By Charlie Clauss
With the Baby Boomer generation aging, it is a good time to consider the ideas behind counterculturalism. A term coined in 1960, it has had staying power as a description of critical movements in that decade. As the post-World War II years rolled past and the Cold War heated up, along with the occurrence of several conflicts (not least the war in Vietnam), groups of people positioned themselves in opposition to the leaders and structures that in their view perpetuated violence and injustice.
This perspective of seeing oneself in opposition to dominant segments of society makes it easy to see why many Christians have adopted the idea that the gospel is countercultural. It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian of a traditional or progressive bent — in either case you can point to elements in the surrounding culture and claim that the gospel opposes those things. It makes for great fundraising fodder, but it is not a good foundation upon which to build biblical Christian discipleship.
First, it ignores the fact that every Christian is embedded inside a particular culture. This results in the often-used analogy of the fish in water. The fish does not know it lives in water. It is so close to water that it cannot even see it. Likewise, the Christian seeking to be countercultural is temped to think that their grasp of the countercultural gospel lacks any taint of culture: it is a pure thing. They take for granted that the things they oppose, the gospel also opposes. It might be so, but it then is very difficult to tease apart the portions of the society that are in opposition to the gospel and the things in culture that are in fact in line with the gospel.
Dennis Haack of L’Abri in southern Minnesota explains this point well. We must first ask ourselves how we are reacting to any given instance of culture, especially from an emotional perspective. Are we responding in a negative way or a positive way? He points out that if we have a positive response, we are likely to miss the elements that run counter to the gospel. And if our response is negative, we will miss the good. The work of cultural discernment cannot be fulfilled without a fair amount of quiet introspection and communal interaction.
Second, being countercultural makes us ask, “Which culture?” It is always temping to use the imprecise definite article and say, “the culture,” but culture in our world is rarely one thing. We live in a society that contains many cultures. “Counter-culturalism” all too often falls into a Western bias toward its own geography and time. Indeed, it is the exposure to other cultures that heightens our awareness to the cultural waters we swim in, but we often discover that we swim in several cultures simultaneously.
The work of the Christian living in this multicultural world turns out to involve some of the most challenging parts of Christian discipleship (this is nothing new; see Acts 6:1-6). The concept of intersectionality, where gender, caste, sex, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, disability, weight, and physical appearance factor into advantage and disadvantage and influence how any one person will experience culture, spotlights the challenge for the Christian disciple to navigate the cultural currents.
Finally, there is a deeper theological question in the relationship of the Christian to culture. In his classic Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr describes how Christians have framed this question. In very rough terms, the options are being against culture, with culture, or (in a heavily nuanced perspective) above culture. These concepts are helpful, but ultimately miss a major point. Each stance assumes that culture is a human made thing. No matter if the Christian is for, against, or somehow outside of culture, culture remains a thing of indifference. It is no more important than any other component thing in creation. Ultimately the Christian can take it or leave it. Andy Crouch in Culture Making turns this assumption on its head: he strongly argues that culture was God’s idea! It is not just something humans do. It is at the heart of the primordial human creational vocation. Culture is nothing less than humans joining with God to mold and shape creation.
The sweep of the biblical narrative is built on a movement from culture to culture. We start in a garden, which we are called to cultivate. We end in a garden-like city. We are not given any clear information about our role in this new culture, but it no accident that Mary mistakes Jesus for “the gardener” (John 20:15)! John appears to suggest that Jesus is to be about the cultivation of this new garden, i.e., the New Creation.
This then suggests that rather than being countercultural, we are called to be agricultural, fellow gardeners with Jesus. We will, under his direction, weed and plant, fertilize and prune, make paths and sitting areas. The agrarian metaphor is but the tip of the iceberg in the human cultural project. Because of human disobedience, human cultural work has strayed from its God-given-ness. This is where Niebuhr’s system is helpful. Some culture should be opposed. But consider the power of culture in cinema to stand against injustice (e.g., Just Mercy, 2019).
Richard Mouw in When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem points to a very evocative passage in Isaiah:
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the arm. Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD. All Kedar’s flocks will be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth will serve you; they will be accepted as offerings on my altar, and I will adorn my glorious temple. Who are these that fly along like clouds, like doves to their nests? Surely the islands look to me; in the lead are the ships of Tarshish, bringing your sons from afar, with their silver and gold, to the honor of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor. Foreigners will rebuild your walls, and their kings will serve you. Though in anger I struck you, in favor I will show you compassion. Your gates will always stand open, they will never be shut, day or night, so that men may bring you the wealth of the nations — their kings led in triumphal procession. (Isa. 60:1-11)
What exactly do the cultural images like “the wealth of the seas,” ”the riches of the nations,” “herds of camels,” “gold and incense,” point to? Will it not be every human work (though tested by fire — 1 Cor. 3:12-13)? When the new Jerusalem comes (Rev. 21:1-5), we will see our cultural work manifest in that bright city.