me to read historical theology I realized that not only was my previous dispensational premillenial theology a chronologically new view, but it was a view that was not prone to transform culture as it was instead more oriented to shy away from culture. Richard Niebuhr describes the ethics of the “Christ against culture” group as being predominated by the ethic of holiness - or separatedness for the Gospel (Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, xliv). This makes sense if we are to understand ourselves as the new Israel because we are replacing them, yet biblically the model doesn’t seem to be a perfect fit as we are instead admonished to be “in the world, but not of it.” (John 17:15-18).
As I started looking more into the idea that as Christians we should be salt, I realized that this metaphor might mean that we are not simply salty as an act of preservation to stem rot or decay, but perhaps instead we should be salt in the world to add flavor (Matthew 5:13). This overarching narrative that culture is hopelessly rotting simply no longer held the same sway to me biblically. Instead I started to read and listen to leaders from today and the past that were culture changers. People like Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Hopkins, people like Tim Keller, but that is just the beginning. During my studies in urban planning I was able to write great papers on Augustine as well as Calvin’s Geneva. This view that we are not so much establishing a new society, but instead transforming society does seem to be a departure from Israel’s model, and I believe it is. This is one of the areas in which we see that Genesis 12 is simply setting the stage for God’s long term plan for His people of blessing. It is not a blessing from the outside, but a blessing from within.
This idea that we are to transform culture might reach its culmination in Paul’s interaction at the Areopagus in Acts 17. In Acts 17 we see Paul do something that should shock us as we read from a straight Hebraic perspective in which Paul is willing to tell the Greeks that they have some measure of truth in their own underlying worldview - but it was incomplete and used to point to the greater truth of the God that has made Himself fully known in Jesus Christ.
If I didn’t think that we should transform culture I would be stuck. I am far too rigid in my understanding of our call toward holiness to essentially assimilate the church to culture, yet I have a hard time reconciling the ministry of Jesus with the ethic of Christ against Culture as Jesus seems to consistently step into situations that are more transformative than combative. While the being “against culture” makes sense in its continued emphasis to holiness, looking at the miracles of Jesus we see the compassion of Christ at times trumping ritual cleanliness laws. He touched a woman that had been bleeding for 12 years in Luke 8, He talks with a promiscuous Samaritan woman at a well and she even tries to tell Him that He probably shouldn’t do this in John 4.
As I read through Scripture I see again and again that God is transforming the culture. He has been doing this from the beginning by taking cultural idols in Genesis and crushing them - he took on primogeniture by elevating Abel over Cain, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his brothers. He took on polygamy by showing how poorly it turns out for all parties involved, from Hagar and Sarah to the sister-wives Leah and Rachel. God breaks down the cultural expectation of slavery by elevating Hagar - and these three examples of God transforming culture by speaking into it occur only in the first book of the Bible. The list could go on and on.
I'd love to hear your thoughts so feel free to add something to the comments below or come and talk to me at church about this some Sunday. - Asher