Culture as The Pride of Life: a Response to “Christianity, Culture and the Two Natures of Christ”

Editorial Note: Jennifer Agee is writing in response to Jim Watkins’ post titled “Christianity, Culture and the Two Natures of Christ,” which was published on 26 Nov., 2012.

Jim Watkins certainly makes a fair point that there is no pristine, “untouched” Christianity that stands outside culture. We know better now than to think that we have access to “pure,” uninterpreted truth.

On the other hand, what is culture? In his important book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argues that it arises from our “mortality salience” and is the human way of self-justifying, denying death, and creating a framework for (impossible but longed-for) immortality.[1] Because we are desperate for meaning and stability, we invest our energy into family, work, patriotism, or other goals or causes. We hope that these causes will outlast us, and we take refuge in the illusion of immortality that they offer. Thus we each take our place within the predefined roles and rules of our cultures—including culturally conditioned innovations—and by acting effectively in those roles, we gain meaning, validation, and a sense of security. This is the denial of death.

I suggest that this is the content of “the world” as described in 1 John 2:15: the lust of the flesh (for health and safety as well as pleasure), the lust of the eyes (for material wealth as well as less easily categorized ambitions) and the pride of life, that is, the denial of death. The root of sin is idolatry: seeking outside of God our Creator for life, healing, and justification. When we view culture as its own good, or seek cultural expression as a means of self-justification and “eternal” life, we are loving the world instead of the Father.

I appreciate and agree with the point that “Christianity cannot be what it is without human culture; Christianity is thoroughly encultured.” The parallel to Christ’s two natures is well chosen. “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.”[2] What is not assumed is not redeemed, but in Christ God has reconciled all things to God’s self (Colossians 1:19–20; 2 Corinthians 5:19). “All things” must include our cultures: our complex, even sophisticated attempts to self-justify and achieve immortality by developing intricate worldviews, identities, practices, and other expressions of our unrelenting desire to make meaning out of our apparently meaningless, mortal situation.

But unlike us, Jesus Christ gave his life. Instead of grasping at equality with God, he opened his arms and gave up his spirit. If culture is an ontological component of “what Christianity is,” it is only thanks to Christ’s work of redemption that unites creature and Creator, overcoming death with life and idolatry with the real presence of the Triune God. Our cultures are as fallen as we are. For this reason, we must remain critical, even wary, of culture.

Yes, Christianity is encultured and consists of much, much more than propositional beliefs. Watkins asks: “To what extent can Christians make claims that are universal if Christianity is cultural?” Even if our experience and expression of Christianity is cultural, we have a foundational confession that is not. The claim that Jesus is Lord is always primary and yes, universal. Our eyes, hearts, and minds—encultured and interpretive as they are—should always be fixed on him and take a peripheral view of culture as a means to glorify him, rather than the other way round.

Watkins’ final question is perhaps unanswerable: “How do we know whether Christianity, and the God Christians claim to worship, is anything more than a cultural fabrication?” But an answer must be given nevertheless. The question becomes: Is Jesus Christ Lord, or not?

Jennifer Agee recently received her M.A. from Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, USA. She lives in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and works as a managing editor for a small publisher based in Seattle, Washington.


1. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1997), 269. For an introduction to the cultural application of his thought, see the 2005 film Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality, Transcendental Media.

2. Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 51, to Cledonius (first epistle against Apollinarius) in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7, Second Series (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1888), 440.

 

11 Comments

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Jennifer, thank you for this thoughtful response to the post I wrote on Christianity and culture. I think you raise some excellent points. I especially appreciate your reminder that our cultures are as fallen as we are, and so we will sometimes need to be critical of them. Also, your point, at the very end of the post, that the reality of the Christian faith depends upon our answer to the questions ‘Who is Jesus?’ and ‘Can he be trusted?’ (or as you say ‘Is Jesus Christ Lord?) is very insightful.

    Here’s a couple questions for you:

    First, do you define culture as ‘the pride of life’ or ‘the denial of death’? This appears to be your response in the first paragraph to the question ‘what is culture?’ If so, then is culture defined in relation to human sin, and so is culture only necessary as a result of the fall?

    Second, you write ‘Even if our experience and expression of Christianity is cultural, we have a foundational confession that is not.’ I would like to suggest that all Christian confessions (such as the creeds) are cultural because they, at the very least, require language to articulate them. Are you saying that certain confessions are not cultural, or that Christians are committed to a God, and particular beliefs about the way the world is, that are made and articulated in a particular culture, but which nevertheless claim to transcend that particular culture? Or something else?

    Thanks, again, for this response, and for jumping into this conversation on Transpositions.

  • Jennifer Agee says:

    Thank you for these questions! They’ll certainly help me clarify a couple of things.

    First: I think the “pride of life” is intimately connected to the denial of death. The pride of life says: “I am a unique snowflake; I must not (and probably cannot) die.” The metaphor is telling, of course, because snowflakes melt with alarming frequency, just as every one of us dies at some point. This pride of life then expresses itself by seeking meaning and life in ways that are manifested culturally.

