God has always engaged with culture by accommodating Himself to it, as He shares life with its people. God spoke differently with Abraham the Bedouin chief, or with the slave populations of the Exodus, or with the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
This accommodation to culture is most clear when God became man in Jesus of Nazareth. He was born, and lived and died as a Jew in the days of Augustus and Herod. He immersed Himself in that culture, while attempting to redeem it. He was “in it” but not “of it”.
When the Early Church was first launched, it fit its Jewish culture well, and its message made immediate sense. But when Stephen has a different audience to reach, the way he told the story was retranslated to make sense to Hellenistic Jews. When it is Paul’s turn, it is time to tell the story in a way that could be understood by Gentiles. It is one of the reasons we have the Gospel according to Mark, and Matthew, and Luke, and John. The churches in different places and different times needed the good news of God in Christ told to them in ways they could understand.
In the journey of the church through history, the unchangeable story was retold to fit the Latin world of Augustine, and the Medieval world of St. Francis, and the Renaissance world of Luther, and the Enlightenment world of John Wesley, and the Modern world of Karl Barth, and the Post-modern world of our day.
At each of these junctures there are terrible strains on the church because the people of God are not always able to separate the substance from the style. We are tempted to make our means sacred, instead of the message. The church also runs the danger that it becomes so much part of its culture that it fails to be counter-cultural, and God’s Spirit must work in new generations of Christians to break the “Babylonian Captivity” of the church and its message.
So what is the bottom line? The church must accommodate the way it tells its story to the culture, but do it in such a way that the culture is transformed, without the church and its message being deformed in the process.
Published in Light and Life, November-December, 2004