In 1989, Stanley Hawerwas and William Willimon collaborated on a book about the relationship of ministry to culture entitled, Resident Aliens. Their hope was the church would regain it’s strength and vitality in its “in the world, but not of the world” status. I find myself revisiting this work often, to be reminded that this world in its current form is not my home, but that I am an “alien trying to stake out a living on someone else’s turf” (p.11).
Hawerwas and Willimon believe the gospel is more foundational than the world itself, which means that Christians are to live in the world in a way that is fitting to that belief, and not the other way around. When we talk about the “enculturation of Christianity,” we are actually speaking about the loss of Christianity to the world or to a particular culture. We are talking about the faith held captive by the world or culture, which means it is no longer a faithful or true expression of the faith. Christianity becomes syncretized with the culture, much like the gnostic religions of the early church referenced in the New Testament.
Christians in every culture face this challenge, but it becomes a more embattled issue the longer Christianity is in a place. The more accepted a belief becomes in a place, the greater the temptation to enculturation becomes. This is a problem all across the southeast, where we still live in a Christendom styled faith expression. We just assume folks are Christians unless proven otherwise. (And it takes an awful lot to be proven otherwise!) Seeing this, many have re-postured themselves and tried to “engage the culture” or “reach the culture” with some success. In many cases, however, these new experiments are simply new ways of amalgamating to an updated or counter culture that is rebelling against the norm. Sometimes “conversion” is leaving one enculturated version of Christianity for another enculturated version of Christianity without ever actually meeting Christ.
At Cornerstone right now we’re walking through the epistle of I Peter. One of the possibilities for the Christians in Asia Minor is enculturation. Will the Christians remain strong, be rejected, and potentially die for Christ? Or will they fudge here and there and ultimately domesticate the Faith, and watch it blend into the cultural woodwork? As we walk around in buckle of the Bible belt, the fear of enculturation is real. Really real. In fact, it’s a real problem. As John Currie said it a few weeks ago, our struggle today is not getting the church into the world, but getting the world out of the church.
Give some reflection to this quote from Hawerwas and Willimon. It’s worth your time. “In the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, all human history has to be reviewed. The coming of Christ has cosmic implications. He has changed the course of things. So the task is not merely the interpretive matter of translating Jesus into modern categories but rather to translate the world to him. The theologian’s job is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel.” (p.24)