Theology & Culture (1): Introduction

In 1998, at the age of 24, I left the United States for the first time and moved to a predominantly Muslim republic in the former Soviet Union. I had never traveled further west than San Antonio, further north than the tip of Maine, further east than Nags Head (NC), or further south than Miami. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of cultural wedgies the next two years were for me?

The first week in country, I was introduced to a special drink called “kuhmis,” which my buddies told me “will taste a lot like an American milkshake.” And truly, it was white and frothy just like a vanilla milkshake. But it turns out that it was white and frothy because it was fermented camel’s milk. At some point in history, a Middle Eastern or Central Asian entrepreneur decided to take some camel’s (or horse’s) milk, allow it to rot over a period of time, and then bottle it as a delicacy. Later that week, I also was served fish jello for breakfast.

The second week in country I was introduced to the “banya.” My buddies told me that it “will be a lot like an American sauna.” And sure enough, it was a square room with a lot of heat. But there were a few differences. One difference lay in the fact that steam was generated by pouring vodka onto a barrel full of hot coals. (I wanted to join in, but I couldn’t find my bottle of Nyquil.) Another difference lay in the fact that Central Asian saunas have bundles of birch branches in the corner, with which the men whip one another about the back, starting at the heels and working methodically and consistently up to the shoulders. Afterwards, they go outside the banya and roll around in the snow. I’m not kidding. I’ve never prayed so hard for the rapture.

Cultural oddities aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being immersed in a very complex culture, a culture which was a multi-layered synthesis of Soviet-era atheism and Central Asian Islam. On Friday evenings, I could pay a dollar to attend world-class symphonies and piano concerts at the performing arts center one mile from my apartment. On weekday mornings, I took language lessons in Russian and Tatar, discovering how human languages provide people with unique categories for thinking and with unique advantages and disadvantages when mediating the biblical gospel. On weekday afternoons, I taught at three of the universities that were cultural legacies of years past. In the evenings, I drank hot tea (the manly drink of choice in Central Asia, best imbibed with a spot of milk and a spoon of sugar) and watched snow fall on a mosque and an Eastern Orthodox cathedral which stood immediately outside my apartment window. Often, I had a huddle of undergrad or grad students in my apartment, inundating me with questions about why I believe in God (atheists) or how in the world I could believe that “a man was God” (Muslims).

In the space of two years, I began to realize more fully the deep and resonant effects of religion upon culture, and vice-versa. I was living in a socio-cultural context that had been almost entirely devoid of evangelical gospel influence for generations. At the same time, I began to read Abraham Kuyper. (On my journey to Central Asia, I had packed one suitcase of clothes and four suitcases of books. Nerdy, no?) Upon reading Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Al Wolters, and Francis Schaeffer, I began to realize that Christian theology is relevant to every dimension of culture (arts, sciences, public square, the academy, etc.) and to all of our human vocations (not only family and church, but also workplace and community). Therefore Christians are called to glorify God by working out the implications of a Christian worldview in every aspect of their lives.

Aside from my salvation, that was probably the most profound theological awakening I have ever had, even to this day. In the twelve years since then, I have slowly but steadily built upon the conviction that the Christian mission includes the outworking of the gospel in every dimension of a given culture, in every human vocation, and across the fabric of human existence. Though I’ve read it or heard it quoted probably hundreds of times, I am still struck by Kuyper’s claim: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”* In Pro Rege, he writes, “The Son [of God] is not to be excluded from anything. You cannot point to any natural realm or star or comet or even descend into the depth of the earth, but it is related to Christ, not in some unimportant tangential way, but directly.”**

This means that absolutely everything in life matters to God. He cares not only about the goings-on within the four walls of a congregational gathering but also about the goings-on in other corners of society and culture. We must live Christianly not only as the church gathered, but also as the church scattered. We must take seriously our interactions in the arts (music, literature, cinema, architecture, etc.), the sciences (biology, physics, sociology, etc.), the public square (journalism, politics, economics, etc.), and the academy (schools, universities, seminaries, etc.).

