Too often Christianity is tied to the culture – commonly to the ambition of the Christian left or right. But it is exactly at this point, regarding the faith’s relationship with culture, that Christianity is virtually unlike any other religion in the world, said a respected professor and author.
It is important to understand Christianity’s relationship with culture, explained Dr. Gene Edward Veith, Jr., provost and professor of literature at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., especially when the new atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, argue that Christianity is bad because it has a negative effect on culture.
While most religions in the world are closely tied to a culture, Christianity is above the culture, asserted Veith during the 2011 Online Apologetics Conference on Friday.
“To become a Muslim is to adopt the whole culture: what you eat, how you dress, every part of your life. That’s all part of becoming a Muslim, adopting Islamic laws is a part of it,” said Veith, who delivered the keynote address “Cultural Apologetics,” during the three-day event. “Becoming a Hindu is to adopt the whole culture along with that."
“Christianity, in contrast, is for all cultures. This is a theme of the New Testament, St. John’s vision of the redeemed in Revelation 7,” he said. “Christianity is for every tribe, every nation, every language, every time, for every culture. That’s really quite unique from other religions because Christ died for the sins of the world.”
Veith is author of Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, which was named by Christianity Today as one of the top 25 religious books of 1994.
Also the director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind., he pointed out that atheists usually argue that Christianity is bad for the culture because it has a negative effect on freedom, science, education and progress.
But he argued that because Christianity is above the culture and thus people feel there is a higher law, people can openly critique the culture and there can be progress.
“In fact, the whole ability we have in the West to criticize our cultures … shows how that too is the biblical legacy of the West,” Veith said. “That is why our cultures are not stable and they keep changing.”
Although Christianity is above the culture, it does not mean that it should not influence it.
One of the great difficulties of apologetics and evangelism is that Christianity has been turned into a cultural religion identified with the social gospel, theocratic projects, the Christian left or right, and liberal theology, said Veith.
“The fact is that Christianity is not about a particular view of a culture or particular view of morality because morality is universal,” he said. “Christianity is about forgiveness. It is about Christ. It is about a God breaking into our sinful cultures and sinful lives and redeeming us. People don’t even realize that is what Christianity is about.
“Sometimes they don’t want to give us a hearing because we are carrying so much cultural baggage right now that our emphasis often times is on the cultural issues rather than the spiritual issues that are really at the heart of our faith.”
When Christians battle against abortion, for example, they should remember that it is a struggle for the universal world because it is regarding the principle of the value of life and it is wrong to kill innocent people in any culture, said Veith. Abortion and the struggle for life is something all citizens have in common.
But in the abortion struggle there has to be the distinctive Christian message of forgiveness to women who have had an abortion.
Similarly in the struggle over gay marriage, Christians should view homosexuality as a matter of working for the natural culture and what marriage is supposed to be, he said. Yet throughout the struggle the church has to be clear about the gospel message of forgiveness for the gay person.
“[We have to] be very careful not to lose that gospel to political or cultural issues, as valuable as they might be,” warned Veith. “The culture is very significant but not ultimate, and we must not confuse the two.”