Which Culture Infiltrating Which?

Doug at MetaCatholic has an interesting discussion of an anachronistic reading inadvertently committed by a significant English New Testament scholar. I see his main point being that it is very easy—even for the brightest and best educated among us—to fall into anachronistic blunders while reading the Scriptures from time to time, but the one he has identified here was much broader and deeper implications.

That is, Thisleton writes about the Corinthian correspondence concerning : “…the seductive infiltration into the Christian church of cultural attitudes derived from secular or non-Christian Corinth as a city.” After noting the odd and anachronistic equation of “secular” with “non-Christian”, Doug gets to the meat of the issue:

More seriously problematic is the idea that the church is sufficiently well established and developed for ideas to “infiltrate it” as alien, or that what Paul thinks is “church culture” and what the Corinthians think are alien cultural misperceptions. Partly the Corinthians are new converts, and conversion of mind, practice and culture is always a long drawn out and imperfect process, however impassioned the conversion of commitment and heart is. Partly Paul is one of many people trying to work out what a Christian vision is (and other equally prominent people in the new movement are articulating rather different ones).

Paul comes from a long-standing Jewish communal tradition which has considerable experience of singing the Lord’s song in strange land, and is working out how that is transformed by his Messiah Jesus. The Corinthians have no real idea they are living in a strange land, and in so far as they might think in these terms it is not an idea of being in exile, but one of being a colony, there to teach everyone else to sing the Roman song.

Finally, there is nothing other than personal charisma and persuasive argument to say who is doing any misperceiving: Paul or the Corinthians. There is no orthodoxy for the Corinthians to be seduced away from. What will later (in varying degree) become orthodox emerges in part from Paul thinking on his feet. It is not apparent to me that if the Corinthians hadn’t provoked Paul to argument, the church would ever have so strongly committed to belief in the resurrection of the body. It is equally arguable that in some historical periods aspects of the Corinthian view of the body and sex, say, have been at least as close to mainstream Christianity as Paul’s. (“It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” 1 Cor 7:1)

In short, Thiselton makes it sound as though what was happening on the ground was straightforward and obvious. I think it was a mess, in which people (especially in this context) Paul and the Corinthians are contending for the appropriate cultural forms of Christian practice and thought in a non-Jewish culture, one partly alien to Paul, in which the Corinthians are fully at home. I also think that’s much more like most of our own situations, whether in the traditional “mission-field” situation or in our very non-traditional one, where the culture has changed under our feet, and there are competing visions about how much to change with it.

Reading this particular scriptural case as the “seductive infiltration into the Christian church of cultural attitudes” encourages us to do the same today, and engage in name-calling our opponents. Me Paul, you Corinthian. I argue that the reality of what’s going on is more complex, then and now, and if we’re less anachronistic about then, we might be more constructive about now.

The last couple of paragraphs contain the pay-off—and where I’d like to head off in the direction Doug indicates. We modern Americans and Europeans live in what has been referred to as a post-Constantinian culture. And we could debate whether, when, and how these contemporary cultures are Christian, non-Christian, or anti-Christian., but I’d rather go from the other direction.

Do we know what a truly Christian culture to be manifested by the church looks like? Do we have a sense of its markers, signs, virtues, and values? To make the task easier, do we know what a liturgical Christian culture would look like with its own kalendar, ways of marking rhythms and times, and paths of virtue?

One of my mentors states that the job of theologians and religiously committed biblical scholars is to imagine the world that Scripture imagines. While I like this formulation, I think it needs rhetorical tweaking. This is how I’d define the real goal of preaching: to invite the congregation into the world that Scripture describes. “Imagine” is a good enough word, but “imagination” is too easily paired with “reality” as an antonym. An implication I’d rather avoid is that Scripture imagines what doesn’t exist in reality. I’d rather say that Scripture describes some things that are real and some things that are in the process of coming into being. There is a reality, a way of living, of thinking, of believing, of being that Scripture describes and that we experience (albeit fleetingly) in the church’s liturgies. What can we do as people in the church to coalesce these ways of being into an intentional culture that can speak with its own voice—serving when conditions require as a community of resistance?

Now let me be clear—I’m not suggesting that we cultivate a fortress mentality that pits us “enlightened saved” against the “malevolent heathen”. Nor am I envisioning a collective where we listen exclusively to Contemporary Christian Music (saints preserve us!). Attempts to describe or to be intentional about a distinctive Christian culture that have arisen in some conservative Christian movements seem both overly oppositional in some areas and unreflectively complicit in others.

Perhaps the problem is when we start with an attitude of opposition, of describing what we’re against. I’d rather see us do things like embracing the rule of life that seems to proceed from the rhythms of the Prayer Book and being both intentional and explicit about what this would look like, and starting from who we think we are than who and what we think we’re not.

I suppose where I’m actually meandering is here: perhaps we do need to begin constructing and sharing rules of life. Not as legislative documents, not as holier-than-thou checklists, but as ways of framing what it means to be intentional Christians with our own distinctive charisms and callings. I love Benedict’s Rule. I love Cassian’s Institutes. Neither of them function for a household with two working parents, two energetic preschoolers, and an emotionally needy cat. I’ve felt a pull to doing this before, and here it comes again, perhaps even stronger than before…

6 thoughts on “Which Culture Infiltrating Which?

