This is the third article in a series about Mark Driscoll’s book The Radical Reformission. You can find the first article here and the second here. Today we are looking at the fourth chapter which is entitled, “Elvis in Eden” and deals with culture. Do note that because of his use of proper nouns Driscoll was forced to properly capitalize this chapter heading. That must have been very disappointing.
“People live in culture as naturally as fish live in water and tornados hit trailer parks. But most people are as unaware of their cultural assumptions as they are of their bad breath, because it is so familiar to them” (page 93). What this means for the Christian on reformission is that he must be particularly aware of the culture he lives in and other cultures he encounters. He cannot presuppose that every culture is like his or that what is effective in his culture will be effective in others.
To help the reader better understand this, Driscoll provides four different ways to evaluate a culture.
Thoughts, values and experiences. In short, this involves studying the people in a culture to see what they do. We can examine how people think and arrive at their beliefs, the values that are so widely assumed they are usually unspoken, and the experiences that have shaped them (both experiences they have chosen and those that have been forced upon them). “To be faithful in reformission we must embed ourselves in a culture and develop friendships with lost people so that we can be informed and avoid making erroneous judgments. Non-Christian friends actually help to disciple us in culture as we evangelize them in Christ” (page 97). When we evanglize, we need to be aware of these thoughts, values and experiences of a culture because these provide both opportunities and obstacles for the gospel. The more we know about the culture the more we will be able to avoid the pitfalls while reaching out in ways that are effective.
High, folk and pop. Another way to evaluate culture is through the forms of high, folk and pop. High culture is connected to the past and requires great training, reflection and tradition. Examples are ballet and opera. Folk culture emerges from a community as their own creation and is highly valued by these people because it becomes part of who they are. This can include certain black spiritual songs, as well as folk music and some punk rock. Pop culture is unsophisticated and intended for a mass market. While it is very accessible, it is also shallow, faddish and trite. “While each of these cultural forms can mediate the gospel … this fact is often overlooked because people tend to attach a moral value to the cultural form they prefer” (page 99). This is evident in the “worship wars” that continue to rage in many churches in which members of a culture believe strongly that their form is superior to all others. Driscoll goes on to ask, “Do you spot the cultural issue for reformission churches? Our challenge is to determine whether the cultural form that dominates how we do life when gathered for worship and scattered for mission is best suited for evangelizing the people in our community…Reformission Christians and churches exist to perpetuate the gospel and should be swift to change their cultural forms if they are not the most beneficial for achieving that goal…Reformission churches have to continually examine and adjust their musical styles, websites, aesthetics, acoustics, programming, and just about everything but their Bible in an effort to effectively communicate the gospel to as many people as possible in the cultures around them” (page 100).
Waves. The third way of examining culture is through understanding waves of change. Western culture has gone from the agricultural age to the industrial age and we have now arrived in the technological age. Many Christian institutions and denominations have failed to make the transition, and Driscoll notes that organizations that began in earlier ages are finding it increasingly difficult to survive because of their refusal to change.
Sins and sin. The fourth way to examine culture is by examining the universal and particular sins common in that culture. Universal sins are the sins that the Bible forbids for all people of all time. Particular sins are offenses that are sinful for some people some of the time under some circumstances. “Christians are also commanded by God to avoid sins that are particular to them, without unfairly condemning or restricting the freedoms of fellow Christians who involve themselves differently in controversial cultural matters” (page 102). We need to resist our freedoms in some areas because of our weaknesses, but can use Christian liberty in areas in which we are strong. “Reformission recognizes that Christians will have differing personal convictions in matters of culture and welcomes those differences that are not sinful, because what pleases God is unity, not uniformity” (page 103). It may be helpful to list a few of the activities Driscoll feels are not forbidden. They include: listening to certain musical styles, getting tattoos, watching movies, smoking cigarettes, consuming alcohol and body piercing. Driscoll goes on to list a few pointers for cultural decision-making.
