E’en my father, mighty Odin, who is called all-powerful, doth lay no claim to supreme divinity…
—Thor, Avengers #171

Culture is religion externalized.
—Henry Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (1959)

The Creation of Man

All of mankind has a basic internal “heart commitment” to someone or something. And that commitment shapes our values, our priorities, and our choices. When a nation or people share the same commitment, that commitment structures their society and creates their culture. All of us, whether we admit it or not… live in terms of the demands of our ultimate commitments. Our god not only defines good and evil for us (Gen. 3:5); but also defines our very reality.

The Triune God of Scripture, however, claims to be the only real and legitimate God. His claim is based on who He is. Eternal, self-existent, and sovereign. He is good. He is love. He is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. He made the world for His own glory, and one day He will call all men to account for their actions in His world. Of course, not everyone accepts His claims.

The Origin of Polytheism

Among humans, rejection of God’s claims began with our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Eden. When Satan first approached Eve and inquired about God’s directives, she answered that God had placed one tree off limits. If they ate the fruit of that tree, they would die. Eve understood that the prohibition and warning were wrapped up with God’s claim to be the sovereign Creator of the universe (the One who had created the Tree—and Adam and Eve—in the first place). But Satan told Eve, “Ye shalt not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). In other words, he told her that God isn’t who He claims to be.

Satan was offering Eve a new worldview, an alter­native to God’s explanation of the universe and its origins. The premise is simple… if God could not carry out His threat concerning the forbidden tree, then there must be things in the uni­verse beyond God’s control, things He never made. God might indeed be very powerful and dangerous, but He wouldn’t be the creator of heaven and earth if there were things more powerful than He. All His words would then be suspect. The universe might contain other forces as ancient as God and, in their own spheres, just as powerful, so that at many points they could defy God and overturn his decrees.

What Satan was implying was a kind of polytheism, the existence and rule of many gods. None would be absolute. No true creators. Each would be limited in his own dominion by the dominion of all the others. This, of course, was the religious philosophy of the ancient world. Every mythology from Sumer to Scandinavia, from India to Mexico, echoed this view of its gods. A classic example of this sort of theology is found in 1 Kings 20:23. The Syrian army officers tell their king, “Their gods are gods of the hills; therefore they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they.”

No Other Gods…

The God of Scripture is well aware of the multitude of other “gods” that men worship and serve. It’s pretty clear He’s not impressed with rivals. When He came down in fire and thunder on Mt. Sinai and spoke His Ten Commandments, the very first imperative on the list was:  “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). “Before me” is more literally, “before My face.” Yahweh was not saying, “I must be at the head of your pantheon.” He was saying, “You are not to have any gods where I can see them.”  God sees everything, even the chambers of our imagination (Gen. 6:5; cf. Ezek. 8:12). He certainly sees all acts, public and private, our political debates, as well as the hard drives on our DVRs.

The first commandment rejects every kind of political or cultural polytheism. Yahweh demands that all men recognize His sovereignty, believe His word, and submit to His laws, privately and publicly. The commandment doesn’t recognize any dividing line between the religious and the secular. In fact, Israel’s confession, the Shema—what Jesus called “the first of all the commandments”—goes even further:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might
(Deut. 6:4-5; cf. Mark 12:29-30).

There is only one Yahweh (LORD), and He is undivided and unconfused in His being. As a result, we are to love Him with undivided hearts and unconfused loyalty. We are to love Him in and from our hearts and with all our strength—with all our energies, passions, and skills. We are to love God in our hearts as well as our culture.

Multiculturalism and Religious Pluralism

Because men live in a God-created, God-structured world, their cultures will inevitably have some things in common. All of us eat and sleep; most of us prefer to live in houses of some sort; most of us recognize family as more than a biological phenomenon; all live beneath the same sun and stars. But every culture differs from every other culture in significant ways. These cultural variations have two very different starting points.

The first starting point is physical—variations in topography, climate, available food supply, and genetic inheritance and all that. The northern steppes and the equatorial deserts will obviously give rise to different kinds of architecture, clothing, and diet. Early on, the melanin content in our skin had a lot to do with our proximity to the equator.

The second source of cultural differences lies in ultimate religious commitments. Faith, ultimate concerns, radical allegiances—whatever we want to call it—shapes our fundamental decisions and attitudes. Beliefs about matter and spirit, marriage and family, life and death, morality and legality, all have their cultural fruit. Because of this, Christianity and Hinduism necessarily produce very different cultures. So do animism and Islam. We do indeed walk in the ways of our gods.

Practically and historically, any given culture is the product of both kinds of differences, and only God could possibly sort out and describe the interplay between the two over the history of the people involved. Within a culture, some artifacts and attitudes will obviously be the fruit of the religious cult; most will have an ambiguous origin and carry vague connections to the rest of the culture. Not every candlestick or skillet will testify explicitly to the religion of its maker; but its maker will most certainly have been explicitly as well as implicitly religious.

Sumerian Idols

When the children of Israel conquered the land of Canaan, they destroyed the idols and altars they found there (Num. 33:52). They kept the houses, wells, and vineyards (Deut. 6:10-11). In other words, they adopted some of Canaan’s cultural artifacts and eradicated others—the ones wrapped up in idolatrous worship. Paul made a similar distinction in his discussion of foods offered to idols. He taught that we can use the things of this world in obedience to God’s law and with charity, but we can’t use those things to worship idols or commune with demons (1 Cor. 8—10; cf. Rom. 14).

Like us, Paul lived in his multicultural age. The Roman Empire was the political and military fusion of hundreds of different cultures and religions. When Paul became an ambassador for Christ to that world, he adopted a policy of being “all things to all men” (1 Cor. 9:22). My guess is that he adopted the clothing, diet, and speech patterns of the people he was serving. To the Jews, he was “a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6); to imperial officials, he was a citizen of Rome (Acts 22:25ff). He quoted the Stoic poets at Athens (Acts 17:28), and spoke good Aramaic before a hostile crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 21:40). None of this violated his commitment to Christ. All of it forwarded the work of the gospel. And that gospel was a gospel of cultural transformation.

The Great Commission

Before Jesus ascended to heaven, He told his apostles and, through them, His Church:

All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
(Matt. 28:18-20).

In these verses, Jesus claims cosmic sovereignty. He commissions His Church to “teach” all nations. The margin renders this, “make disciples, or, practicing Christians of all nations.” In the Great Commission, Jesus envisions a world in which the worship of false gods has been supplanted by the worship of the true God. He foresees a world where every culture has been transformed by the gospel. He specifies the earthly means of this transformation:  evangelism, baptism, and instruction. (No swords, no armies, no gunpoint conversions.) But the evidence of this transformation must ultimately be culture-wide. It must include marriage, family, education, agriculture, business, industry, literature, art, media, politics, and law. Here’s the deal: Every culture must serve someone or something. There are no neutral cultures… there are only religious cultures. It should be obvious that a Christian people would bring forth a Christian culture.

Conclusion:  The New Jerusalem and the Nations

When John is shown the New Jerusalem in the closing chapters of Revelation, he sees the nations of the saved walking in its light (Rev. 21:24). That is, John is shown one trans-national, trans-temporal community consisting of all of God’s people in all ages. But he discerns within that community and within its influence distinct nations, peoples, and language groups (cf. Rev. 7:9). The kingdom of Christ doesn’t destroy all cultural differences. Instead, Christianity has an infinite number of valid cultural expressions. Hispanic Christian culture need not look like Irish Christian culture. Bantu Christian culture need not look like Korean Christian culture. We don’t all need to eat the same foods, wear the same sorts of clothes, or listen to the same sorts of music. Scripture does teach, however, that any true Christian culture will have blessings superior to its cultural rivals. Worship of the true God always bears better fruit than worship of false gods. Christian multiculturalism made our country great early on, and it’s the only way back to greatness today.

 

For Further Reading:

Steve Schlissel, Christian Culture in a Multicultural Age, Eight Answers Christ Has for Our Generation’s Questions (Brooklyn, NY:  Messiah’s Bookshelf, 2003).

Henry Van Til, The Calvinistic Conception of Culture (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 2001).

Francis Nigel Lee, The Central Significance of Culture (N.p.:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1976).

David Bruce Hegeman, Plowing in Hope, Toward a Biblical Theology of Culture (Moscow, ID:  Canon Press, 1999).

Gary North, Political Polytheism, The Myth of Pluralism (Tyler, TX:  Institute for Christian Economics, 1989).

8 Comments

  • Avatar
    Don Posted May 8, 2011 9:23 am

    It doesn’t quite add up when you say that culture is a product of one’s religion (agreed) and then say we can have Christian multiculturalism. One cannot have it both ways.

    • Avatar
      MississippiGirl Posted May 8, 2011 2:42 pm

      I think the author is looking at this as a “one body, many parts” type of thing when he says “Christian multiculturalism.” Different expressions of the faith, from the liturgical rites of many denominations to the very Jewish-toned expressions in the Messianic congregations, are all based on the same basic foundations of the faith as expressed in the Apostle’s Creed. Worship in the Christian faith is very different among cultures, but the basic tenets of morality and worldview are the same — we are sinners in need of redemption and God has provided that through Yeshua. Society based on those foundational principles can be attained even if cultural expression is as varied as there are nationalities.