  1. John-Julian, OJN


    What you are playing around with here has become central to me and my life and mind.

    When I review the years of thought, investigation, and prayer that I went through when founding our Order, I realize that all I really wanted was a place/way/community where the link between liturgy and life was solidified or incarnated. Given its origins, monasticism could be said to be strongly counter-culture (re-oriented away from money, sex, and power), but I think that misses a deeper thing — like what you seem to be looking for, asking about, wondering over.

    I don’t think that – as a monk – I am really living a COUNTER-cultural life, because a whole lot of the good of my life is sucked in from the culture, and I am constantly being challenged by and learning from the culture as much as I am from the Rule and my vows. I don’t feel like I have left the house so much as that I have moved gradually from the attic towards the ground floor, hitting daily on dimensions of Reality new to me.

    I am something of a panentheist, and know that what I am seeking as an attitude, an orientation, a manifestation in myself of the Reality that drifts and floats and lurks behind each day’s experience. Like you, I am quite certain that the overt key to this seems to be liturgy.

    But, again in your reference, the exact particularities of the monastic way simply are not realistically accessible to the married-with-children folk, but the “attitude” is, and perhaps the secret is to look to liturgy, seeing it in a deeper way as a kind of bloodline which links the monastic intimately closely with the others. I think that you can tell me (and show me) things about how the liturgy can interpenetrate and lead our lives; and there are things I can share with you — so I think one of the important steps here is to break down the barriers that history has erected between my life and yours. We both need to learn to breathe each others breath and manipulate each other’s hands. We need to re-learn the inexpressible dynamic core of community, the one-ing (to use Julian’s word) among us, and between us and God.

    I was writing a piece on Julian’s view of hell the other day (opposing the common view that she was a universalist) and I was wrestling (as she did) with the paradox of sin-and-God’s-love. I mean, how can there be hell if all shall be well? And I have come to the (at least tentative) belief that there is no such thing as “damnation” — that each person FREELY CHOOSES heaven or hell — and that is actually a choice between Reality and un-reality, between “being” and “non-being”. And, if one chooses an eternity of non-being, in God’s mercy, one simply goes out of existence.

    And I think it is our job to try to tear off the blinders (again, Julian defines sin as “blindness”) and see into the depths of Reality as we live on earth, so that when the ultimate decision comes, we will choose Reality for our eternity — a Reality which will have become an habitual orientation for us — and a communal one as well! (My wise rector used to say that the only thing a Christian can do alone is to be damned!)

    The challenge is to find a “mechanism” for this growing encounter with Reality and each other. It’s a search in which we must all participate, holding each other’s hand as we stumble ahead.

    And I will finally add that it excludes NO ONE — never a case of holier-than-thou.

    Well, back to the book and the life. I think your intuition leads you in exactly the right direction. We should keep talking about this.

  2. bls

    Derek, what you propose in your last paragraph is a wonderful idea.

    And it’s something that everybody can contribute to and collaborate with others on.

    I like the idea a lot!

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    Fr. John-Julian,
    I’d love for us to keep talking about it. Indeed, this very conversation is on of the reasons I feel so strongly that the Episcopal Church needs monastics—even if I know I will never be one.

    Your house metaphor is a very helpful one, I think.

    Yes—definitely collaborative. I’m pretty sure Christopher’s been doing some thinking in this direction as well and I wouldn’t be surprised of some of the other regular readers wouldn’t be willing to pitch in their 2 cents worth…

  4. bls

    Hey, I think your “Possibly Related Posts” widget linked you to “Wayne and Col’s Mersey Beat” in the (UK) Sun Online because you mentioned the words “Culture” and “Paul” in the same post!

    (It’s “Sir Paul” over there, of course – and this year is, apparently, “Liverpool’s year as European Capital For Culture.”)

    And then you have a couple of refs to England in the sidebar, too.

    Ah, hypertext! Always chock-full of erroneous connections and meaningless links!

  5. Annie

    Hi Derek,
    I humbly agree with your last paragraph. As a member of the DoK, I have had to construct and review my Rule of Prayer at least annually–is it five years now? It seems to me that the last place most of us consider as a beginning is the BCP. There are so many different competing and enticing prayer practices floating around that our practice becomes a confusing jumble, our habits undermined before they are even formed. And that is for those of us who actually do have a Rule of Life. As you know from my testimony of my small effort during Lent of going up to the church to do morning prayer every day bore very sweet fruit. The BCP encompasses all those trendy practices. My Rule of Life also incorporates a Rule of Service and so I’m not sure that this is touched on in your post?


  6. Marshall Scott

    This reminds me of the time (and this is a reflection, and not an “answer” to the issue) that July 4 fell on a Sunday some years ago. I was supplying in a small, local congregation. I asserted that, while I loved my country, I couldn’t consider it a “Christian nation” until our social policy reflected Matthew 25 and our economic policy reflected Acts 5. About half the congregation sat with their mouths open in disbelief. About half were grinning and mouthing “Yes, yes!” Oh, and I wasn’t asked back to supply in that congregation until a couple of years after there have been a change of vicar….

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