Facing The “Culture War” Within The Church
Samuel Thambusamyâ€™s interests are in Popular Culture, Theology and Politics. He has a Master of Theology (M.Th) degree from the Senate of Serampore University. He has served in a wide range of ministries such as children, youth, church and development ministries. He is now involved with Wisdomtree and reaches out to young people through cultural apologetics. He lives with his wife Lanusenla and daughter Vandana Yujasola in Chennai, IndiaView all articles by Samuel Thambusamy
It’s strange but it nevertheless true. We get to meet everyone in Church except Jesus. Worse, we still haven’t recognized it as yet.
Tamil-Christian Churches have become places were cultural and/or caste identities are forged and reinforced. It is all about – “who we are” and “where we come from” – rather than “who we are’ in Christ.
Now, there is nothing wrong about celebrating our Tamil cultural identity but this should never be done at the cost of our Christian identity. The flavoring essence can never become the main ingredient. Any and every other identity must be subordinate to our identity in Christ.
Sadly, Tamil-Christianity is entrapped by its own historio-cultural conditioning. Believe me! What goes around as “Christian” is nothing more than our perceptions, interpretations and cultural preferences. For example, wearing jeans to Church is considered abominable. Using contemporary music and art forms is sacrilege.
Anything other than the tried – tested and trusted – evangelistic methods are a dilution of the gospel. So much so, Tamil-Christianity is all about do’s and don’ts. Religious language accords certain authority and even helps to legitimize them as bench marks for spirituality.
At the heart of every Tamil-Christian community worldwide is a culture war. The church wants young people to adhere to its yesteryear cultural patterns – which are supposedly Christian. Young people rebel when compelled to follow a particular way of life which is not in sync with contemporary urban trends. They are caught between modernity and tradition, past and future, and rite and relevance.
With the availability of ample opportunities and the inability to deal with rigid structures, many young people give-up on Church (thankfully not Jesus). Our immediate problem is our particular brand of cultural Christianity which has been carried by Tamil Diaspora worldwide.
So much as changed within the last 15 – 20 years. Young people live and belong to the information age. They are distantly removed from our experience, lifestyle, tastes and preferences. What if they wear jean pants to Church? What if they express their faith in contemporary music and arts? What if they chip and chop our liturgy? Jesus would accept them as they are. What is our worry - loosing our ‘Christian-ness’ or our cultural identity?
How do resolve the culture war? How do we help young people find sense of belonging and togetherness in Tamil-Christian communities? These are issues that we need to struggle with.
Paul’s epistle to Christians at Galatia helps us resolve our predicament. At the heart of this Pauline epistle is the issue of culture. Some Jewish Christians had influenced the Galatians (mostly Greeks) to follow Jewish laws and customs. Judging by the tone of the epistle it looks like St. Paul was visibly hurt. (and may be even angry). Paul writes this epistle responding to the ‘culture war’ at the heart of the faith community there.
Should those who choose to follow Jesus follow Jewish laws and customs? St. Paul responds by asking: “ How is it, that you force Gentiles (non Jews) to follow Jewish customs(Gal. 2:14b)?” Apostle Paul seems to be of the view that ‘circumcision’ (besides many other laws and customs) need not be forced on non-Jewish Christians. Paul himself demonstrated this by not compelling Titus (a Greek) to be circumcised (Gal. 2:3b).
How can we compel young people (who belong to the information age) to follow our tastes, preferences, (dis)likes etc. Besides, they are growing up in an entirely different social location and face unusual cultural challenges and peer pressure. We need to be considerate and sensitive to the specific challenges that young people face today.
Secondly, Christ has called us into freedom. St. Paul reminds the church that “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery (Gal 5:1). Following Jesus cannot be reduced to a set of do’s and don’ts. It’s not about what you wear to Church, what you do, what you sing. God does not judge by external appearances (Gal. 2:6b).
Legalism makes people guilty since the focus is on how short we fall from the accepted standards. Legalistic Christianity can never be liberative. We must not burden young people with a set of do’s and don’ts. They must find the Christian journey enjoyable.
We must reflect on the freedom that Christ offers us. It’s no longer what we wear, eat, and do. It’s more about following him and enjoying the freedom he brings to our lives. (However, Paul also adds a caution: “do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature Gal 5:13)
Thirdly, we need to grasp the meaning of real Christianity. Real Christianity is not about earning God’s favor. It is not about blindly following laws and customs. On the contrary, Real Christianity is all about ‘faith’ in God. In the words of St. Paul: “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision or uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love (Gal. 5:6). “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is New Creation (Gal. 6:15).
What matters is what God does to our life and how we yield ourselves to the work of the Spirit. Real Christianity is an invitation to a life by the Spirit. This is not to suggest spectacular out of the world experience. What do we mean by ‘life by the Spirit’? You live by the spirit when you don’t gratify the desires of the sinful nature. Instead, you bear the fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22).
This life of emotional intelligence is the privilege of the Christian life. Life by the Spirit must be central teaching of Christian discipleship. Sadly, Christian communities do not teach the privilege of Christian living to young people in church.
Fourthly, he asks the Galatians to understand what the gospel means. This is so important. We do not yet fully understand the Christian gospel. The language we speak has not yet sunk into our consciousness. We have been made sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal.3:26). We are heirs (Gal. 4:7) St. Paul, then asks the church a poignant question: You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? (Gal 5:7). He even chides them: “foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Gal. 3:1).
We have read Galatians devotionally. But, when we read and reflect on Galatians we find that it teaches us about locating the gospel within a culture. Today, we face the challenge of locating the gospel within the contemporary youth culture.
Should we preach/impose our cultural interpretations, perceptions and preferences on young people? What really matters is young people committing to deeper Christian life – and that they would strive to live by the Spirit.
We must not lead them to cultural Christianity and/or legalistic Christianity which is devoid of any power. The principles that Paul outlines in Galatians is this:
1. How is it that you force the gentiles to follow Jewish customs (Gal 2:14b)
2. We have been made sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal.3:26).
3. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Gal. 5:1)
4. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is New Creation (Gal. 6:15).
We need to reflect on these principles as we face the “culture war”. Most people in Church think that young people are not “spiritual’ enough – simply because they do no comply to behavioral patterns of yesteryear spirituality.
Most young people are confused and give up on the Church. Or, they are left to slide down the downward spiral of guilt since they are unable to meet the standards of our brand of cultural Christianity.
If St. Paul were to visit our Tamil-Christian churches he would say: You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? (Gal 5:7). What we need to do is to help young people find Jesus attractive – that they would feast on the living bread, quench their thirst with the living water, find rest in his arms, and find courage to make a difference to our world. Christian life is all about New Creation.
Lamin Sanneh quotes a young man (in the Preface to the third edition of the book Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent J Donovan) who said:
“In working with Individuals/cultures do not try and call them back to where they were and do not try and call them where you are, as beautiful as that place might be. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before”
We must be willing to join hands with young people and take on this faith adventure. I am sure St. Paul would say “Amen” to that.