This post is about church and culture and how they interact.
Typically, that would mean I’m obligated to cite Richard Niebuhr’s 1951 book Christ and Culture. Or at least one of the more recent works that modify Niebuhr’s five categories of Christian cultural engagement, such as Tim Keller’s Center Church or D.A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited.
Instead, I’m going to start with the Amazon box on your front porch.
We can best understand God's original design for the realms of church and culture as a virtuous cycle. And one of the most famous examples of the virtuous cycle in action is online retailer Amazon.
A virtuous cycle is, as they teach it in business schools, a chain of events that causes the chain of events to occur again with more power and speed. Business author Jim Collins in his book Good to Great visualized this concept as “the flywheel,” a mechanical piece in certain engines that, as it rotates, picks up speed and disperses greater power.
Amazon’s flywheel declares that the company’s success starts with great customer experience. A great customer experience attracts more customers. More customers attract more third-party sellers. Third-party sellers drive more product selection. And more selection ultimately lowers the cost of products and innovation. More choices, lower prices and more innovation will create an even better customer experience, which will attract even more customers and more sellers.
The cycle has kept going round and round like that, generating annual revenue for Amazon of $386 billion. That’s bigger than the entire economy of even some wealthy countries, like Norway.
So what does this have to do with church and culture?
Something like the virtuous cycle was in effect when God created men and women. God created humans “in His image.” As I’ve written before, God is a community of selfless love, so He created men and women to reflect His image by also creating communities of selfless love.
These communities of selfless love are culture. These communities are designed to be created, expanded and replicated via the cultural work of marriage, procreation and family life. Yet these communities are also designed to have a spiritual impact—as they grow they add more and more people who know God and praise Him. Knowing and praising God are spiritual activities, and we now call the groups of people that do them “churches” or simply “the church.” As more people know God, who is the source of all selfless love, He inspires and enables them to engage in the cultural work of creating even more communities of selfless love. And the virtuous cycle turns round and round.
If we look closely at Genesis Chapter 2, we can see some distinction between the realms we now label culture and church (or, if you prefer, between the material realm and the spiritual realm). We can also see how they worked together as a virtuous cycle. Gen. 2:15 says, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” That is, God created culture (a garden) and gave the man a job in the cultural realm (to work it and keep it). Just imagine Adam’s day-to-day life digging in the dirt—it seems about as material as you can get. Then Gen. 2:16-17 shifts to a spiritual command from God: “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’”
It is implied that the man heard God and obeyed, for the next passage (vv. 18-20) isn’t about the man eating the forbidden fruit or arguing with God about his commands, but it shows God and the man working together on the man’s cultural job—bringing order to the material realm by naming all the animals. In Genesis 2, the man’s obedience to God in the spiritual realm has now led to God helping the man in the cultural realm. The virtuous cycle has begun to turn.
God and the man find no cultural helper for the man, and this is the one thing God declares to be “not good” about his creation up to that point. What wasn’t good, interestingly, was a lack of culture. The absence of a suitable helper meant the man was not able to create a community of selfless love. So God again helped the man in his cultural job by creating a helper—a woman. God then brought the woman to the man (Gen. 2:22). The man’s instant reaction was to burst out in praise—“At last!”—like a child opening a present from his parents. The man and the woman were married (Gen. 2:25), forming a family—a community of selfless love. So we see cultural work, when it does produce a community of selfless love, causes the man to praise God—a spiritual act. The virtuous cycle turns again.
As we know, the virtuous cycle was broken soon after this by the man’s sin (Genesis 3). In fact, the virtuous cycle quickly became what business schools call “a vicious cycle”—a chain of events that accelerates breakdown. The man and woman disobeyed God’s spiritual command. This spiritual disobedience led immediately to relational breakdown in in their spiritual relationship with God. The man and his wife hid themselves among the trees of the garden (Gen. 3:8), with the man saying, “I was afraid” (Gen. 3:10).
This spiritual breakdown also caused breakdown in the cultural realm. The man and his wife were suddenly ashamed to be naked in front of each other—a loss of intimacy (Gen. 3:7). And they began to argue—with the man blaming his wife for causing him to sin (Gen. 3:12). The man even slipped in blame of God, calling his wife “the woman whom you gave to be with me.”
We see that when the spiritual obedience and praise of Genesis 2 are replaced in Genesis 3 by their opposites—disobedience and blame of God—then it has immediate consequences in the cultural realm. God turned from blessing and helping the man and woman’s cultural work, to instead cursing it. He promised the woman would have pain when bearing children and would have conflict with her husband (Gen. 3:16). Rather than having abundant fruit trees planted by God, the man would now work the ground in pain and sweat, battling against thorns and thistles to bring forth the food he needs (Gen. 3:17-19).
God removed the man and woman from His daily presence in the Garden of Eden, but He also created ways for them to still have relationships—with Him and with each other. God sacrificed an animal and used its skin to cover the man and woman, so they no longer felt ashamed in front of one another. This sacrifice, an act of the church realm, brought blessing to the cultural realm, allowing the man and woman to once again have a relationship with one another. Soon we see that animal sacrifice is something that is pleasing to God (Gen. 4:4), and that God still speaks to the children of Adam and Eve (Cain and Abel). This is the beginning of the sacred practices we now call church. The church, just like the culture, is called to be a community of selfless love. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus told the 12 apostles, the founders of the New Testament church, “if you have love for one another” (John 3:15).
Church and culture were both designed to be communities of selfless love. Even today, each one helps the other advance toward that goal. As in Genesis 3, church and culture are still able to help each other solely because God intervenes. This intervention, which Jesus as king now continues each day, is the essence of His kingdom rule. The people in the church have some ability to be a community of selfless love because of Jesus’ intervention in their hearts, regenerating them and giving them the desire to obey Him.
Even people outside the church, acting in the cultural realm, retain some ability to be a community of selfless love because of Jesus’ intervention as mediatorial king. This intervention is often called “common grace.” Many theologians have used the phrase “common grace” to indicate a grace that’s just “there,” a residue of grace left over after Adam and Eve’s sin that helps the world keep going. Instead, it’s better to think of “common grace” as something deliberately bestowed by Jesus in order to preserve the world and keep enough human culture going to preserve and build His church. Human culture is marred by selfishness, but because of God’s common grace, now dispensed through Jesus, it has not become completely selfish. It is still able, with Christ’s help, to produce loving families, high-quality products, helpful customer service, healing medical care and other kinds of what Martin Luther and other Reformed theologians have called “civil righteousness” or “civil good.” These actions of “civil righteousness” do not earn spiritual salvation, because they are not done out of a desire to please God and see Him glorified. But they are helpful for good order in society.
To the extent the cultural activities of non-Christians help produce communities of selfless love, they can still provide some “virtuous cycle” help to the church.
When Jeff Bezos’ delivery man drops the next Amazon package on my porch, I’m not sure if either one of them is doing so out of love for me, let alone love for God. What I do know is that the contents of that package—diapers for my son, medicine for my wife, a gift for one of our family members or another Tim Keller book for me—is helping me create a community of selfless love.
Even with all its sin and selfishness, the culture can and does help the church grow, turning the virtuous cycle.