    I didn’t quite mean to imply that the sole content of culture is sin. However, it may all be tainted by sin. God created a good world, but the fall has corrupted it thoroughly. I may like to express my individuality and cultural heritage by carving beautiful marble statues. But do I sculpt for the glory of God, as an expression of the many art forms that are possible in the world my Creator made, or do I sculpt in order to display my own talents and hopefully create a bit of art that will last, at least theoretically, forever, thereby preserving some part of myself from death? Even when my intentions are at their best, it’s probably a bit of both.

    Second: The confession “Jesus Christ is Lord” is certainly culturally conditioned in its articulation. However, I do think it transcends culture and particular beliefs, not because of who we are, but because of who God is: Creator and Sovereign. The New Testament witness is that God has made Jesus (whom we crucified) both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). Whether I have a childlike understanding of the word “Lord” as some kind of medieval feudal nobleman, or as true God from true God, is finally less important than the confession itself. No one can say “Jesus is Lord”—in any language—except by the Spirit. God’s grace and redemptive work in Christ are what effect salvation—not my efforts or level of comprehension and sophistication.

    Back to your first question: You raise an interesting possibility. If, as I suggested, culture is largely an immortality project, would our cultures be simpler and more focused in a world without sin? Or would they be even more diverse and imaginative? As a good postmodern, I have to suspect the latter.

  • jfutral says:

    “But do I sculpt for the glory of God, as an expression of the many art forms that are possible in the world my Creator made, or do I sculpt in order to display my own talents and hopefully create a bit of art that will last, at least theoretically, forever, thereby preserving some part of myself from death? Even when my intentions are at their best, it’s probably a bit of both.”

    Or quite probably fully both. I’m not entirely of the opinion that the two notions are mutually exclusive.

    Or you could sculpt because you can’t imagine doing anything else.

    I’m really not a pre-determinst. Maybe I’m delusional because I do believe in a free will (of sorts). But sometimes I think regardless of what we may think our motivations are for doing what we do, we can be spiritually driven by what God has placed in us. I think redemption is for more powerful and far more at work than we often give it credit for.

    Joe

  • Matthew Linder says:

    What I think both articles try to wrestle with is Jesus’ prayer for believers in John 16:15-18 to “be in the world but not of the world.” The underlying question of both articles: Is how do we live out Christian lives while being immersed in a fallen human culture or more specifically, how do Christian artists create culture which is glorifying to God and rejects the sinful portions of human culture? Determining which portions of human-created culture to reject is where I think the disagreement lies. Do we see that because God is sovereign that even in fallen cultures there are elements of the good, the true and the beautiful (although, admittedly skewed by sin) or do we understand at the core of culture is sin, making it impossible for human culture to reflect any portion of the divine. I tend to gravitate towards the former view but I can grasp why someone would think the latter. All in all, the answer may lie somewhere between the two divergent viewpoints.

    I lastly wanted to point out that the “lust of the flesh…” verse is actually 1 John 2:16. 🙂

  • jfutral says:

    Two phrases that get tossed out, almost thrown away, in many of my discussions with Christians about art. The issue I take with both ideas are similar:

    “create culture/art/design/work which is glorifying to God”

    I understand the sentiment behind this. But I remember a pianist friend of mine who “came out of the world” and said “I’ll never play music again unless I can glorify God”. He didn’t touch the piano for almost ten years. Personally, I don’t see how that glorifies God. And to a certain degree to declare you work to glorify God is a bit of a Modernist, language power play. Once that is declared who should disagree with you?

    Sometimes we just need to do what God has given us to do. I’m of the opinion, that act will Glorify God. Even when no one else believes it glorifies God. Who gets to decide what does and doesn’t glorify God?

    “the good, the true and the beautiful”

    A laudable desire and goal. Difficult to define. Somethings are easier to show as good, true, and beautiful. Somethings not so much. Personally, I look at scripture and find many things that God found good, true, and beautiful that I would never consider as such. But that is God’s job, that is what he does, finds good, true, and beautiful where no one else does. Isn’t that what he did with us? Steeped in sin, but he found value. We reject what he wants to use because he finds goodness, truth, and beauty where we do not.

    Joe

  • Jennifer Agee says:

    Joe, you make excellent points. Thank you! From your first comment, I especially like “quite possibly fully both.”

    In reponse to your second comment: I agree that we frequently have a superficial understanding of what culture/art might be glorifying to God, versus what isn’t. Quite possibly fully both. Your pianist friend may have done the right thing according to his conscience, but I agree with you that abstaining is not more glorifying to God than exploring our God-given talents as deeply as possible. God’s power is made perfect in weakness, and the fullest expression of God’s glory is Jesus on a cross! As you say, redemption is far more powerful and far more at work than we give it credit for.

    What worries me is when we start to focus on art for art’s sake or culture for culture’s sake, rather than as a bold exploration of God’s creation. If I were to seek life and ultimate meaning from my piano playing, it would become my idol, and the end of that road is death, not salvation. If on the other hand I play the piano very poorly indeed (which would certainly be the case if I were to try) in trust that my Creator is the one who justifies my existence, the power of God’s redemption is such that my playing would redound to God’s glory.

