Yes to the Culture War

When I say “Culture War,” what comes to mind? I think of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Several years ago I was in Cleveland. Did you know a person is legally required to visit the RRHOF if visiting Cleveland? As you walk into one of the exhibits, you are greeted by a bank of televisions broadcasting in mostly black and white. Each television is playing looping videos of angry preachers with bad haircuts and cheap suits decrying the great moral evils of rock and roll music. It is a not-so-subtle lampoon. The silly, morally panicked preachers are displayed as trophies, heads mounted on the walls of this temple to rock music. The theologian/preacher in me stood for a moment and payed homage to these preachers, listening to their messages. Despite being a bit over-the-top, I had to admit that they weren’t completely wrong. Listening to the filth that has become commonplace in the music landscape, it’s hard to make the case that music hasn’t encouraged moral degradation in our culture and especially in our youth. If you think I sound old fashioned or alarmist just remember that a song about female genitalia spent four weeks at the top of the charts in 2020. Hard to believe that in the 1950s there was concern that Elvis’ hips were dangerously mobile.

The culture war describes the efforts of Christians to create or safeguard a culture that encourages virtue and sanctity. Related but distinct from the Church’s mission to “make disciples of all people,” the culture war focuses on bringing God’s kingdom to this world. Sometimes this culture war is explicitly in regard to Christian message and practice. When this is the case, the culture war tends to be defensive. When it is believed that our rights to practice our faith in peace are being threatened, Christians have engaged in a culture war to protect those rights. Some of the lawsuits that are now pending in regards to the so-called “Equality Act” fall under this category. But, as I mentioned above, the culture war is more often about creating a culture that is virtuous and protects those things which are sacred. Going to war against rock music is not about making disciples as much as it is about conserving virtue.

The RRHOF also illustrates the embarrassing reality that Christians are consistently the losers in the culture war. We may win a skirmish here or there, but even our successes end up being temporary. The currents of the culture are just too strongly in favor of vice. Reversing the flow appears to be a fool’s errand. It’s not much of a surprise then that much of the culture war from the 80s and 90s has been replaced with the defensive posture of some conservative evangelicals (Benedict Option) or the aggressive strongman posture of Trumpian evangelicals (He’s imperfect, but he fights!). Of course there are others who advise that it would be best for the Church and maybe even for the culture if Christians withdrew from the culture war altogether. Fighting a culture war is a needless distraction and an embarrassment. It’s also counter-productive. Jesus is not best served when Christians engage in cultural hostility.

Despite having good intentions, this surrender in the culture war is misguided. Fighting a culture war is not optional for a devoted follower of Jesus in this world. I had a professor once define conflict as the state where two things are attempting to occupy the same space at the same time. Given that definition, Kingdom people will naturally find themselves in conflict with the kingdom(s) of this world. Culture is simply the place where our faith is lived out. Privatizing faith to the extent that it has no bearing on our lives in the public square is a type of discipleship that is completely foreign to the New Testament. Even the Christian who chooses to completely withdraw from the culture like the Amish or the hermit is engaging in a sort of war against the culture. He’s just choosing to fight in a different way than the fire and brimstone preacher droning on and on about the evils of Elvis Presley. Wendell Berry was a culture warrior and so was James Dobson. The third grade teacher praying silently before class and the activist taking to the streets are both engaging in cultural protest. The Good Samaritan was a culture warrior and so was the apostle Paul ascending the Areopagus. I just don’t know of a way to follow Jesus in this world without engaging in cultural protest and even cultural warfare. Consider these passages:

  1. Eph. 5:15-16 – Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.
  2. Eph. 6:10-12 – Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
  3. 2 Cor. 10:3-5 – For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
  4. James 4:4 – You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.
  5. 1 Peter 2:11-12 – Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
  6. Rev. 12:17 – Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.