  • Avatar
    doctordeetz Posted May 8, 2011 9:27 am

    Do you really think that Christianity is the only valid religion in the world? All religions point toward the same omniscient and omnipresent fabric of reality. To say that one is better than any other is divisive and counter-productive to peace. Open your arms to everybody regardless of their religion, Love thy neighbor, and true peace will naturally flow out of you and into society.

  • Avatar
    Ranger WW2 Posted May 8, 2011 11:01 am

    doctordeetz, I will not get in a discussion with you, you sound like your mind is already made up… but I want to answer your question, “do we really think that Christianity is the only way”, we don’t think it… we KNOW it…because no one else could claim as Jesus Christ did, ” I AM THE WAY, THE TRUTH and THE LIFE, no
    one comes unto THE FATHER but by ME… and we who believe on HIM have everlasting life. What other person but the sinless SON of GOD could make this statement, John 10:11, ” I Am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep… HE not only died a horrible death on the cross at Calvary to pay my sin
    debt in full with HIS precious blood, but on the third day HE arose from the dead as He said He would, to live
    for Eternity ! Every other founder of a religion, or cult that died is still in his grave waiting for the resurrection,
    only Jesus Christ rose from the dead, is alive and coming soon for the “redeem’ed

  • Avatar
    Dave Posted May 8, 2011 5:09 pm

    Jesus the Christ, came to bring the full weight of God’s glory to His creatures, by dying on the cross, raising from the dead, defeating death and offering life to those who will believe in Him alone. The religion of Christianity provides the only definition of this reality. There is salvation in no other Name.

  • Avatar
    T Posted May 8, 2011 7:19 pm

    I am a Christian and do believe in one God. However, my path reaches a fork in the road when I hear someone say that basically all those who do not believe in Christ will perish. Take the reality of a child born into Islam and has only come in contact with Chistianity through the television or “counter preaching” by his or her religious leaders; that child grows up to be a good man that treats all those he come in contact with well and over all lives a good life. The absolute devout would say yep he is an unbeliever and therefore he goes into the “Pit” with the rest of them. But how can this be? How can a good person of any race, religion or creed that has not known or been brought up under the Christian umbrella be doomed to an eternity in the pit of fire? This does not seem like a loving God; especially considering that His chosen people are Jewish and DONT BELIEVE IN JESUS as the son of God. So, how can the Jews be His chosen people and at the same time they dont believe in His only Son who died on the cross to save us from our own humanity? I do believe in Jesus and I do believe in His word to quote a previous post from Range WWII “I AM THE WAY, THE TRUTH and THE LIFE, no one comes unto THE FATHER but by ME… and we who believe on HIM have everlasting life. What other person but the sinless SON of GOD could make this statement, John 10:11 Is it not remotely possible that what Jesus meant was that no matter the person all will be judged by Him and the only way to get to God is via His judgment? Just something to stew over. I have a hard time believeing that God would cut the ties to ANY of His children; He is the one who puts all of the rulers of the earth in power and why would God show favor to any king not of His belief system? Remember King Nebaukinezer? He was the PAGAN King of Babylon and he was shown favor by God in many ways. There are numerous depictions of others in the Bible of a similar situation. I would like an explanation and interpretation based on such realities that exist so that I may grow in my own faith and understanding of the Word.

  • Avatar
    Theophilus Posted May 15, 2011 6:08 pm

    A basic distinction needs to be made between the Son of God being the only way to heaven, and “Christianity” being the only way. Texts in what we now call the New Testament seem fairly clear (as stated above) that there is only ONE WAY to Heaven and that is through the Messiah that was sent as a way of salvation.

    HOWEVER, the place where most people make a logical leap (probably to satisfy their own fleshly lust to “be right” and “be in the in crowd”) is that Christianity (and its resident Christians) is (and are) the only way to that Messiah!

    But who else teaches about the Messiah? It doesn’t matter. The fact is, that if you believe in the Messiah, then he’s real, quite real, apart from any teachers about him. See Mt. 23 if you need clarification on this point.

    Let’s not be so quick to raise ourselves up. If God’s Son is the only way to the Father, then let’s glorify HIM, not ourselves, and also allow him to be the Master, whose actions may or may not actually involve those of His servants.

    Should we share good things that He has imparted to our soul, such as the way of salvation? Of course! Can He share them too? You might think not, but be careful about that one.

    (www.iamnotyourpastor.com)

  • Avatar
    umyousef Posted May 20, 2011 1:25 pm

    Just to let you know, Muslims DO believe in Jesus, and they also believe that Jesus is coming back at the end times. They do not, however worship him, they only worship God, the Creator of all.When Jesus said “none shall enter the Kingdom except through me” he meant through his example, not through worshipping him.

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