    I am NOT suggesting that we should launch a fearful and obsessive inquiry into our own motivations. I am more interested in what Ernest Becker calls cultivating a sense of “renunciation.” You see, if my art is my god, then I have to work incredibly hard to justify my existence, because my art can never really be ultimately good (no matter how excellent by human standards, the fact remains that it cannot grant immortality or a reprieve from death). According to Becker, “the only way out of the human conflict is full renunciation, to give one’s life as a gift to the highest powers.”

    Who gets to decide what is glorifying to God? The answer can only be God.

    I hope this clarifies my meaning and provides some food for thought! Thank you again for your comments.

    • jfutral says:

      “You see, if my art is my god, then I have to work incredibly hard to justify my existence, because my art can never really be ultimately good (no matter how excellent by human standards, the fact remains that it cannot grant immortality or a reprieve from death).”

      Ultimately I agree with this. But I wish more artists, especially Christian artists felt the need to justify their existence with their art. We might have better art.

      Not really, and I hope you understand what I mean. I am tired of the adage “It’s the heart that counts, not the skill”. The Levites were chosen because they were skillful.

      Ultimately it is not one or the other, though. But I feel like Christians in particular are lazy and want excuses for not being better studied in their chosen craft.

      Joe

  • Jennifer Agee says:

    Matthew, thank you for pointing out Jesus’ prayer for believers in “be in the world but not of the world.” This is certainly the heart of our dilemma! I hope my new comment above also addresses your statements. Every culture is fallen, but God is sovereign and at work in the whole world.

    Is human culture a series of immortality projects that can only glorify God as a result of redemption, or is it God’s good work among us that we taint with sin when we trust in it rather than in God? I guess I am not quite sure, and agree with you and Joe that it could be both …

    It looks like Jesus’ prayer is found in chapter 17, not 16 🙂 Ah, these troublesome references!

  • Matthew Linder says:

    Jennifer,

    Yep it is 17, I am guilty of typos myself. ha ha

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Everyone, thank you for this excellent discussion about various facets of the relationship between Christianity and culture. It is really fun and exciting to see this discussion unfold in multiple directions I never considered when I originally wrote my post on Christianity, culture and the two natures of Christ.

    I thought I might add a couple other things.

    First, on Jennifer’s excellent point that we should not make art into an idol, I would like to muddy the waters a bit. I absolutely agree that if we mistake a ‘creature’ for the Creator, then our spirituality, indeed the whole of our being as human, has missed the mark. Nevertheless, I think that our ability to understand/grasp/experience a God of grace and love is always ‘earthed’ in our particular contexts. I am thinking, of course, of the incarnation as the most significant (and perhaps paradigmatic) event of revelation, God’s self-disclosure of himself to us.

    It seems to me that we can come to see art, or culture more generally, as a ‘kind of’ end in itself (or what Jennifer calls ‘art for art’s sake’) so long as we recognize that its intrinsic value is derived from God’s generous act of creation, which gives being to all that is. This does not mean that we should worship art, but perhaps those places where we ‘taste and see’ that God is good are worthy (to use an Orthodox distinction) of our veneration.

    Second, another point that Jennifer’s piece emphasizes, and others resonate in their comments, is the importance of recognizing that human cultures are enmeshed in sin, and in need of redemption. I am, once again, in agreement with you all on this.

    Another question that could be asked, however, is whether redemption is only a remedy for sin, or whether redemption is also about bringing humanity (and all of creation) to its fulfilment? A more direct way of put this would be to ask, “would Jesus have come even if there was no fall?”

    My answer to this question is that, yes, humans were made for redemption before the fall and that the incarnate Jesus is the goal, the telos, of all human and created life. On this view, Eden is less like a static state of perfection, and more like a dynamic good place meant to become what God desires it to become. The Fall gets in the way of this creaturely becoming, but it does not change the fact that creation was made to become, to change, in the first place.

    In light of this more dynamic picture of creation as an immature place meant to grow and become something even better or fuller, I think it is easier to see human cultural enterprises as ‘participating’ in the redemption of God. Culture is not, on this view, simply our failed attempts to redeem the world all by ourselves. Before even our failures, culture is humanity’s God-given work as sub-creators in God’s world to participate in the work that God is already doing.

    These are just to other questions/ideas that occurred to me as I read Jennifer’s post and your comments. Thanks, again, for such a lively conversation!

  • jfutral says:

    “In light of this more dynamic picture of creation as an immature place meant to grow and become something even better or fuller, I think it is easier to see human cultural enterprises as ‘participating’ in the redemption of God. Culture is not, on this view, simply our failed attempts to redeem the world all by ourselves. Before even our failures, culture is humanity’s God-given work as sub-creators in God’s world to participate in the work that God is already doing.”

    I agree. Jesus came that we would have life AND life more abundantly.

    You guys have had great topics of late that I thought should have generated many more comments. I hope they have generated more conversations offline.

    Or maybe more Christians have come to terms with art and culture than I realize. That would be a blessing.

    Joe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

1,481,848 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments