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Culture Wars, Worldviews, and the Church

N. T. Wright (of Anglican, New Testament, and Pauline theology note) has suggested understanding a worldview through four windows: answers given to the big questions of life, key symbols, defining narratives, and major practices (cf. The New Testament and the People of God).  This certainly takes us a long way in describing different and conflicting worldviews.  There is a considerable overlap, moreover, in defining ‘culture’ and ‘worldview,’ with the former focussed more on social practices and the latter on fundamental perspectives.  However, by adding ‘practices’ to the definition of ‘worldview,’ Wright has been able to bridge the gap between the two notions.  While sociologists, politicians, and missiologists might be more comfortable with the language of ‘culture’ and theologians, philosophers, and, perhaps, Biblical scholars might be more comfortable with ‘worldview,’ the overlap of terms should be appreciated.

The West is undergoing a revolutionary challenge if not successful overthrow of its own culture and worldview in our day.  Peculiarly, one still hears Westerners write about culture as though it is static, and one still hears some of them celebrate other cultures not only as though they are static but also as though diverse cultures are good in their own right.  (Interestingly, Genesis presents the development of culture as the story of Cain—not Abel—and his heirs, and the Old Testament roundly condemns the ungodly cultures surrounding Israel.) 

This perspective already has a long history.  In the post-World War II world, empires began to crumble and a knee-jerk defense of other cultures and nationalities increasingly became the politically correct narrative.  The old ‘noble savage’ narrative of Romanticism (early 19th century) returned in full force in the second half of the 20th century, missionaries were criticised for bringing Western ‘culture’ with Christianity, and nationalist movements surged in the post-colonial world.  Unqualified, such narratives are absurdly na├»ve.  Perhaps anyone beholden to them should read anthropologist Colin Turnbull's The Mountain People to realise that cultures and worldviews are flawed, and some are even ‘failed.’

Attempts to redefine ‘Western culture’ requires giving different answers to the big questions of life (not least the critique of orthodox Christian theology and ethics), tearing down old symbols (like Civil War statues and the Confederate flag in America’s South), providing new narratives (beginning with a forgetting of history and endorsement of a narrative yet to be lived—such as Angela Merkel’s Europe), and endorsing different practices (as, for example, practices of marriage, gender, families, and education).  Peculiarly, while those wanting to redefine the West charge on with all the changes, they want to treat other cultures as noble and static, to be validated purely because they are different and therefore fit their own, new values of diversity and inclusion.

It is difficult to speak out against a redefinition of Western culture in the abstract: there is a lot to celebrate but also a lot to critique.  Instead of tearing down a statue, how about changing one’s attitude towards what it symbolises?  That, at least, would embrace history rather than attempt to rewrite it according to a new, politically correct narrative.  Shall we blast the bust of Julius Caesar in some European museum?  How often the practices of the West’s liberals turn out to be fundamentalist and not ‘liberal’ at all.

More importantly, whose statue is worth erecting?  Beyond the inconsistency of lauding other cultures simply for their contribution to the narrative of inclusion of diversity while attacking one’s own culture, those engaged in redefining Western culture have another problem: they have no heroes.  Or perhaps this is why Hollywood actors and musicians, of all people, are given so great a voice in defining the West’s attempt to redefine its worldview and culture.

The deconstructive mood in the West rules for the moment, but it will not forever.  Jesus warned that when you cast out one evil spirit, seven worse ones return in its place (Luke 11.24-26)—a lesson the Jews were to learn forty years later as they tried to throw out Roman rule and were ruled with an even harsher hand.  The reshaping of the West’s culture and worldview will require new heroes to be erected on statues while the old heroes are torn down.  It will require new answers to life’s great questions, not just a rejection of old answers.  It will require new histories—like Downton Abbey’s depicting the past without the Church’s major role in the British society of its day.  It will involve ridiculing old practices and celebrating new practices.  It will, in a word, require cultural war.

And that is where we are already.  One thing is for certain: culture is not something to celebrate in itself, whether the past, with all its accomplishments and failings, or the future, which may be seven times worse.  The Old Testament prophets were critics of culture, and this role has passed to the Church as the voice of prophecy in the world (cf. Revelation 11).  Against this perspective, all the talk of ‘enculturation’ of the Gospel needs to be qualified—radically qualified.  The Gospel is a culture-shaping narrative, a force of radical reform.  The Jews of Thessalonica understood the threat Paul’s alternative worldview posed to established culture, warning the citizens that what he proclaimed was turning ‘the world upside down’ (Acts 17.6).

The Church of England today is actively taking on the new, Western culture and quickly reshaping a new worldview.  The more it does so, the more it is a post-Christian institution.  What England needs is not a return to the old Church of England, the establishment faith of a flawed culture.  Nor does England need priests of the new, developing culture of the West, which is even less Christian.  It needs a Gospel that continues to challenge emergent cultures and wordviews, whether in the West or elsewhere.