Christian Isolationists and Cultural Redemptives
The current discussion about culture polarizes those who view it as the evil from which we are to flee (Christian isolationists) and those who view it—all aspects of it—as redeemable (cultural redemptives).
And in reality, the term culture is too broad. When we say culture in this context, we’re usually referring specifically to media messages and the basic moral code of the masses. Sociologists would also include language, dress, and customs when defining culture. In fact, within our local circles, we usually speak the same language (though with some individuals choosing to eliminate words they deem objectionable), have the same style of dress (meaning suits and dresses for westerners as opposed to turbans, kilts, or loincloths), and have overall similar customs (like graduation, retirement, or marriage). But the real issues about which Christians typically debate typically center on media and morals.
Christian isolationists are keenly aware of the susceptibility of humans to fall into temptation. This awareness drives their decision to isolate. Isolationists withdraw from culture to avoid temptation and to protect themselves and their children from sinful behavior. Children of isolationists often have a foundation of Christian morals established before ever encountering a reason to doubt these morals.
The purity that this lifestyle/mindset seeks to accomplish is countered by the naïveté that occurs by removal from society as a whole. Isolationists could be considered postmodern Pharisees: There are rules to live by, and if the rules aren’t adhered to, you’re cast out. In attempting to avoid temptation, Christian isolationists create a righteousness force field around themselves. Some choose to homeschool their children so they can teach specific morals rather than having multiple moral influences in the lives of their children. Some listen only to Christian music, read only Christian books, watch only G-rated movies (except for the boycotted Disney films), and associate only with other Christians. Others have even gone so far as to move into neighborhoods where they know the neighbors believe as they do. The force field that initially functioned as protection soon serves as a means to keep others out, thus creating the isolationist subculture. When Christ said to be a light in the world, I don’t think he imagined us being the porch light and non-believers being moths and insects that beat their faces on the glass globe around the light bulb.
The other day I was engaging an acquaintance of mine in a conversation about The Da Vinci Code. Because I read the book myself rather than taking someone else’s word about the content, I was able to tell him that I disagreed with the theology (I called it Bible stuff) but couldn’t put the book down. This led to a conversation about Mary Magdalene, which led to a conversation about Jesus, which led to my acquaintance revealing why he no longer attends church or has much to do with Christians. He said that so many pastors just seemed to be out for money, and he referred to a local televangelist. Another Christian was nearby when we resumed the conversation. Upon finding out what book he was reading, she rolled her eyes and groaned. I asked her if she’d read it. She said, “No,” and I told her it was a good conversation starter. She said, “I don’t want to have conversations about that!” I was irate. Not only had she squelched the conversation I was having, but she judged the guy unworthy to discuss spiritual things with her. That incident is representative of how Christian isolationists view those outside their own subculture of their particular church. Isolationists are more likely to boycott, judge, and dissociate with the culture around them than they are to engage in conversation about culture.
Another segment of the Christian community is the cultural redemptives. They hold that there’s nothing inherently wrong with culture, that it’s all redeemable. While there may be those who are deeper thinkers and less-tempted individuals than I, I’m forced to wonder if those we’re trying to reach are identifying the redemptive value. As Christians, we see everything from a different perspective. We’re quick to recognize biblical allusions and salvation allegories. We believe the lost are blind and don’t yet see; they won’t learn unless they’re taught; they won’t receive the teaching unless they’re loved; they won’t be loved unless they’re encountered, conversed with, and befriended. Culture is the common ground upon which we meet.
Redemptives are viewed by some as being too worldly. By immersing themselves in culture, they can become desensitized to some of the repetitious immorality, violence, crude jokes, and humanistic writing. Redeeming everything in the culture may be a stretch. The search for redemptive value in Internet pornography and gratuitously violent images seems futile. Christ can redeem those involved, but the activities themselves are blatantly sinful. The longer the redemptives are exposed to such cultural influences and the more desensitized they become to the culture around them, the more likely they are to be influenced by those very temptations. Perhaps redemptives have an adolescent view of themselves: “It’ll never happen to me.” In the meantime, as they blend with the culture, it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish a follower of Christ from someone who’s tossed back and forth by the waves of trend and cool. Studies have already shown that teenagers don’t notice a difference among their peers who say they’re “born again” and those who don’t. Taking culture at face value, redemptives may spend more of their time manipulating aspects of culture until they’re redeemable than they spend pointing out what is truly redemptive.
Those of you who have already said to yourself, “I don’t fall into either of those categories, so I must be okay” need to reflect on how you interact with culture. There are many who would consider themselves discerners—those who interact enough with culture to discern what is “good” and what is “bad.” While discerners at least give merit to the idea that some of what culture has to offer should be filtered, there’s much disagreement about what to filter out. Some look to cultural experts for such information. But what happens when the experts disagree about how you’re to interact with culture? One popular expert in the field says, “Let me filter culture for you,” while another says, “Let me give you some tools to use as you filter it yourself.” One of these experts seems to be more of an isolationist in regard to others but a discerner in his own life. The other seems to be more of a discerner—not willing to say that all of culture is redeemable.
There’s also the possibility of premature filtering—judging something unredeemable without ever actually examining it. At first glance, this would sound like an isolationist move. The primary difference is that the discerner draws a line in the cultural sand while the isolationist builds a fence before ever reaching the sand. The merits of the discernment camp at least allow for something outside of the Christian subculture to be useful in teaching and making disciples.
Regardless of where you draw the line or which category of Christian best describes you, we all need to reevaluate how we’re engaging the people within culture. Primarily, I hope we’ll be more likely to engage people and use the culture than we are to engage the culture and use the people!
Christ was in the culture. He didn’t isolate himself from sinners, regardless of how the religious leaders felt about it. He ate with a tax collector, touched a leper, forgave an adulteress, and spoke to a woman at a well. At the same time, Jesus didn’t allow the surrounding culture to change him. He used everyday objects to teach spiritual lessons, but on more than one occasion, he told sinners to “sin no more.” He was gracious and just—a combination we seem unable to achieve, so we settle for one swing of the pendulum or the other.
Christ’s prayer for his disciples in John 17 is an indicator of how I think he would have his followers live. He prays, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). When we discuss looking at culture with redeeming eyes, this should be our prayer.
The culture (the media and the morals) tells us volumes about the needs of those around us. Take, for instance, the television series LOST. As viewers learn more and more about each of the characters, it becomes evident that each person on that island needs a second chance; they need and desire redemption. The same could be said for the movies Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Napoleon Dynamite. The popularity of reality TV indicates a hunger for authenticity. Song lyrics express the anger and depression of the very generation we’re trying to reach. Ebay has used a commercial ad campaign showing people committing random acts of kindness. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition touches even the hardest of hearts because of the extreme generosity of those involved in the projects.
People are attracted to kindness and generosity. There’s a deep awareness of the need we all have for a second chance. We cannot expect those who don’t have a relationship with Christ to look any deeper into culture than their own needs. At that point, we can use culture and the common ground it provides to point to the One who’s able to fulfill their deepest needs.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.