Christian Culture Is Neither

I stopped going to church when my parents stopped making me — when I was fifteen or so. I wasn’t opposed to church, but I also wasn’t particularly motivated to get up and get dressed on Sunday morning if no one was telling me to. Christianity meant a lot to me, but church didn’t. I did go through a weird little holy roller phase when I was sixteen, which I think was me trying to embrace Christianity, to make it more relevant or meaningful. Later that year, I sort of gave up. I knew I wasn’t good enough to get into Heaven, so I figured why bother.

I continued to make vague assertions about believing in God into my twenties. My increasingly severe depression and struggle with substance abuse eventually turned me into an angry atheist — the kind who goes around verbally attacking believers. If I’d been on the internet, I would have been one of the trolls who malign all religions, but especially Christianity, in every forum and comment section they can find. I was truly obnoxious about it.

My life collapsed. I was in the ER one night and I had an epiphany — I was responsible for the chaos I was living and I was going to die soon if I didn’t change. I started trying to stay clean and sober right away, but it was two months before I was able to get into a twenty-eight-day rehab facility where I detoxed. The rehab people told me that my chances of staying clean and sober would be greatly improved if I had some kind of spirituality in my life. I was willing to try anything.

I’d seen Joseph Campbell in “The Power Of Myth” and he seemed cool, so I started reading his books to learn about spirituality. I wanted to do it right. From Campbell, I branched out, learning about all the different ways people have attempted to have a relationship with the Ultimate Mystery. For twenty years, I was quite happily spiritual, but not tethered to any particular faith tradition. I was staying sober, learning and growing, and sure that the Supreme Deity was satisfied with me and accepted my worship. She/He/It/They were certainly doing things with my life.

I was somewhat surprised when I was called to Christianity. It kind of made sense — I knew that I was not getting as much as a solo practitioner as I would as a member of a community. I’d heard some podcast interviews with Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor who was known for swearing and having tattoos. I had considered checking out the local Lutheran church. Still, when the idea came into my head that I should become a Lutheran minister — that’s how the call came, “become a Lutheran minister” — I had a bit of difficulty believing that it was really a call from God. I have a mental illness, and I’d heard voices that other people couldn’t hear on many occasions. This was different though — more like other experiences I’d had that I knew were messages from the Deity. I decided to just go on ahead and try, and see what happened.

A few years later, I’m finishing my BA, preparing to start seminary full-time, and have the complete approval of the candidacy committee of the Virginia Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There are two kinds of ministers in the ELCA, Minister of Word and Sacrament, and Minister of Word and Service — or pastor and deacon. I’m going to be a deacon.

That was all background. What I’m on about here is a thing I’ll call “Christian culture”. It’s something that I was vaguely aware of, but never in. Basically, Christian culture is all the stuff that goes along with being in Christianity, that has nothing to do with the Bible.

There are Christian bands, Christian stand-up comedians, Christian celebrities. People who are in Christian culture have shared touchpoints in their lives. They know about a show called “Veggie Tales”, which features cartoon vegetables that are Christian. They know about — and have strong opinions about — something called “Hillsong”. I was on Twitter for a while — I took a break for my mental health and never went back — and I followed a lot of ELCA folks and other progressive Christians. They were frequently tweeting about stuff that I knew nothing about because I was out of the Christian camp for thirty years. Occasionally, I’d try to figure out what they were on about, but not very much.

I listen to several podcasts — Christian podcasts hosted by people who are apparently well-known in Christendom. I mostly know what they’re talking about, but sometimes I don’t. I just assume they’re referring to Christian culture and wait for it to get interesting again. I’m very interested in how people do the Lord’s work in the world. I don’t care why some people get riled up about Joel Osteen.

I’m really glad I accidentally avoided Christian culture and I want to stay out of it, because it doesn’t look good to me. I’m a Christian because of my experiences and I read the Bible to learn about how God has interacted with the descendants of Abraham, and what Jesus did. I came into Christianity with my worldview pretty much established. I’ve re-evaluated some things, but I’m still the same democratic socialist, feminist, trans lesbian, enviromentalist, middle-aged country punk I was whan I got here. I blaspheme less, and I’m pretty happy about God’s grace, but that’s about all that’s changed.

It’s inevitable that Christianity would have its own sub-culture — that’s how people are — but it isn’t necessarily good, or helpful, or even Christian. Some of it — the homophobia, sexism, general exclusivity — are flat-out wrong. There are plenty of voices in Christianity that are pushing back against those things — and I’m on their side — but that shouldn’t be necessary. As Christians, we’re supposed to be unified in Christ, not pushing back against each other. Right now, the squabble is mostly about queer folks — I’m one — but it could be about infant baptism, or whether or not someone gets ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday, or any other thing that isn’t in the Bible. It isn’t anything that Christians should be worked up about.

Jesus said that the Torah and the Prophets could be summed up with two statements: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Any Christian reading the Bible should be reading it with that understanding. If a passage of scripture seems to be saying something contrary to that, the problem must be in the reader’s understanding. If your neighbor happens to be a gay atheist, it doesn’t matter — love your neighbor as yourself.

Christian culture isn’t inherently bad. I’m an experimental musician and I know a bit about the general history of experimental music and the sub-culture that surrounds it. That sub-culture is flawed and there really isn’t any reason that it should be the way it is, but it is. I do my music my way and ignore whatever else is going on. Sub-cultures happen. But experimental music isn’t a religion, or ideology — it’s just weird, unpopular music. Christianity is supposed to be something better.

Christian culture, as I said, isn’t inherently bad, but it also isn’t inherently Christian. It can be fun, but it can also be a form of tribalism, a Christian culture club, if you will. When that happens, Christian culture becomes a hindrance to the work of God.



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