H. Richard Niebuhr, Is-ness, and McDonalds

DISCLAIMER: The world is full of cultures. Each is unique, each is beautiful, and each is flawed. I use the word “culture” not to describe a particular culture, but to talk about culture as an abstract concept. The futility of such an endeavor is that I write about culture from within my culture, and therefore my understanding of culture is shaped by my culture…and the spiral continues.

H. Richard Niebuhr famously published a book titled Christ and Culture. In that book he outlines what he believes to be the dominant models that churches use when “engaging” culture. He would be the first to acknowledge that the categories that he identifies are not static, and there is a wide spectrum of practice.

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Niebuhr, and a great many besides him, have held the belief that churches “engage” culture. There are churches that “embrace” culture, churches that “reject” culture, churches that “change” culture and on and on. This line of thinking is deeply flawed. It is flawed, because it assumes that culture is other than ourselves. One can interact with it and set it down and walk away from it or whatever, but it is fundamentally other.

Culture, however, is not other…it simply is.

This is-ness is inseparable from us. If you are reading this, then you are familiar with the English language, and you have the cultural assumption that arbitrary phonemes that are represented by arbitrary abstract characters actually refer to the real world, or to abstract ideas.

At a deeper level, the way we understand what it means to be alive, what it means to be successful, what it means to be happy and on and on are all cultural constructs, and yet they seem as natural as 1+1=2. There are paradigmatic narratives that tell us who we are, why we are here, and what is that we ought to do. These narratives are constructs of culture and yet they seemed hardwired into our DNA.

The difficulty with language, which is similarly the difference with culture, is that one has to define terms in terms of terms. It becomes a twisted hall of mirrors where one is bound by the conventions of language to describe language. Unlike other inquiries, we cannot get outside of it to look back on it. Culture functions the same way. The existence of words like “culture” and “paradigm” does not give us power to stand outside of it and judge it objectively. We are bound by the language (in the most liberal sense of language) of culture to describe culture.

All that to say, one does not engage culture, one is culture.

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Culture is like oxygen. Not only is it ever-present and a natural part of our existence, but it is also most noticeable when it is gone. I never think about breathing, but when I am underwater, breathing is all I can think about. Similarly culture is most noticeable when the is-ness of one’s culture is absent and one is presented with the is-ness of another culture.

I have had several American friends who will wax poetic about their dislike of McDonalds. They loathe its employment practices, means of production, and its non-existent health benefits. Yet, these same friends have traveled to non-western cultures and many of them, upon their return, describe how thankful they were for McDonalds franchises in the countries they visited. The inevitable refrain is that McDonalds, “tastes like home.”

I raise this, because there is no objectivity to culture. No culture is superior to others. Culture simply is. As a Christian, I have often heard sermons about “the world” or how Facebook is ruining us, or how the latest x, y, or z is going to ruin everything. All of these sermons are essentially sermons about fear. They are about the fear of change. The sentiment that is being communicated is, “we had a place in the old way of things, but if things change or position will seem less stable or less essential.”

I think this is counterproductive.

If culture is, and that is-ness is an integral part of people making up congregations, then by extension culture is within church. Churches do not step outside of it when they worship, because it is already there waiting for them.

I do not think that fear is what should characterize churches. A fear of culture is really a fear of each other and a fear about life itself. The posture of Christianity is love. Love is expansive and imaginative. Love acknowledges and honors the past, but it also trusts that the future will not lead to destruction. Love asks a different set of questions than fear. Love does not ask, “how will this ______ ruin me.” It looks upon that which is coming into being and asks, “what might my beloved be up to, and how can I be a part of it?”

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