Many more verses could be added to the list, but hopefully you get the point. Following Jesus in this world will inevitably bring us into conflict – a conflict serious enough to be labelled a war or a battle. Arguably the most counter-cultural text to be found in the New Testament is Matthew 5-7 where Jesus says, among other things, to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. A culture which is aligned towards seeking out the things of this world first will certainly find it strange and perhaps even offensive for a person to question and then reject that way of life. You simply cannot attempt to live out the words of the Sermon on the Mount without being drawn into a conflict; a conflict fought not just in the human heart but also in the public square.

Following Jesus in this world enlists us in a culture war. This isn’t to say that we always get the culture war correct. Those who push back against the culture war make some valid arguments that need to be heard.

  1. Wrong battle. There are times in every war, where commanders must show discernment in regards to which battles are worth fighting and which battles are worth avoiding. Some battles are mere distractions. Some battles are futile. Some battles are just foolish. For instance, in 1997 did we really need to lose our minds over the Harry Potter series? Was this a battle worth fighting? In my opinion, no, it was foolishness born out of paranoia and ignorance. We expended resources and energy on a futile and foolish battle. We should also admit that we sometimes choose battles as distractions from bigger problems. This is the root of Jesus’ command regarding the speck of sawdust and the plank. We engage in this same kind of judgment in the culture wars as well. We start a fight over the evil that is “out there” while conveniently ignoring much of the evil that is in our very midst. Shamefully, much of what the church has said in regards to sexual sin and abuse through the years has been this kind of distraction.* Fighting the culture war requires wisdom and discernment to know which battles are urgent and necessary. I add a couple important notes, however. 1) I’ve seen a lot of people engage in what I call “culture war for me, but not for thee.” Our battles are always worth fighting. The battles being fought by others are wrongheaded and embarrassing. So, I will march and protest for racial justice while judging my brothers and sisters who express public concern about the desecration of marriage. Or vice versa. Recognize that just as there are many fronts in an actual war, there are also many fronts in the culture war. 2) Be very careful that you don’t allow the culture to dictate which battles are proper or improper. We don’t always have to antagonize the culture. Sometimes God’s purposes and the movements of culture align. But if our culture war always results in applause from the culture, we may be fighting the wrong battles.
  2. Wrong methods. Paul says clearly in 2 Cor. 10 that we don’t wage war as the world does. We may be in a culture war, but as kingdom people, our methods must also be kingdom methods. Kingdom people don’t fight with hatred or vitriol. Kingdom people don’t fight with resentment or paranoia. It’s the opposite actually. We go into the world (as Jesus did) full of grace and truth. Our culture war is a war of love, forgiveness, and meaning in a world where those are in short supply. It doesn’t mean that we are pushovers who are squishy in their convictions. It does mean that one of our firmest convictions is the conviction to love. Remember that an evil army wants to salt the earth behind it. God’s people are actually the salt of the earth. Big difference. We don’t long for the obliteration of this world, but its rescue.
  3. Wrong enemy. Numbers 2 and 3 are related of course. Our battle is not against flesh and blood. Sometimes we forget that. One of the ways that we fight in the way the world fights is when we forget that the spiritual world exists. We forget that there are spiritual forces – intelligent and malevolent forces – at work in cultures and in human lives. It takes discipline, patience, and regular repentance to remember that our culture war is not aimed at an enemy of flesh and blood. Instead, like Jesus, we look at the crowds with compassion as sheep without a shepherd (Matt. 9:36). Our culture war is one of liberation.
  4. Wrong strength. But this liberation is not of our own strength. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. The armor we wear is not our own armor but God’s. Often our culture wars are in honor of God – as if He were a distant spectator checking in on us from time to time. Often our culture wars are merely an excuse for public legalism. Instead, our culture wars are through the power of God acting in the world through (or sometimes despite) his people. We pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. To pray such a thing acknowledges that it is not by our strength but by God’s. Therefore, the culture wars must be fought in faith, in hope, and in love.

*I was reflecting tonight on Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 8 concerning food sacrificed to idols. This was apparently an issue being hotly debated in the church. It seems, however, that this “culture war” was actually a distraction from the serious sexual immorality that we being practiced and even encouraged in the church.

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