After providing the example of Jonah and speculating on whether Jonah eventually came to love the people of Nineveh, Driscoll begins to discuss how we, as reformissional Christians, can change a culture. “Our faith rests in Jesus alone, who redeems people and their cultures…our ultimate hope rests in God, not in human goverments, programs, or institutions” (page 108). The first step to changing a culture is to change the people within a culture. Our sin comes from deep within. To change people we musn’t focus on the symptoms of their sin, but on the root cause. Second, we must define what a “good person” is. If we hold up Jesus as our example, we must encourage people to continually compare themselves to Him in order to see their sin.
Driscoll’s main purpose in this chapter is to make the reader aware of the different cultures without our society (or subcultures within our culture). The key to changing culture is not to launch an all-out offensive on the culture itself, but to bring the gospel to the people within that culture and allow it to be changed from the inside out. I agree entirely that we need to focus on individuals and not entire cultures. Our hope is not in the government or in programs, but in the power of God working in and through individuals. Early in the chapter Driscoll talks about a leader in their church who dresses in gothic fashion (face painted white, hair dyed black, dark clothing). But she dressed that way not because she was a depressed, ungodly woman, but because it was her personal sense of style and presumably because she was beginning to redeem a particular (gothic) culture.
Here are a few points I would like to make about this chapter:
Legalism and license” - We are all prone to love legalism. I would probably find it helpful if Driscoll drew up a list of “50 things you cannot do.” I realize, though, that this would be a poor and ineffective tactic. However, I feel that Driscoll may not have given enough attention to how we define what is Christian freedom and what is mere license. As humans we are prone to stretch our boundaries in any way we can. Some teaching on this would have been welcome. Perhaps it will follow in a later chapter.
Elements and circumstances - Driscoll says, “Our challenge [as local churches] is to determine whether the cultural form that dominates how we do life when gathered for worship and scattered for mission is best suited for evangelizing the people in our community.” I am not sure that I agree with the easy, clean line Driscoll has drawn between form and function. He neatly seperates the cultural form from the element of worship, whether that be music, preaching or other aspects of the worship service. But he provides little compelling evidence for this. In a previous chapter he wrote about having artists expressing themselves in worship through painting during the service. Driscoll would consider this cultural form, but Reformed believers, especially those who hold strongest to the Regulative Principle, would consider it a forbidden element of worship. This principle distinguishes between elements and circumstances. The elements permitted in a worship service are only those expressly permitted in Scripture. The circumstances are the “how” of worship surrounding those elements. Because of this conflict I do not feel that Driscoll’s teaching on the worship service is wholly compatible with traditionally Reformed worship. (For more, read this and this.)
Consistent with Calvinism? - I’d like to turn again to the same quote. “Our challenge [as local churches] is to determine whether the cultural form that dominates how we do life when gathered for worship and scattered for mission is best suited for evangelizing the people in our community.” Driscoll seems to deny elements of the Calvinist understanding of evangelism and the sovereignty of God and in this way seems little different from the Church Growth crowd. I am not convinced that he shows a sound understanding of the Spirit’s ability to work in the ways God has decreed. There are times when Christianity must be countercultural in order to be faithful to Scripture. I often refer to a church I sometimes visit in Ottawa that eschews most of these cultural forms but has still made a great impact on the city. They sing only Psalms and do so with no instrumentation whatsoever. Their programming is traditional (they have “Sabbath school” before church, for example), their website is awful. But their church attracts homosexuals, transvestites, yuppies and country bumpkins. In short, the church is filled with all manner of sinners who are attracted not to cultural form, but to the message.
In, but not of - I am not entirely convinced that Driscoll’s reformission will produce Christians who are in, but not of the world. His gothic church leader is an example. There are some cultures which are incompatible with a Spirit-filled person. While I know little about it, it seems that the death-obsessed gothic culture may be one of these.
In conclusion, I have to say that while this chapter began with promise, I found it quite disappointing. I do believe in the importance of understanding culture and understanding just how much we, as Christians, live in our own little culture. Yet I do not feel that culture is as neutral as Driscoll would have us believe.
We will move on to the next chapter in the coming days.