I found David Harrington Watt’s thoughts on “cultural captivity” to be surprisingly interesting. No, I’m not a fanboy of his book, or its $50.00 price tag, or his so-called Ethnography, but I do think he is saying something seriously important as regards this particular subject. Well, he might not actually be saying anything at all, at least not specifically, but he is at least hinting at something important.1 I was left pondering a familiar but old question after this read of Bible-Carrying Christians: “What does it mean to be in the world but not of it?”
Watt begins retelling the story of Oak Grove Church’s dedication to “being in the world, but set apart, or not of it.” What he is pointing toward is basically a fundamentalist penchant for sub-culture. More than a few Christians of conservative stripe believe their communities should be obviously â€“ even blatantly - distinct or separated from the surrounding environment and influence in which they are situated. Oak Grove Church is a pretty good example of a community going to extreme lengths to thwart or prevent the defiling advances of the world’s business, politics and other subtle daily systems. Oak Grove Church even sustained a private school based entirely upon “Accelerated Christian Education.” The Accelerated Christian Education program focused upon the virtues of free market economies, family values, and patriotism.2 Apparently, such things are not taught properly in public schools.
I too take seriously the New Testament’s call to be “in the world, but not of it.” I do not, however, believe this imperative means to separate as Oak Grove Church has separated. I do not believe it means Christians should totally abandon all business, politics, and/or other subtle systems of the day. True enough, some of these things are obviously detrimental; these should be avoided, but not for the sake of a purity already granted, but for the sake of common sense physical and spiritual health and wise self-preservation. Too, these things might just smack of irreconcilable difference, as far as a relationship to Christianity is concerned. Should this be the case, then by all means have nothing to do with such things. Still, refusal to participate in certain aspects of a systemically detrimental system doesn’t require a total avoidance of the total system! Said another way, one need not attempt an escape from that which can be effectively ignored. So, no, do not participate in business or politics that are blatantly contradictory to basic Christian belief and practice, but do engage those aspects of business and politics that prove edifying! Again, do not support those markets that are built upon the backs of people in third world nations; but invest in anti-oppression by making purchases through fair trade merchants! Basically, what I’m saying is this: You do not have to disengage the whole project that is humanity just because certain aspects of it run contradictory to the faith! Avoid the detriment while simultaneously engaging the benefit that can be had! There are more than a few opportunities for faithful Christians in our world today. We are needed! We are being called to engage the world and people! The days of retreat into safe fortifications of Christian belief and practice are long dead … Institutions like Oak Grove Church are dead too … Long live the engaging mission of the authentic and powerful Gospel of Jesus Christ! So, do not wait; do not build yourself a clinical prison cell and vainly call it a church; No! Go and engage the good things in the world with your entire spirit and calling. Jesus of Nazareth would have us do exactly that … and more!
So, I do think I have found a speck of convergence between myself and Watt, for a change, though he never really comes out and simply admits his obvious parenthetical position(s). I’ll say it: I’m not big on “cultural captivity.” I am big on “cultural fluidity.” Too, I am all for a devoted embrace of the New Testament’s call to be authentically in the world, but not of it. I think a wise Christian community can engage culture fluidly and be different at the same time, and in a holy and sacred sort of way too! Yes! We can be authentically “in the world,” but “not of it.” Amen.
1. Watt never really says anything, but he insinuates a lot via parenthetical quotes (e.g. they “worship”).
2. There is, of course, nothing wrong with any of these subjects, but there is so, so much more to a good education.