Cross Cultural, Part 1: Who Do They Say That I Am?

9 November 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

The following is a multi-part series summarizing a message I gave at November 6th’s ONE Service.  Thanks again to Curtis Miller for his invitation.  This series will be appearing as well at the ONE Website

Jesus is everywhere in our culture today.

On the recent album, American Idiot, the band Green Day sang: “I’m the son of rage and love / the Jesus of Suburbia / from the Bible of none of the above….”

Just a few years ago, Madonna performed a concert wherein she “crucified” herself on a  jumbo, electric cross.  She later said that “The cross is a very powerful symbol and it symbolizes suffering, but it also is connected to a person who was loving and sharing and his message was about unconditional love. … For me, we all need to be Jesus in our time.”

Larry King, the late night talk show host said that if he could interview anyone in history, it would have to be Jesus.  Why?  He says: “I would like to ask Him if He was indeed virgin born, because the answer to that question would define history.”

And of course, my favorite, is Cal Naughton, Jr. from Talladega Nights.  “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt, because it says: I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party.  ‘Cause I like to party so I want my Jesus to party.”

Before he was hassling Taylor Swift, Kanye West appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone dressed as Jesus to promote the video for his song “Jesus Walks.”

And last, but most certainly not least is “Buddy Christ,” from the hilariously irreverent film Dogma. 

WHO DO THEY SAY THAT I AM?

But these attitudes are not merely isolated to celebrity culture.  These same attitudes are prevalent in our very own backyards.  The following are testimonies from real people, expressing what they think about Jesus.  They are taken from interviews conducted in the book They Like Jesus But Not the Church by Dan Kimball.

The first young lady I want you to meet is Alicia, a 24 year-old molecular biologist.  She says:

Jesus, to me, is an all-loving, perfect, prophetic person.  I don’t even know where I gathered this information from.  Maybe some from television, some from reading.  When I think of Jesus, I have always thought of him as the same person as God.  On the same team.  I had once heard that Jesus is God in human form, and I thought, that’s so interesting.  Dear God, Dear Jesus – same thing.  I don’t see any problem with that.”

Erika is a 23-year-old graduate student.  She says

“Jesus is someone I really respect.  His teachings really hit you at a personal level.  Jesus is a man whose actions, story and life are very powerful. He obviously had some sort of intense spiritual connection to God.”

Next we have Dustan, a 27-year-old college student who says

“I believe Jesus, historically lived.  It is cool to think he really lived among us.  I respect what he stood for and how he went against the establishment with his message.  Jesus was probably spiritually enlightened, charismatic and compassionate.  He was drive to help people find inner peace.  Jesus taught really good things to people about love and how to treat others as yourself.”

Duggan,a 30-year-old coffee shop manager says that

“Jesus was a great teacher.  A caregiver.  A carpenter.  A human being.  Approachable…. Jesus was a voice of peace and hope and an inspiration to many people. Jesus had a lot of moral conviction about the goodness of human beings.  Instead of seeing darkness in people, he saw goodness.  Turn the other cheek; if your brother sins against you, forgive him.  He believed in people.”

Finally, we have Erica, a 31-year-old counselor who believes

“Jesus was a charismatic and motivating man who taught some revolutionary and beautiful philosophy.  He told people that they could change.  He was so giving and so loving.”

COLOSSIAN CULTURE

Twenty-first century culture bears remarkable resemblance to first century culture.  Our intention is to look at Paul’s letter to the Colossian church as a means of understanding our present world.

In the first century Mediterranean world, an interesting thing was happening.  Over time, there was a strong movement away from temples and idols and a stronger emphasis on individuals and their ideas.  Peter Brown states it most plainly:

“Previously the classical world had tended to think of its religion in terms of thingsAncient religion had revolved around great temples…the gods had spoken impersonally at their oracle-sites; their ceremonies assumed a life in which the community, the city, dwarfed the individual, as a ‘man of power,’ came to dwarf the traditional communities….In the popular imagination, the emergence of the holy man at the expense of the temple marks the end of the classical world.” (Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: A.D. 150-750, p. 102-3)

The end result of this was a world that had lost much of its visibly religious character, but had retained a strong emphasis on philosophy and what we might call spirituality.