For this reason, I applied (with David Nelson) several years ago for a teaching grant from the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Yale CFC awarded us the grant, and we began teaching a seminar in Theology & Culture. In mid-January, I offered this seminar for the sixth time, and it turned out to be one of the best teaching and learning experiences of my life. As I observed our students discussing and debating these issues, and as I fielded their questions during and after class, I realized again the manifold and pervasive ways in which our answers to “theology and culture” questions affect our daily lives. For this reason, and at the prompting of some students, I’ve decided to provide a blog series along the lines of the major topics of discussion in our Theology & Culture class.

Because of the limited nature of a blog format, I will be able to provide a broad-brush treatment of some of the important issues at the intersection of theology and culture, but not an in-depth treatment. In upcoming installments I will treat (1) alternative views of Christianity and culture, (2) a theology of culture, (3) historical cases studies such as Hubmaier, Augustine, and Kuyper; (4) theology in cultural context, (5) theology and vocation (6) theology and the arts, (7) theology and the sciences, (8) theology and the public square, (9) theology and the academy, and (10) some book, journal, and website recommendations.

____________________

*Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in James D. Bratt, ed. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

**From an excerpt translated by Jan Boer, You Can Do Greater Things than Christ (Nigeria: Jos, 1991).

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  24Comments

  1. Eric Scholten   •  

    Bruce,
    I was hoping you would share your cross-cultural swimsuit experiences as well.

    Looking forward to reading this series and pointing folks in our church to do the same.

    ES

  2. Nathan   •  

    Hello Dr. Ashford,

    Let it be known that I both laughed and more importantly learned from this post. Reading your posts–both past and present–have opened me up to a vast variety of topics, ranging all the way to posts about good blog sites (which I book marked). What a great way to wake up–subsequent to Scripture memory! Praying for you!

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  4. Wade   •  

    Looking forward to it. A much needed subject to be unpacked…

  5. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Eric, I thought about throwing the ‘ole Russian swimsuit story out there, but in the end I decided it would ruin a lot of people’s day!!!

  6. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Nathan and Wade, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I hope the series will be worth your time reading.

  7. Jason Lewis   •  

    “…never-ending carnival of cultural wedgies…”

  8. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr. Ashford:

    I’m “glued to my tube” in anticipation of the upcoming installments of your blog.

    I’m especially looking forward to how you address “theology and science”.

  9. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Roger, thank you my friend!

  10. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jason Lewis, I am happy to see that you read the post and commented. When did you finally learn to read?

  11. Steve Schenewerk   •  

    Dr Ashford
    As a long-tenured pastor in the Northwest Baptist Convention (almost 30 years as pastor of three different churches) I found your experiences similar to the ones I had when my wife and I moved out here from the midwest a little over 30 years ago. I recently completed my DMin from Southern (DEc 2009) and my topic was our church engaging the culture- I am looking forward to the series.

  12. wlh   •  

    Doc,

    I’m sure you’ll address this before long, but I would love to have a conversation sometime regarding the relationship between worldview and culture? Individuals and societies(or other types of cultural groups). This is one area I always have difficulty in clearly drawing the lines (not that there is a crystal clear distinction–I’m thinking symbiotically here).

    Thanks brother!

    Wes

  13. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Steve, thank you for your kind words. I’ll be publishing the 12 parts over the next three weeks. I hope it is in some way helpful, and that it helps in a small way to jumpstart a productive conversation. I hope you will find time to contribute to the conversation by commenting on some of the installments.

  14. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Wes, great question. Actually, its the second time today that I’ve been asked that exact question. Maybe I can create an additional installment to this series which addresses issues that I forgot to treat in the first 12 parts (issues like the one you raise).

  15. Jonathan B   •  

    I have been preparing to teaching on Gospel and Culture and Gospel and Contextualization, so I look forward to your thoughts. Thanks for hosting a conversation about culture from a Biblical perspective.

  16. Jon C   •  

    What a critical issue for followers of Jesus and communities of believers to grapple with! I’m glad you’re making the fruit of your studies, thoughts, and experiences more widely available. I think we’ve seen from years past what happens when Christians and churches retreat from culture. The question then is not whehter or not we should engage with culture, but how. I know you’ll give lots of good direction and I’m looking forward to reading the posts as well as the comments! Thanks!

