Deb and I watched Bend It Like Beckham last night. Pretty good movie. It’s another in an ever-growing list of movies that portray the hybridization of cultures. It’s a formula that seems to work – the angst of a young person (usually a young woman) trying to come to terms with living in two different cultures, one being a culture with very traditional roles for men and women and the other being a more progressive, modern culture promising the freedom to pursue one’s dreams. Usually the movie ends with the blending of cultures for all involved. The main character, shaped by her traditional culture, engages modern culture aware and appreciative of how the traditional culture has formed her identity. The other characters within the traditional culture are in turn shaped by the main character’s journey, becoming more exploratory of the progressive culture that surrounds them.
Any way, the movie started me thinking about the relationship between the good news of God’s kingdom, the missional community that embodies that good news and the surrounding culture the community lives within. It’s an issue that every missional community claiming to follow our missional God must continually engage. I think these movies provide insight for us, reminding us that our missional community and the surrounding culture we live in shape each other.
The authors of Missional Church offer some thoughts regarding this dynamic:
“The church [God’s sent people] bears a marked resemblance to the incarnation of Jesus, who, being like God, was equally real human flesh and life. It is no accident that the church is called the “body of Christ.” It continues as an incarnate expression of the life of God. But no less than for Jesus, this expression means that the church always takes particular form, shaped according to the cultural and historical context in which it lives.
“This shaping always moves in two directions. On the one hand, the church understands that under the power of God, the gospel shapes the culture of a society – its assumptions, its perspectives, its choices. The church knows this because the gospel is always doing that to the very culture that is its own. This gives an indication of God’s vision for the church’s transforming impact on its context. On the other hand, because the church is incarnational, it also knows that it will always be called to express the gospel within the terms, styles, and perspectives of its social context. It will be shaped by that context, just as it will constantly challenge and shape that context. The church lives in the confidence that this ought to be so, and that it is the nature of its calling for this to be so.
“The church knows to expect a life full of ambiguities because it is shaped by its context as the gospel reshapes the context. Such a calling never leaves the church in a finished, settled, or permanent incarnation. Its vocation to live faithfully to the gospel in a fully contextual manner means that it can sometimes find itself either unfaithful or uncontextual. In addition, the human context that shapes it continues to change. Therefore, the questions of its faithfulness are always fresh ones. The gospel of God is never fully and finally discerned so that no further transformation can be expected. The interaction between the gospel and all human cultures is a dynamic one, and it always lies at the heart of what it means to be the church.”
The point: The missional church will be shaped by its social context just as it will constantly challenge and shape that context. In other words, the worst thing we can do as God’s missional people is to form a static Christian culture that becomes like the traditional cultures depicted in these movies – a subculture that is self-isolated from the culture around it. At that point, we are no longer faithful to the missional nature of God’s gospel. At the same time, we must not uncritically embrace the surrounding culture as well. At that point, we are no longer influential at embodying God’s kingdom counter-culturally.
Jesus and Paul provide perfect examples. Jesus was a 1st century Jew speaking specifically to his fellow Jews. He was shaped by the language, history and contemporary experiences of the people he was born into. He lived among them, attended synagogue with them, faced the same oppression they faced, taught using metaphors from the story they lived in. Yet, he also called people into God’s different kind of life, using the terms, styles and perspectives of 1st century Judaism.
Paul was equally incarnational and strategic. He was proclaiming a Jewish story and Messiah to a pagan world. So he borrowed heavily from the pagan philosophers and ideologies, affirming that which was in line with God’s kingdom and confronting that which wasn’t. He enjoyed the full advantages of his Roman citizenship while proclaiming an anti-Emperor theology. He virtually ignored oppressive aspects of Roman culture, such as slavery, while encouraging followers of Christ to embody and live God’s kingdom, knowing full well that as they did so, those aspects of culture would be transformed.
As we seek to incarnate God’s life in our midst, we do so as 21st century southern California urban/suburbanites. We don’t withdraw from society. Nor do we completely embrace it. We are not America-bashers, capitalist-bashers, or even culture-bashers. We affirm what is aligned with God’s values and embody a viable alternative in confrontation to that which is not. We are not Republicans, Democrats, Independents or anything else. We are followers of Christ, incarnating God’s life on and to the world. We are showing those in our culture what it looks like for a community of people to fully live in our culture under the full reign of God in every aspect of daily life.