Culture & Christianity

From the birth of the Church and until the present day, Christians (especially African Christians) have struggled with how to relate to the world and its culture. Several Scriptures from the Holy Book have also warned the elect of God against worldliness, to wit:

  • And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).
  • Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership has righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord. “And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you (2 Corinthians 6: 14, 17).
  • See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ (Colossians 2: 8).
  • This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1: 27).
  • Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him (1 John 2: 15).

Against the backdrop of the aforesaid warnings, there is a niggling question; what is the relationship between Christianity and African cultures in general? According to Ernest Munachi Ezeogu’s essay titled “Culture in African Theology”:

Judging from the various ways in which, down through the ages, the gospel or the biblical message has been understood by Christians to relate to cultures, it is possible to distinguish, without necessarily separating, two major tendencies or models, namely, the dialectic and dialogic models (Julius Lipner, “Being One, Let Me Be Many: Facets of the Relationship Between the Gospel and Culture” International Review of Mission, LXXIV/294: (1985) 158-168.

According to the dialectic model, the gospel and culture are opposed to each other, in perpetual conflict with each other, and are ultimately irreconcilable. This polarity is often expressed in the language of contrasting spatial, temporal, and circumstantial metaphors, such as these: the gospel is from “above,” culture from “below”; the gospel is “divine,” culture “human”; the gospel is “light,” culture “darkness”; the gospel is “eternal,” culture “time-bound”; and so on. According to the advocates of this view, the dichotomy between the gospel and culture can be resolved in only one possible way, by culture yielding to the demands of the gospel.

This contrasts with the dialogic model which views culture and gospel as two compatible entities that could and that should be reconciled. According to this view culture and gospel could blend harmoniously. They could dialogue, and such a dialogue would result in their mutual enrichment and efficiency.

These are paradigms, and paradigms are rarely found in their pure states in real life. In real life, the way Christians perceive the interplay between gospel and culture could be located anywhere between the extreme poles of the purely dialectic and the purely dialogic models. But my submission is that in African Christianity, we are operating an overly dialectical approach to the critical issue of the relationship between the Bible and African cultures. 1

However, many Christians may find it difficult to believe that the New Testament is replete with exhortations to engage culture, and not conform to culture. Take a look at the following scriptures:

  • You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5: 13 – 16).
  • Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28: 19 – 20).
  • I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world (John 17: 15 – 16).
  • Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ . . . (2 Corinthians 5: 20)
  • Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity (Colossians 4: 5).

Despite the above scriptures that encourage Christians to engage the world’s culture and evangelise it, I believe that the dialectic attitude will continue to prevail over the dialogic because many African Christians have realised that there is a strong nexus between their respective cultures and the occult. Culture is the characteristics of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music, and arts. The aspect of culture that is not directly contaminated by the occult is okay as far as I am concerned. For example language and cuisine may not necessarily have any direct link with the occult, unless otherwise shown in specific instances of idol engagement.

How does an African Christian avoid spiritual contamination and uphold Godly purity while at the same time respecting his culture? The theologian, Richard Niebuhr provided a classic study concerning these questions in his book “Christ and Culture,” which can be summarised as follows:

The “Christ Against Culture” view: This view encourages opposition, total separation, and hostility toward culture. From this school of thought, we learn that there are moments the church must act prophetically and oppose the culture in its sin and wickedness. When colonial administrations were set up in Africa, the repugnancy doctrine was enacted over customary law and it abolished all customary laws “repugnant to natural justice, equity, and good conscience.” No matter what Pan-Africanism will argue, I believe that the coming of the colonial masters and the missionaries was a blessing in disguise. Can you picture cultures that encouraged the killing of twins, the burial of slaves with their masters, and multifarious human sacrifice? The widely acclaimed repugnancy doctrine was born out of Christian hearts.

The “Christ of Culture” perspective: This perspective is exactly the converse of “Christ Against Culture” because it attempts to marry culture and Christianity together, regardless of their differences. Liberation, process and gender equality theologies are current examples. From this point of view, we realise that our culture has things that it can teach the church about Christ and the Bible. The truth is a universal virtue and every truth is God’s truth, regardless of who discovers it.

