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A Culturally Distorted Gospel

By Tony Copley

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

It is a pleasure to be invited to write for 'Powerful Dependence'. We, as Christians, have a dependence on someone powerful. We depend on a God who is both the creator of the entire universe and has a total preoccupation with a microscopic part of the universe; that is with us, humans. Such is his preoccupation that he sent his only Son to join us and to communicate his concern and love for us. Not only that, but he allowed his Son to die to restore the relationship between his father and us. It seems to me that powerful is a rather weak adjective to describe God.

The problem is that we Christians have great difficulty in selling this concept to the world around us. I want to spend some time exploring why this is so difficult to do. If I was forced to use one word to describe our difficulties, I would use the word ‘culture.’

We all enjoy culture, and we even enjoy experiencing other cultures. It is fun to pretend to be Chinese and enjoy Chinese food and engage in Chinese customs. We could say the same about Spanish or Italian cultures. It is also fun to experience our own culture and even poke fun at it. I enjoy Gilbert and Sullivan operas where we poke fun at both Victorian culture and our own. But in the end, we know it is just culture. It may point out failures in human behaviour, but it is as changeable as the weather and what was important to first-century Roman Culture is not important to ours. Culture is not a repository of absolute truth. We use it along with language as a vehicle to convey our current view of the truth.

Christianity has unfortunately added its own cultures; rather than being seen as God's solution, it easily becomes an ethnic solution entirely of human construction. This problem is no new thing. In the first-century, the letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish Christians who were reverting to their old belief in the obsolete Jewish system of animal sacrifice at the temple. The author points out that Jesus has totally replaced all this in his death on the cross. Their problem was a cultural one. And in this case, as in so many current cultural reconstructions of Christianity, it is all about observance of rules about what we eat or do.

Breaking free form our own culture is always difficult. Over time communities have overlaid cultural constructs on top of the Gospel. So that eventually 'the Faithfull' believe in the cultural construct, and almost all knowledge of the gospel truth disappears. As an extreme example of this in one of the many Roman Catholic cultures as seen in parts of southern Italy where worship of Mary is the center of their belief and Jesus has become a distant and forbidding figure.

Most of the world sees us as a culture with a miscellaneous basket of customs which make little sense to them. Frequently our followers convey these ideas to the world at large.

I know people who would describe themselves as 'Anglicans' where the one thing that they do is, never eat meat on Good Friday. But then I know Presbyterian churches where the flag of St Andrew seems to be more important than the cross. My assertion would affront them. But the flag is more visible and the discussion about Scotland more heartfelt than any other. At one such church, a friend of mine was on holidays visiting. Among the sea of elderly was one young family with a 14-year-old daughter. This daughter was the organist, and she played the old hymns very well but apparently, she misplayed one of the extended amens at the end of a hymn. A member of the congregation was busy correcting her after the service. When my friend went back next year, that family was missing.

The New Testament tells us little about music in the church services and nothing about the instruments to be used. Still, the transmission of the Gospel suffers when the culture trumps the imperative of successful proclamation.

Jesus left us with the absolute bare minimum of ritual. Things that we do every day anyhow. New Christians are to be washed or immersed with a form of words. We are to eat a very simple meal remembering his death for us as we do this. That's the lot! Two very simple things. But they are lost in a miasma of celebrations and customs; Lent, Easter, Christmas day, Pentecost, bunnies, and elves. No wonder the Gospel vanishes. It must be utterly confusing to a Muslim or an atheist looking in from outside.


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