In the 5th section of The Doctrine of the Christian Life, John Frame touches on the question of culture. This is an important question regarding the Christian life. No one lives it in a vacuum. We each live it in a particular culture, and that raises issues and questions. It is a big part of the circumstances making up the situational component of triperspectival ethics.
“So culture is not only what we grow, but also what we make, both with our hands and with our minds.”
He begins the section with a chapter on the question, what is culture? In terms of Scripture, this is a word not found there, but one that must be derived from good and necessary consequence. He starts with some basic facts about the origin of the word, and some definitions posited by others, like the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism. He then distinguishes between creation (what God has made) and culture (what we make with creation). This, of course, leads us back to the Creation Mandate. Adam and Eve (and their children) were to fill the earth, subdue the earth and rule the earth. They were to utilize it, not preserve it (or exploit it). As a result, culture for Frame is what we make of God’s creation.
“God creates the world, but he does not depend on the world at all. The world depends entirely on him. But in human life, there is a mutual dependence between ourselves and the world. The world depends on us to fill and rule it, but we depend on the world for our very existence.”
As made in God’s image, the various cultures we create and maintain reflect something of the goodness of God. But as sinners marred by the Fall, our cultures also reflect that descent and distortion of God’s glory. No one culture, this side of Eden, is either all good or all bad but a rather tar babyish mix of the two.
Into this, Frame develops a view of Common Grace. This is another word not found in Scripture, but a concept taught in Scripture. It is gracious because it is undeserved. It is common because it does not lead to salvation. It does maintain the stage for salvation, like what we see in the Noahic Covenant.
By common grace we mean that God restrains sin. He actively keeps people from being as bad as they could be. An example Frame provides is the Tower of Babel, scattering the nations so they won’t accomplish their evil intent. Satan is on a short leash, as we see in Job; and even shorter as we see in Revelation 20.
By common grace we also mean that God gives some blessings without exception. Sunshine and rain fall upon both the righteous and unrighteous. Civil government is for the good of all in a society.
By common grace we mean that God gives knowledge and skills to all people, not just believers. They receive them in order to do good to society. Unbelievers are able to create technologies that enrich our lives (for example, Steve Jobs). They discover cures to diseases.
Both common grace and saving grace should make an impact on culture. No culture is as bad as it could be. God restrains the sins of every culture to some degree, and produces some societal good through that culture (sometimes we have to take this on faith!). But saving faith influences a culture by changing the hearts of those in a culture who then act to increase the good of culture.
Under the influence of Christianity, the Western world made great advances in medicine, science, economic freedom, education and more. The Church exerted a great deal of influence (Constantinianism was not all bad people!), actually founding most schools and hospitals. The Church cared for the poor, orphans and widows. No, not perfectly. But the majority of those helping did so as expressions of their faith.
Frame then discusses Niebuhr’s 5 models of Christ and Culture: Christ against culture, the Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ transforming culture. The Church has tended to think in terms of one model fits all. There are elements of truth, biblical underpinnings to each of them. In some ways Christ is in antithesis with culture (he hates divorce and abortion). In some ways He creates culture (Greek philosophy prepared the Greeks to receive the gospel). In some ways they are in synthesis as grace and nature meet in just laws. In some ways they are in paradox, focusing on very different purposes, as reflected in 2 kingdoms thinking. Jesus also seeks to transform culture, particularly those things which are in antithesis. The Church (at least parts of it) led the charge in the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement etc.
“Culture is religion externalized.” Henry Van Til
Frame then moves into Christ and OUR Culture. We must apply these general models to the particular culture in which we live. Before he summarizes how many great thinkers have processed this, he considers that God does distinguish between cultures. He judged Sodom & Gomorrah, but not the Amorite culture (that would wait another 4-500 years). It is here that he brings up that quote from Henry Van Til that I find fascinating. When you examine a culture, you are discerning their idols, what they worship. America, for instance worships celebrity, wealth, sex and convenience.
One of the significant realities of 1 Cor. 9 is that few (or no) culture is so bad “that you can never use its products or follow its customs.” Paul became like a Jew to Jew, and a Greek to Greeks. Those Greeks were one immoral lot. The sexual sins of Rome and Greece in Paul’s day far exceeded our own. They just weren’t recorded and put up on the internet. Paul didn’t participate in their sins but followed other customs (dress, language, diet) and bought their products (food sacrificed to idols). He didn’t boycott merchants who didn’t share his values.
