Jesus and Culture

Yeah, I know; given the title of this post I could write just about anything. I’m only going to touch on one aspect here.

Sometimes we complain about how biblical scholars give us a Jesus who looks nothing like us, a Jesus so enmeshed in his own ancient Jewish and Mediterranean culture that we don’t know what to make of him any more. The salvation that Jesus preached isn’t just the “be forgiven so you can go to heaven when you die,” or “God is nice so you be nice too” messages that we’ve heard since childhood. Since we’ve failed to eliminate his kingdom language, there’s an irreducible political tinge to all Jesus did and said. His salvation redeems/creates a people who will live according to God’s agenda in the midst of constant cultural opposition from multiple directions.

One of the things we can get from that biblical scholarship that highlights Jesus’ culture and those that neighbored it, is a clearer sense of the contrast Jesus created. Jesus spoke of being “light in the midst of darkness.” We’ve too easily applied that as a self-congratulatory “we’re right, and you’re REALLY wrong!” Well, maybe we are, and maybe you are, but even more, the light and dark language is a language of contrast. When we look at Jesus in his culture, we see that though he was making moves that advanced the cultural game plan, they were not at all the moves anyone expected. He stood out.

I believe paying closer attention to Jesus and the way his life contrasted with his culture can open our eyes to the ways our Christianity fails to contrast with our own. When we see some Christians who are culturally indistinguishable from various parties in our culture (we might think in terms of political parties here), something’s not right. Perhaps if we learn the difference exemplified in Jesus, we can learn to expect one in our own lives – assuming we plan to walk in the Jesus way.

Yes, I know the problem here. Assuming God has an agenda for our culture, for our society – an assumption many Christians have made through the centuries – there’s a chance that some Christians might align with that agenda and to some small degree enact it. In that case there will be at least some aspects of culture that are aligned with what God wants. To put it briefly, God wins! Because of this, just as we cannot simply assimilate to our culture and remain Christian, neither can we simply adopt a totally contrarian attitude. The primary thing is neither “go with culture” nor “go against culture.” The primary thing is “Go with Jesus.”

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