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Gospel, Culture, and Church (and Gnosticism)

This past weekend was spent at a study conference entitled “Culture, Gospel, and Church” held in Abbotsford which was put on by the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren churches. Among the highlights of the conference, from my perspective, was Bruce Guenther’s lecture on how Anabaptists in general, and Mennonite Brethren (MB) in particular have historically engaged or, more often, failed to engage the broader culture.

The experience of MB’s in revolutionary Russia, combined with the suffering and hardship they experienced upon immigrating to Canada produced a people who clung to their ethnic heritage and viewed the broader culture in which they found themselves with suspicion and fear. “Culture” was a word used to describe those on the “outside.” “Insiders” were to remain pure by isolating themselves (sometimes physically, more often culturally) and avoid contamination by the broader society.

It was interesting for me to learn about some of the historical roots of the MB ambivalence toward “culture.” I don’t recall ever being explicitly taught that culture was something to be feared or resisted, but I do remember having this nagging suspicion growing up that many of the things that others found enjoyable or stimulating was probably somehow “immoral” or “off limits” to me because I was a Christian. “The world” was not an arena of discourse and activity that was to be confidently and curiously engaged or challenged, but something to probably be feared and avoided. I was simultaneously intrigued to see how deeply rooted this sentiment has historically been in MB consciousness and curious to know how best to contribute to promoting a different and, I believe, healthier view regarding how Christians ought to engage the broader culture.

Today I was reading a bit more from Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God and I came across his discussion of gnosticism and the constant temptation this has presented to Christians (among others) down through the ages. If any way of looking at the world could be viewed as antagonistic to the cultivation of human culture it would be gnosticism which posits a radical dualism between the physical world and the putatively more real and important spiritual world. The Mennonite Brethren historical rejection of “worldly” values in order to focus on eternal salvation seems to represent a form of gnosticism; this world was deemed to be beyond hope and focus ought to be on securing one’s status in the one to come. Lilla does a good job of describing both the problem with this view and why the broader Christian community has historically resisted the various gnosticisms that have popped up:

If Christ’s sacrifice only justified us, however, gnosticism would still remain a temptation. We would be at one with God but still alienated from the world around us, especially from our fellow men. The justified Christian believer would t hen disturbingly resemble the gnostic heretic, cultivating his private faith, shunning the world, and awaiting an apocalypse that would destroy the evil cosmos. That is why the theologians have always maintained that Christianity, properly interpreted, is destined to transform the world, not flee it. The world as created by God was and is good. Sin caused a rupture within creation, but Christ’s coming offered the promise of reconciliation – of man with his God, and of men with one another.

I think that MB’s could fairly be accused of tending toward a gnostic approach to culture in the past, minimizing the Christian mandate to be a part of the transformation of the world and fleeing it instead. At the same time, it’s hard to summarily condemn an approach to culture that was forged during a period of immense suffering and profound social and cultural dislocation. Suffering tends to render one’s options in stark and binary terms. The gnostic impulse may be theologically inappropriate, but there are times when it is entirely understandable.

As I read Lilla and continue to reflect on the past weekend’s conference I find myself wondering if the current move by MB’s toward a more positive approach to culture is at least partly a function of increased prosperity and material comfort. Culture will always seem more valuable and worthy of embrace when our experience of it is a positive one, and MB’s ascent of the social ladder over the past half-century or so combined with the peace and security of Canadian society in general has made it increasingly difficult to construe our relationship to culture in “us/them” terms.

Theologically, I think that there are good reasons to adopt a view of gospel, culture, and church that emphasizes integration and transformation rather than wholesale rejection. There’s simply no way to avoid the fact that gospel, culture, are closely connected, regardless of whether we acknowledge this or not. The gospel should indeed play a role in the transformation of any human culture, but every understanding of the gospel and attempt to live that out in the church is at the same time profoundly culturally conditioned.

At the same time, it’s worth remembering the causes of a view of culture that we now seek to repudiate. MB theology of culture may have lagged behind others at times—indeed, it may continue to do so – but a view of the world that is forged by suffering and hardship is always one that I will be inclined to be sympathetic toward even as I actively attempt to contribute to its correction.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dave Chow #

    Great article, Ryan. I wonder now, more than ever before, if our brothers and sisters around the globe (ICOMB – International Committee of Mennonite Brethren) should be included in the discussion. Within the Mennonite Brethren, the largest conferences remain in India and the Congo. Each conference numbers over 100,000 members. Surely they would have some insight that would be worth examining, alongside the other conferences worldwide.

    Let the conversation continue…

    October 16, 2007

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