Frame summarizes and analyzes the cultural criticism of Francis Shaeffer, Os Guinness, David Wells, and Ken Myers. They each bring something to the table, and he values their many insights. He also borrows Richard Pratt’s summaries of the premodern, modern and postmodern. As you may guess, his closest affinity lies with Cornelius Van Til. For him the key marker was not the shift from modern to postmodern (without denying a difference) but the Fall. Van Till didn’t emphasize the other historical turning points because they all pointed back to that turning point. There people became both rationalists and irrationalists in one big contradictory mess.
“History is not a movement from rationalism to irrationalism, but a dialogue, a dance between them. When rationalism gets out of hand, irrationalism jumps in, and vice versa. So the problem is not history; the problem is sin.”
He then proceeds to addressing Christians in our culture. We have to recall that we live in a culture marked by both dignity and depravity; common grace and saving grace, rationality and irrationality. These are in differing measures in each culture and sub-culture (FL is not the same as NJ or CA). These dynamic forces affect high culture, popular culture and folk culture. They affect all that the culture produces: music, art, film, literature, games, sports, work environments, homes, clothes and the list goes on.
There are two main tendencies within the church. Some, tending toward theological liberalism, what to be part of the cultural elite. Others, tending toward fundamentalism want to withdraw from participation in the culture. The Church and Christians should do neither. This is where God has providentially placed us in space and time. We are to participate in culture in a discernible fashion. We are not to purposefully sin (and Christians will disagree about this). We participate without buying the values of the culture. We are not to be reactionary. The worship of sex in our culture doesn’t mean we should all go Shaker. Instead we to hold and practice a biblical view of sex (money, work etc.). Christians can and should make high culture, popular culture and folk culture.
“The problem is not with one genre or another, but, as Van Til emphasized, the sin that corrupts everything.”
In looking at this, Frame brings up two particular areas of debate among Christians: film and music. I will return to them another time. They deserve a bit more space and thought.
From there, Frame moves into culture in the church. Culture is like the air we breath, we can’t just leave it behind when we are gathered in small or large groups as the Body of Christ. It is a part of many cultures, particularly ours. The old SNL church lady skit works only because the Church is part of American culture.
“The language we use, the ways we approach people, our style of teaching, our dress, our hospitality, our church architecture, and, yes, our music, are profoundly influenced by culture.”
Our church culture has also been influenced by that mix of ingredients that shape every other culture. Particular churches find themselves in particular cultures that have been shaped by dignity & depravity, common grace & saving grace. Those particular churches have also been shaped by local culture as well as church history and Scripture. This issue seems to create the most heat when it comes to music even though it also impacts liturgy (or the lack thereof) and sermons.
Frame uses the term “language of worship” to express the idea that different people find different styles more engaging and “worshipful”. It is partially about preference and partially about culture. Again, this is not about music alone. There are a great variety of styles for sermons, some of which are in our range of experience that we find comfortable and some we don’t. I suspect that most Episcopalians would not connect well with traditionally black or baptist preaching. Neither is more biblical, but they may fit someone’s worship language better than others.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians, was more concerned with edification. He wanted the saints to be built up. What we do in worship has to build up Christians who are at a variety of places in their maturity. This means that worship should both meet people where they are AND call them to greater maturity. It should not be a question of contemporary or Scripture songs vs. hymns. Sound biblical content that encompasses both the simple (not simplistic) and the profound should be there to edify the kids and new Christians as well as the most mature Christians (and all in between). This is why the “love chapter” is in the middle of his discussion of worship. Love means that we also speak other people’s languages of worship and not just our own.
“The way to teach mathematics to a child is not to put him in a college calculus course. It is, rather, to bring him along step-by-step, through addition, subtraction, and so on. Similarly, in worship there should be words, and songs, that communicate with people at every level: child, adolescent, adult, unbeliever, “
The church cannot avoid culture. It should not unthinkingly conform to culture or unthinkingly reject culture. It should thoughtfully discern culture so it knows what parts to accept and what to reject. The option of worshiping as if we were still part of a by gone era is not legitimately open to us, though many think this best. The music and instruments of any one time and place are no more biblical than those of any other time or place. The same is true for musical style. We should stop our knee jerk responses to the local culture and worship the One, True God in a way that represents our culture without embracing the sin of our culture.
This means that all kinds of churches should re-think their worship: both traditional and contemporary churches.