Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

God and Culture

Written by: on February 14, 2014

This blog is written and posted from Goerlitz/Zgorzelec one of the most beautiful and well preserved European cities I have been in,  bordering Germany and Poland with the river Neisse separating the two. On the banks of this river rise two tall steeples of St. Peter’s and Paul’s Church, construction of which dates back to the 13th – 19th centuries.   The church houses the famous Sun Organ considered one of the most beautiful organs north of the Alps. Goerlitz is not too far from Wittenberg, the birthplace of the Reformation. This is the city where Jacob Bohme (1575-1624) the theosophist spent a good part of his life spreading his theories of ‘unity of man and nature’.  In addition to the Christian faith, Judaism also holds a permanent place here, displayed through the only synagogue in Saxony.  Beautiful open spaces of the city and market squares, I believe, are used to host scores of festivals during the summer that are religiously celebrated by young and old.  The building where I am staying and where my meetings are held was once a Masonic Lodge that has been converted into a hostel and retreat center.   Just being in Goeriltz which speaks of religion and theology of some form or the other of the past and present through its culture, architecture, art and just daily life, provides abundant scope for reflection after reading the essays written by Stephen Garner, David Forbes, Horsfield and Hutchings related to the interplay of religion, theology, culture, media and the Christian faith. Four days ago I was in a remote village in the state of Orissa in Eastern India with a group of new tribal Christians celebrating the opening and dedication of a simple facility that will be used as a place of worship as well as a community resource center.  That picture stands as a stark contrast to the present one. The people in Orissa are probably still a century behind in terms of progress; the context in which they live lies on the darker side of the “digital divide”.  Nevertheless there is a common thread; regardless of how it is viewed, human needs remain the same; but expressed in a variety of ways depending on peoples’ social and cultural contexts, religious history and currently access (or the lack of it) to social media. There is no doubt that a strong link exists between spirituality, response to the Gospel and human contexts.  As human beings, it is impossible to live completely free and outside of a socio cultural context.  This context determines human thought, behaviour, values and how life is lived; it also shapes what one believes to be right or wrong.  Often it is assumed to be universal and that everyone sees things the same way. Christians also fail to recognize that much of this context is not necessarily biblical but cultural and humanly created. It is necessary as a Christian leader, to understand that God is the originator of culture and is responsible for culture. Charles Kraft explains several positions a Christian could take toward culture.  First, to lean toward the belief that culture and cultural differences did not originate until after the ‘Fall’; therefore “God is against culture”; this is not a good position to take.   Second, the “God- in-Culture” position; which can easily immerse God into any culture to the point of insignificance and irrelevance.  The third one is a “God-above-culture” position that takes the relationship to the other extreme. This position conveys the message that God is totally unrelated to culture.  One is forced to make a choice to be either on God’s side or that of culture.  The most productive position that is suggested is “God –Above-And-Through Culture”. (Kraft 1979) God is not restricted by culture; He chooses to work through culture. Significant Christward movements are taking place that are reflective of this principle.   Wherever this is understood and applied, the church will flourish.  An attitude which is reflective of that which the Apostle Paul had toward culture is the best:  “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (I Cor 9:19-23 NIV).”  Culture was to Paul like a person waiting to get acquainted and befriended rather than an adversary to be fought and avoided. The  critical question that confronts Christian leadership today:  How can we enable and empower the church to remain vibrant in its life and witness so as to embody the divine revelation provided in scripture in such manner that others will be attracted to their Christian belief and faith and be transformed and thereby transform their communities? Kraft, Charles H. Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-cultural Perspective. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1979.

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Sam Stephens

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