The “Christ Above Culture” Position: This position attempts “to correlate the fundamental questions of culture with the answer of Christian revelation.” Thomas Aquinas is the most prominent teacher of this view. From the third perspective, we acknowledge how important our natural lives in culture are and assume that this arrangement is a gift of God.

The Christ and Culture in Paradox: The paradox describes the “dualists” who stress that the Christian belongs “to two realms (the spiritual and temporal) and must live in the tension of fulfilling responsibilities to both.” Martin Luther adopted this view. From this outlook, we see how hard it is to be both in the world and yet not of it. We find ourselves in a battle to keep ourselves unspotted by the value systems of the age.

The Christ the Transformer of Culture: includes the “conversionists” who attempt “to convert the values and goals of secular culture into the service of the kingdom of God.” Augustine, Calvin, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards are the chief proponents of this last view. The fifth and final perspective attempts to absorb all these four strengths and yet it also takes them a step beyond to cultural transformation.

I believe that the “Christ the Transformer of Culture” view aligns closest with Scriptures we earlier enumerated in Matthew 5: 13-16, Matthew 28: 19-20, John 17: 15-16, 2 Corinthians 5: 20 and Colossians 4: 5. As Christians, we are to be actively involved in the transformation of culture without giving that culture undue prominence and pre-eminence. We are the salt of the earth. The salt determines the taste of the soup. Admittedly, the Christ the Transformer Perspective calls for an alertness and sensitivity to subtle dangers.

As Christians, if we are to be transformers, we must also be “discerners,” of the times and seasons. To discern spirits is a supernatural ability enabled by God’s Holy Spirit that allows a person to determine the source of a spiritual manifestation, whether it emanates from God, the devil, the world, or man. If we have this gift, God will reveal information about the presence or absence of spiritual entities. Usually, people regard this gift as useful to detect evil spiritual forces or influences. It can also detect the presence or absence of angelic intervention or the prompts of God’s Holy Spirit working within us. The Apostle John advised us as Christians not believe every spirit, but test [try] the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 John 4: 1). We are commanded to examine thoroughly any spiritual teaching with our critical faculties to see whether the presenter is handling the Word of God accurately. Because evil spirits have the capacity to produce paranormal phenomena, the Scriptures exhort us to prove or test the spirits, proving all things, holding fast only to what is good (I Thessalonians 5:21). It is highly imperative that we use our God-given reasoning and understanding in doing this, but we should not rely exclusively on our intellect. Likewise, it is unwise to allow our inward feelings to sway us, but we should seek the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit. Undoubtedly, the most reliable guide concerning the testing of Spirits would be the Scriptures. In order to transform culture, we must continually recognize what is in need of transformation and what is not. This is a difficult assignment. We cannot afford to approach the responsibility without the guidance of God’s Spirit, Word, wisdom, and power.

In the 2000 Gold Medallion Award-winning book titled, “How Now Shall We Live?” authored by Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, the authors aptly state as follows on the issue of cultural transformation:

The lesson is clear: Christians are saved not only from something (sin) but also to something (Christ’s lordship over all of life). The Christian life begins with spiritual restoration, which God works through the preaching of his Word, prayer, the sacraments, worship, and the exercise of spiritual gifts within a local church. This is the indispensable beginning, for only the redeemed person is filled with God’s Spirit and can know and fulfil God’s plan. But then we are meant to proceed to the restoration of all God’s creation, which includes private and public virtue; individual and family life; education and community; work, politics, and law; science and medicine; literature, art, and music. This redemptive goal permeates everything we do, for there is no invisible dividing line between sacred and secular. We are to bring “all things” under the lordship of Christ, in the home and the school, in the workshop and the corporate boardroom, on the movie screen and the concert stage, in the city council and the legislative chamber.

This may be undoubtedly a Herculean assignment. The Satanic forces permeating our culture sometimes seem to be so vile and sly. Can there ever be a cultural display, especially of masquerades without incantations and libations? I would suggest that when it comes to cultures that cannot be practised without resort to demons (in the names of gods and goddesses); the church should adopt the approach of “Christ Against Culture” viewpoint. It is either the culture bends to the dictates of the Bible or it should be abandoned in its entirety.




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