Reflections on Church and Culture

Reflections on Church and Culture

Liturgy Lesson: May 5, 2019
Call to Worship: Deuteronomy 7:6-9; Ps. 135:1-5
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: *Christ is Made the Sure Foundation (#342)
Call to Confession: Eph. 1:3-6 and 2 Tim. 2:19
Song of Confession: Depth of Mercy
Assurance of Pardon: Eph. 1:7-14
Hymn of Assurance: O Great God (w/ Is. 43:1-3a)
Reading of the Word: Luke 10:21-24
Eastertide Doxology
Sermon: Rev. Shiv Muthukumar “Chosen by God”
Tithes and Offerings
The Lord’s Supper: Lift up Your Hearts Unto the Lord; *How Sweet and Awesome in the Place (#469)
Closing Hymn: On Jordan’s Stormy Banks

*for information on the highlighted hymns, just click on the title

culture (n.)
mid-15c., “the tilling of land, act of preparing the earth for crops,”
from Latin cultura “a cultivating, agriculture,”
figuratively “care, culture, an honoring,”
from past participle stem of colere “to tend, guard; to till, cultivate”

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”
– Gen. 2:15

Culture is cultivation. It is the consistent and committed action of promoting and sustaining growth in an ecosystem. It is tilling, harrowing, preparing the land, then planting, producing and preserving the growth. It is a sort of sanctification of the soil so that it may prosper. This has been mankind’s mandate from the day he was created. It is a calling that the modern Church needs to heed.

American culture is driven by what we consume, particularly through mass media. The soil of our collective imagination and memories is saturated by Hollywood, sports, and politics. We fancy it our own garden of Eden, but a lot of it is just weeds. Mass entertainment’s synthetic soil produces a glut of music, art, and stories that sprout up and crowd out the truly nourishing plants and fruit. When this happens, it is more vulture than culture. It is the act of preying, not praying. It is feasting on the carrion, not carrying on the feast.

The first Psalm in the Bible is a succinct and poetic depiction of what it looks like for a man (and therefore a culture) to be truly fruitful and flourishing.

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”

Is the current American church culture prospering? I am unconvinced. Based on much of her songs and art, it seems to me that the organic growth from the contemporary church “culture” is not the nourishing fruit that future generations can feed upon. I fear that the church has walked and stood and sat in foul soil. She has wandered from the life-giving streams, yielded little fruit, and her leaf has withered.

This past August, my wife and I had the privilege of touring Ireland. The ”Emerald Isle” is a place with a great literary heritage. Among its sons are James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Moore, William Butler Yeats, and even the inimitable C.S. Lewis (born in Belfast, 1898). A culture of reading and books seems only natural in an oceanic climate that is cool and damp most of the year. My good friend Tomaseen Foley, a storyteller who grew up in the West of Ireland (county Limerick) jokes that Ireland would be a great country if they could put a roof over it. It is not the damp soil, however, that gave birth to the fertile culture of what some have called the “Island of saints and scholars.” In fact, the roots go much deeper into the bedrock of Ireland’s Christian faith. In his book How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill says that “the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature.” In so doing, they became “conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed.” Cahill states that it was these monks who “single-handedly re-founded European Civilization.” If you want a seminal example of this, I refer you to the Book of Kells (see here for more). There you have—preserved in painstaking detail and vivid color—a manmade marvel and beautiful masterpiece that confirms that Christians are indeed “people of the book.”

The Book of Kells is the most famous illuminated book in the world, Ireland’s most prized cultural artifact, and one of the most celebrated Christian works in history. An illuminated book is basically a manuscript where the text is ornamented and augmented with decorative and illustrative designs, colors, pictures, and symbols. Most illuminated books were made by monks whose creative process was essentially a time of religious devotion and prayer. These anonymous souls spent weeks or months illuminating a single page of Scripture to beautify the truth and bring glory to God. In fact, it was not unusual for a monastery to take a year or more to copy out a single manuscript of the Bible. I imagine that this arduous task was an act of adoration for the monks, a way for them to embrace The Word behind the words. In the Book of Kells, the most extravagant illustrations come on the title pages of the four Gospels. One of the most famous is at the beginning of St John’s Gospel. The whole page only contains four words, In principio erat verbum: In the beginning was the Word.

It is this Word made flesh who came and walked among us and called us to be his own. It was through Him that all things were made and he sustains them with his own word of power. His voice thunders and strips the forests bare. But the people who once heeded his call have forgotten the sound of his voice. They have hardened their hearts. They have followed the slithering serpent out of Eden and into a wasteland. All the while it hisses and tells them they can become gods and do whatever they want without consequence. But it is all lies and death, all noise and no music. I am reminded that the same country that once was an island lighthouse in the dark ages is now fully celebrating the “liberty” to kill its unborn. Ireland’s vote this past year to repeal the ban on abortion is a stark reminder that the last of the old castles will soon be rubble. May God have mercy on us all.

It is clear that the full and vibrant resonance of Christianity’s song throughout the West is now, after decades of sustained decrescendo, but a murmur. And so we must ask ourselves what are we doing to sustain the song, to breathe life into the dying embers? Essentially, what are we are leaving behind, or what will our legacy be? What amount of beautiful and meaningful things will we bequeath to our children’s children? What books and paintings, sermons and structures, hymns and liturgies, have we made that will withstand the test of time and be a source of inspiration for generations to come? Is our devotion or doxology deep enough, our praise profound enough? In what corner of the church are hidden our modern-day monks who are willing to draw in the dim light until their hands hurt? Can the soil of our faith hold and husband another Book of Kells, let alone another Bach or Caravaggio? Is our culture, with all its poverty, even capable of producing such richness?

When our boys were little, we used to have a phrase we told them all the time: “Be a fixer, not a fusser.” Well, perhaps we all need to hear that. It would be easy to despair, but there is so much work to be done. Let us be up and doing it. For the glory of Christ, and for the good of His church.

I will close with a perfect summary from Scripture. We ought to read and heed the words of the prophet Haggai. He was speaking to the Jewish people who had returned from exile, but they neglected to rebuild the temple, and so God had brought a drought. All their work was unproductive and futile because they had neglected the one needful thing, pursuing the glory of God. If the church is the Bride of Christ, then worship is her womb. The book of Haggai was written in 520 B.C.; however, it sounds like it could have been published yesterday. It is astoundingly clear and convicting. It is a prophetic word for our day.

Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the Lord. You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the Lord of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors.”