In paradox

prince sign bigger

Okay—I promise not to dwell on this forever, but the experience of having a photograph of our church courtyard marquee resonate so powerfully with a huge audience tends to stir several pots of faith-life, creativity, and imagination. Let me share with you a text I got from my best friend from seminary I’ve collaborated with before on a joint sermon series we enjoyed preparing and leading our congregations through together during Lent of 2014 that focused on the five senses. He was excited to see our church sign sent from another friend of his where he lives in San Diego who didn’t even know he had a connection to me or our church. We had plans after seminary to co-author a book on Bob Marley and the Bible, but we kicked the can too long and  someone else wrote it. Here he floats another similar idea:

I just had an inspiration! This is our book! “Unacceptable” people of faith. An exploration of sacred sayings from secular people. And why we should listen! I’m going to develop a bible study out of your “Prince” experience, using your viral post and the things people commented. It’ll be a great exercise in how and why we (Christians) share our faith in the 21st century pop culture and world of social media. Interested in unpacking this with me?! “How going viral exposed a virus within the church!”
Ok, last text for a while but one of their inspiration…I can see drawing a parallel between using prince quotes to share the message of faith with the ancient church choosing pagan holidays to graft our faith stories and holidays on to, such as Christmas and Easter! Couldn’t you see using pagan holidays and glomming onto them to shed light on our faith similar to your simple act of using Prince? I’m already developing how the chapters will be written. Using each of the negative comments to your Facebook post as a starting point for a conversation. Can you tell I’m a little bit excited about this idea! I may revisit it and decide it’s really bad but right now it seems brilliant

My friend Christian and I have always been on the same wavelength—and we have very similar approaches to ministry and engaging cultural references for the purpose of speaking about the Gospel. For the past 60 years, the theological conversation of how a Christian goes about daily life upholding the religious world and unavoidably being shaped by the “secular culture” has been indelibly marked by H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1951 book that grew out of a series of lectures at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Christ and Culture. A great summary of that work from an evangelical perspective was published more than 14 years ago on its 50th anniversary in Christianity Today. You can read that here at the link on the blog version of this article. But, suffice to say, the “5 methods” of accommodation, exclusion, or mediation remain a helpful framework for our own pursuit of presenting a culturally relevant message of God’s grace. That is my approach—I don’t believe very many people of faith in my “flock” would advocate a complete exclusion of culture, and in my opinion, such a perspective is not only unnecessary—it is impossible. I find the most authentic position or “method” of Niebuhr’s being the conclusive one (as he probably intended): Christ and Culture in Paradox. John Stackhouse, the author of that Christianity Today article I mentioned, seemed to advocate it as well for the general Evangelical Christian audience to whom he writes, when he says,

Evangelicalism generally eschews paradox. We prefer the clarity of binary opposition, and there are many such pairs in the Bible: light versus darkness, good versus evil, the kingdom of God versus the kingdom of Satan, the church versus the world, the flesh versus the Spirit. Yet we are Bible people, and we must listen also to Scriptures that speak of the kingdom itself as a “mixed field” (Matt. 13:24-30), full of wheat and tares, and of the Christian life as being in the world but not of it.
Yes, we must strive for holiness, as the first type asserts. Yes, we must affirm with the second type what is genuinely good in any culture. Yes, we must rejoice in opportunities to build on good things God has already bequeathed to this or that society. And yes, we must seize every opportunity to improve, transform, and even convert this or that part of the world to the glory of God.
Yet we might also recognize that God has called us to lives of difficult paradox, of painful negotiation between conflicting and competitive values, of seeking to cooperate with God wherever he is at work. Such a position, full of ambiguity and irony, is also full of faith and hope: “in all these things we are more than conquerors” (Rom. 8:37). This is a faith that God can be trusted and honored even when the way is dark and confusing, and a hope that God works all things together for good.