One of the ways I’ve often heard Christianity described is that it is to be counter-cultural. This is often backed up using Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” This sounds like it should be true and fairly straightforward, but I’ve found that it isn’t as easy as it is made to sound.
The problem I’ve found is in figuring out what it means to be counter-cultural or “not conforming to the pattern of this world”? There are at least three issues that I struggle with in regards to Christianity being a counter-culture/counter-world. They are that culture (or the world) is not a uniform thing; what to do with the times that our local culture and Christianity agree; and the inconsistent application of this idea.
So let me look at some of these ideas a little closer and explain why they make me wrestle with this idea of Christianity, culture, and being counter-cultural.
Culture is Not Uniform
The first thing is that culture is not this uniform idea that can be easily applied to the whole world. Since culture is not uniform, the idea of being counter-cultural becomes more difficult. You will find different cultures between rural, suburban, and urban areas. You will find different cultures in different states or provinces in a country. You will also find different cultures in different countries. Is it possible to be counter-cultural to all cultures at all times? I think that would be rather challenging.
Even in our own area our culture can vary greatly. Let’s give an example of schooling. In one particular area there may be a sub-culture that greatly endorses homeschooling as the best option for children, another sub-culture that supports private schools, and yet another group that supports going to the public schools. If all three “cultures” on this decision are present is it really possible to be counter-cultural in any meaningful way?
If there is how do you figure that out? Do you base it on the size of the group supporting each? Is the most counter-cultural idea the one with the fewest people doing it? This seems to be a fairly dangerous way of deciding on what is counter-cultural in my eyes. Now at this point it could be said that we need to be against the world where it is against the Bible. Again this sounds like a good solution for a Christian, but I’ve found it isn’t as easy as that.
Take the three different views on how to educate your child. The Bible doesn’t really say a whole lot about homeschooling/private schooling/public schooling more than saying that the parents should be teaching their children. Now some would jump on that and say home-schooling is the way the Bible tells us to be counter-cultural.
While I think that it is fine to home-school, I’m not sure it is the way all Christians have to do things. After all “the world” can seep into homeschooling just like any of the other options, one can find stories of abuse, control, and ugliness in that decision too. It just doesn’t wind up being as cut and dry on issues like this even if we use the Bible to try to see what is of the “world.”
Now this is just one example, but I think it demonstrates some of the difficulty in picking out a “counter-cultural” way of living at least in every aspect of life. Cultures can be very different, and even the Bible doesn’t always help us in knowing what not conforming to the world would exactly look like in particular situations.
When Culture and Christianity Agree
If there are many different cultures chances are that some cultures will have at least some overlap with what the Bible teaches. What do we do when Christianity and culture seem to agree on certain things? I mean if Christianity is about mainly being counter-cultural and not being conformed to the world then why does there seem to be overlap on some things? For an example, an obvious issue that overlaps is murder.
Murder is something that is spoken against in the Ten Commandments. You can find them in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. Murder is also a crime in the United States, as well as most countries in the world (if not all). So if Christianity is presented as being counter-cultural what do we do in cases like murder where we happen to be in agreement?
In my experience, this is typically where appeals to common grace, or conscience come into play. It may explain the overlap, but this approach casts doubt in my mind on having a strong emphasis on being counter-cultural. It would seem the Christian life is about discerning what parts run counter to following Christ and what parts do not. Other times it may even be understanding that some parts may serve Christ up to a certain point (like working and earning money), but may hinder following Christ past a point (love of money, willing to do anything to earn more money).
Murder may be an easy and extreme example of the overlap, but I don’t think it’s the only one. Particularly if you add in the previous issue of culture being a different thing within different groups of people. You can find significant parts of culture that believe in hard work, monogamy, helping the poor, having children, and other points of connection that can be found in the Bible. There may be different motives and expressions found, but the overlaps are still there.
The last thing that always confuses me is inconsistent application of this ideal. If we are to be counter-cultural than it would suggest being counter-cultural in all aspects. This is not often what I see. It is often that what people have become acclimated to is okay, but what is new or different is seen as something to be against.
I find that this most commonly takes place in the realm of entertainment. I’m sure there are examples we could delve into beyond it, but this is one I’ve run into quite a bit. We’re for the kinds of entertainment we like, but then try to speak against forms of entertainment we haven’t been involved with or don’t like quite as much.
Say you have someone who doesn’t like sports. They think that the obsession with sports in our country is ludicrous and think that it takes away from our worship of God. This same person may find that they enjoy reading fiction, movies, or playing video games instead and that this is perfectly fine. This same pattern can come to play just shifting around the interests. Someone may like sports, but denounce video games or whatever the case may be.
When I’ve heard this done, it isn’t always presented in the frame of being counter-cultural. It is usually done in such a way to present a particular activity as dangerous. That sports is an idol or that video games make you lose touch with reality and these things are counter what a Christian should be about. I’m sure I could speak more about this, but I hope you get what I’m saying.
You even see this kind of thing done within a particular medium. The one that sticks in my mind the most was when the Harry Potter books were released. Anyone who was a Christian during this time probably remembers or maybe was even a part of the massive backlash that took place against those books.. The inclusion of magic, witches, and wizards seemed like something to denounce and distance ourselves from. What I found so absurd about it was I learned that books like the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia were so popular among Christians.
These are tales where there are wizards, magic, and mythological creatures and that’s fine, but Harry Potter was evil. I just never quite understood it, but since I was a young Christian at that point I just avoided reading them for quite some time. After awhile I wondered if they were really that bad, read them, and loved every minute of it. It wound up seeming so silly that this became a stand against the culture or whatever the stand was against.
I could go on and on about inconsistencies of this regard, but I hope my point is made. It just seems like we don’t have a very consistent base for our counter-cultural position particularly on issues that are modern in nature and not talked about because of the difference of time, like should Christians use electricity or own a car/television/computer or whatever.
Not Completely Counter Counter-Cultural
These are three areas where I often struggle in figuring out how as Christians we are to be counter-cultural. It often seems like the counter-cultural approach is overall too negative and against a few too many things in my mind. With that said though, I’m not sure the counter-cultural idea is all bad.
I think that there will be times that a Christian will sometimes have to go against the culture that they are in. This may not be a primary function of the Christian life, but I do think it can be a component. There may be aspects of the culture we find ourselves in that are detrimental to our faith or our lives as humans. It may be the need to seek rest in a culture that is too busy, or to work well in a culture that just gets by with the bare minimum. It may be to proclaim belief in Jesus when that very belief could put you in danger of physical harm or death (not that this is currently a reality for the church in the US but it is in some parts).
It may even have to happen within certain cultures that claim to be Christian. When churches are focused more on themselves than others, when beliefs and people take a backseat to running a business, or when legalism and pride take hold, we need to be willing and able to be counter that culture. So I do think that there are times we need to be counter-cultural, but I do think we need to be careful in how we present this idea so that it isn’t simply being negative all the time, about pretty much everything.
So those are my thoughts, what are your thoughts on being counter-cultural as a Christian? Is it something you hold to or reject? Have you struggled with any of these issues or found solutions? Let me know.