The exact nature of Colossian spirituality is not known.  It seems to have been a bizarre blend of Judaism and Greek philosophy (possibly Stoicism), along with some references to Jesus.  Given the blending of Jewish and Greek cultures within the city, it is understandable that traditional Biblical vocabulary became appropriated to other forms of spirituality.  Words like pleroma (“fullness”), sophia (“wisdom”) and gnosis (“knowledge”), which once had strong meaning for the Jewish community, were now being used somewhat haphazardly to express contemporary spiritual beliefs.

CONTEMPORARY CULTURE

Contemporary culture bears striking similarity to Colossian culture.  Just as there was a movement from temples and idols to philosophy, there has been a movement away from the church as a source of influence and a stronger emphasis on “spirituality.”  In the ancient world, the writer Porphyry spoke of spirituality as “inquiring into and imitating God’s nature” (quoted in St. Augustine, City of God, 19.23).  Today, writer Tony Campolo describes man’s spiritual quest as “looking for transcendence in the midst of the mundane.”

In Europe, empty churches now sit as monuments (or converted into pubs and restaurants) of the former religious past.  In America, we are rapidly heading for a “post-Christian” culture, where the church has lost its influence, a statement supported by recent research done by LifeWay Research in partnership with the North American Mission Board’s Center for Missional Research.

Roughly 45% of Americans claim to attend Christian worship services weekly, however actual head counts suggest the number to be closer to 20%.  The numbers are disturbingly lower for younger generations.  Some data suggests that as many as two thirds of high school students – those who grew up in the church – graduate high school never to return to church again.  While some early data shows a return to church after they marry and have a family, the alarming truth is that during our 20’s, the unchurched remain outside the church, while those inside the church abandon it altogether.

The church is seen as irrelevant.  86% believe that they “can have a good relationship with God without being involved in church.”  The church is seen as “organized religion” which has little to no actual bearing on our relationship with God and others.

And amidst these changes is the steady rise of “spirituality.”  According to a 2005 Newsweek/Beliefnet Poll, more Americans describe themselves as “spiritual” (~80%) as compared to “religious” (64%).  This numerical gap climbs even higher among younger generations.

While 72% believe God – a higher or Supreme Being – actually exists, only 48% agree there is only one God as described in the Bible.  61% believe that “’the God of the Bible is no different from the gods or spiritual beings depicted by world religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.”  Nearly one out of every five people change religions entirely as an adult.

Just as in Colosse, former religious language is still in use (such as prevailing thoughts and attitudes about Jesus), yet has become redefined through the lens of contemporary spirituality.

CROSS CULTURAL

These statistics and testimonies are intended to show you that these are not merely abstract ideas: these are the thoughts, attitudes and conditions of our friends, relatives, coworkers and neighbors.  Christ’s final words to His disciples were the instructions to “make disciples of all nations [panta ta ethne] (Mt 28:19).”  The idea is for every culture and ethnic group to hear and receive the gospel.  In America alone, we are surrounded by a myriad of cultures.  In Acts 1:8, Jesus speaks of His disciples (and us, by extension) serving as His “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.”  The image there is of starting in one’s hometown, and allowing for a geographical, missional expansion into all parts of the world.

Our task then, as Christ’s followers, is to be Cross CulturalThis is what is at the heart of the Christian life.  In the coming days I shall expand on what I shared at November’s ONE Service.  Each day will also be accompanied by a few reflection/discussion questions that may be appropriate for small group discussion or personal reflections.  At the conclusion of this series (Saturday’s post), I will have an annotated bibliography that will offer some additional resources.

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

(1)   What do you think about Jesus?

(2)   Where did you get this information about Jesus?

(3)   What do your friends/neighbors think about Jesus?

(4)   Where did they get their ideas about Jesus?

(5)   What are some of the features (especially spiritual features) of the culture around you?

9 November 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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