If Jesus does stand outside my culture and outside me seeking to show me a better way as an individual and as a culture, does that mean that everything about me and my culture is wrong? While there are some Christian writers who might suggest that is the case, it seems too simplistic an approach to me. After all, we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1.26), which suggests there is something good somewhere in our being. Certainly, the image has been affected by human sin and all aspects of our being are touched by it but the image is still present. That is actually the meaning behind the theological term “total depravity”–not that we are totally and completely wrong but rather that all aspects of our life have been touched by sin and its consequences.
When I look at my life and my culture in the light of Jesus, I have found it helpful to think in terms of three categories when it comes to the effect Jesus might or should have. I really can’t remember if I developed these on my own or borrowed them from someone else–so if they sound familiar, let me know so I can give credit where credit is due.
In the first category I put things that really aren’t going to be affected by Jesus and aren’t going to affect Jesus or my ability to follow him. The things in this category are neutral and will be unchanged by Jesus. Whether I live in a house built of wood or brick or concrete or mud is pretty much neutral, unless I steal the house or refuse to pay my rent. Whether I drink my coffee from a mug, tea cup or tin can is neutral in terms of Jesus. Whether I prefer to read from a printed book or a E-reader is neutral, although the things I choose to read can fall into another category.
The second category involves things that could be neutral but for some reason are affected by faith. To use a somewhat controversial example, limited alcohol use is pretty much neutral. Biblical teaching condemns overuse of alcohol and sees value in some people refraining from alcohol use as part of a spiritual vow but moderate use of alcohol is seen in the Bible as a norm.
However, the Christian faith often ends up having a powerful effect on alcohol use. It challenges abuse of alcohol and behaviour that would encourage abuse of alcohol. Some believers find Jesus leading them to stop drinking alcohol because they can’t stop with one drink and their faith liberates them from the tyranny of alcohol. Other believers feel led to refrain from drinking alcohol to avoid enabling those who need to stop but find it hard, using Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 8.
The third category involves things that are simply against the example and teaching of Jesus. Murder, for example, simply doesn’t fit with Jesus’ call for believers to love self, neighbours and enemies. Behaviours and customs that harm others, deprive them of freedom, prevent them from living as God wants them to live and so on are all simply wrong when placed in the light of Jesus’ teaching and example.
I realize that this is not a precise classification and that there are all sorts of exceptions and lots of debate about what fits into which category. But for all that, I do find it helpful to look at myself and culture from this perspective. Using the classification effectively does require that I have a good understanding of myself, my culture and the teaching of Jesus. It also requires that I be willing to look critically at myself and my culture.
As believers, we sometimes waste a lot of time with first category things that we would like to be third category–male hair length, for example, really belongs in category one. Unfortunately, we also spend a lot of time ignoring or trying to justify things that really belong in category three–as believers and as members of a culture, we do and support a lot of unloving and uncaring things that really should be changed.
Not everything I do needs to be changed because of my faith. Not everything I think is okay is okay when looked at through the lens of faith. If I am serious about following Jesus, I need to learn to see what has to be changed and then be willing to change it.
May the peace of God be with you.