  17. Jackson Bowen   •  

    Although I had heard you talk about these crazy russian stories before, I can’t help but die laughing when I imagine you in that sauna. I am looking forward to reading this blog and participating in your Theology and Culture class this semester. Sarah told me that you told your class this week about the false idea that people who love God “alot” should be pastor’s. We need people who love God “alot” in all kinds of vocations to influence our culture. This was good for me to hear, because I think I shared it at one time.

  18. Joy Price   •  

    Dr. Ashford,
    I am thankful for the class you taught this past Jan. I have been contemplating your lectures since class, and am thankful for the opportunity to flesh out more theology and culture issues. Perhaps you could consider also posting in this series a section with Lauren addressing how to effectively live out theology and culture within the roles of a wife and mother?
    Thanks again for your time,
    Joy

  19. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jackson, we will deal with the vocation issue several installments later. stay tuned. i’d like to hear what you have to say.

  20. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Joy, great question. Maybe I can add an extra installment to this series, in which I can answer questions raised during the series in general, and Lauren and I can address your question in particular. We were talking about this last week, and Lauren mentioned ways in which home makers are culture makers and ways in which moms are culture-critiquers.

  21. Michael J. Barberi   •  

    Dr. Ashford:
    In my studies of moral theology and Thomistic ethics, I am increasingly becoming aware about the relationship of theology and culture. I am a Catholic and struggle with some of its sexual ethical teachings. The question is at what point does religion cross the unintelligible line in formulating doctrine? John Paul II uses the term the culture of life and the culture of death, mostly related to abortion (to save the life of the mother), but also to other issues such as contraception and in vitro fertilization. These are clearly contemporary cultural issues. However, it seems that what has been taught (tradition) should be protected, least the authority of the teaching Church (its Magisterium) becomes threatened. When the reasons of doctrine become unreasonable, albeit a personal view point, the individual conscience gets pitted against obedience to the truth as asserted by the Church. Both supporters and critics alike attempt to explain a way out of this dilemma by arguments that use of black and white examples. Either you believe in Christ and are faithful, or you are not. The issue of culture and theology, while important, do not help many Christians to discern the truth of certain teachings. You are either on one side of the divide or the other. If you believe contraception is not immoral, are you a victim of modern culture with it emphasis on individualism, relativism and the ills of the enlightenment religion?

  22. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Mr. Barberi,

    Thank you for taking the time to read and post a comment. Your question is a thoughtful one. Here is my stab at a concise answer:

    The issue of abortion is ultimately an issue of theological method. One’s theological method should be founded on the authority of Christian Scripture, and informed by the theological community across the ages and across the globe. As I see it, (1) Scripture teaches clearly that humans are made in the image and likeness of God; (2) based upon this, Scripture teaches that one should not take innocent human life; (3) therefore, one should not abort the human life in the womb, because it is a human being created in the image and likeness of God.

    This teaching goes directly against the predominant worldview of the West, which is based on one’s own individual rights, and moral and financial freedom.

  23. Michael J. Barberi   •  

    Bruce Ashford:

    Thank you for responding. The issue you raised is not sufficent. For example, “one should not take a human life” is too simplistic. Aquinas has demonstrated that the mere physical act of killing is evil, but not moral evil because it lacks circumstances, end/goal and intention. To kill someone because of anger or revenge is morally wrong. To kill someone in self-defense is not immoral.

    The point is that not every Church teaching is grounded in Scripture or in revelation. Many doctrinal teachings are based on speculation (ontological, theological, philosophical and anthropological)…as in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body….that God’s procreative plan is methaphorically revealed in the fertilty-infertility nexus…natural family planning is licit because it respects and follows the natural rhythms of the body, and one therefore treats the body and its fertility as subject. Contraception is illicit because it treats the body and its fertility as a object to be manipulated. It is hard to imagine how abstinence and the plotting of temperature and the examination of cervical mucus if not treating the body and its fertility as an object to be manipulated.

    The moral of these comments is that Church teachings are more complex than what is claimed to be based on Scripture. After all, usury was written in Scripture as Divine Law but was eventually reformed.

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