Sermon: Christianity and Culture
Sermon: “Christianity and Culture”
Introduction to Colossians part 3
by Matt Kennedy
October 24th, 2010
Today we’re going to talk about the relationship between culture and faith and we’re going to begin by looking at some of the massive cultural shifts taking place in the first century as a result of Roman domination.
At its height Rome held southern and northern England and covered much of Europe. The entire Mediterranean sea was a Roman lake, all its coast-lands including Northern Africa and much of the middle east were occupied or held by Rome. To the east Roman rule extended all the way to the Persian Gulf. To the south, up the Nile toward Ethiopia. Territorially speaking Rome was a colossus.
Colossians was written in the mid-60’s as Rome neared, though had not yet attained, its peak. The sixties were just about in the middle of a period called Pax Romana or the “Roman peace”. The world had never seen an Empire as powerful as Rome and it had never seen a period of prosperity, tranquility and progress like the period of Roman Peace. What was Roman peace?
In 27BC Caesar Augustus decided to shift from conquest to consolidation and use his standing army of 150,000 men and thousand ship navy to 1. defend the borders of the empire, 2. to safeguard trade routes and roads, 3. to put down rebellions and uphold Roman law, ensuring the loyalty of conquered peoples.
This loyalty was, however, generally given readily because during this period, occupied regions, cities and kingdoms were generally given a great deal of autonomy, permitted in many ways to rule themselves under their own laws in so far as those laws didn’t contradict Roman law and under their own leaders so long as they met with Roman approval.
Now because of the peace won by the protection of the roman military, the gentleness of Roman rule, and the justice of roman law, a period of great prosperity began, facilitated by the Roman roads.
The Romans built very good roads connecting peoples and cultures that had never been connected before. Other empires had constructed road systems…but during, pax Romana, the period of consolidation, Rome had the power to keep the roads clear, safe, and free so that people could travel from place to place easily.
Suddenly it was possible for a Galatian in Turkey to dine on delicacies imported from Egypt, for a Celt in England to wear jewelry crafted in northern Africa—ideas, art, religion, food, clothes, knowledge, philosophy—from all over the world began to flood in and circulate throughout the empire. Think about what has happened to the world since the dawn of the internet age and you’ll get a sense for the cultural revolution that shook the world at this time—all of it given by, protected by, provided by Rome.
Rome was very conscious of this age prosperity and peace and the resulting cultural renaissance. The emperors used it to push Roman influence and culture and especially the idea that Rome, and in particular, the emperors, were divinely appointed to liberate the world from chaos and bring prosperity. Beginning with Augustus, they styled themselves as the saviors of the world, the bringers of peace, the divine (many of them claimed this) protectors and providers of wealth and freedom. By the mid-1st century there were shrines and temples devoted to the worship of the “genius” of the emperors—attributing divine attributes to them—encouraged and promoted by the emperors themselves.
Such adulation and even worship given to a political leaders might seem strange to us—but people throughout the empire bought it. Let’s try to understand why.
Underneath the formal structure of the Empire, 1st century society, was built on a system of patronage—this wasn’t an exclusively Roman thing, it cut across cultures. Let’s say you’re the son of a Roman senator. You have family political connections that give you access to an incredible amount of power, wealth, and influence. And you have many clients. Clients are people of lower social status who come to you for protection and help. Let’s say your client, Publius, wants to buy a field owned by a more wealthy man named Julius who doesn’t want to sell. Publius comes to you, his patron, and asks you to intervene. You, as his patron, contact Julius and exert your influence as a member of a senatorial family and Julius, not wishing to displease someone as powerful as you are, readily agrees to sell his land to Publius. Now, on the other side of the ledger, Publius as your client would be obligated to respect, serve and support you in a variety of ways, ranging from defense of your household to supplying laborers for your fields to bringing you gifts on religious holidays to even giving you a percentage of his income. And your client JPublius would most likely be a patron in his own right to those below him on the social ladder and you would be a client to a patron over you.
At the top of everything, the great patron, was the emperor.
What is important about this for our purposes is that the patronage system was mirrored in the way people thought about religion.. The most basic religious question everyone from slave to noble asked was: “What do I need and which god can get it for me?” The gods were like supernatural patrons. People did not have personal relationships with their gods like we have a relationship to Jesus Christ. The gods were patrons who could give you things that no earthly patron could. If I need children, I go to a god or goddess and ask for a child. In return I’ll do whatever service the god or goddess requires. I’m his or her client.
As pax romana brought a glut of new gods and goddesses and religious practices and ideas to Colossea and other cities, suddenly the world was flooded with thousands of different gods and goddesses who offered unending varieties of pleasures, rewards, and blessings. Whereas before you had maybe one or two gods or goddesses of fertility, now there are many many more to choose from. Gods and goddesses of wine, food, sex, prosperity, family, fertility, you name it there was a god or goddess or five who could give it to you. So nobody had just one god—you had as many gods as you had needs. And as the Roman peace progressed new cults were created, new gods discovered, religions blended to create new practices and rites and everybody was happy.
Now in that system the emperor situated himself in a unique way—as both the supreme political patron and, through his genius, or power, the most visible supernatural patron. Can you see the appeal? Here’s are gods we can see and who have already demonstrated their power to create peace and prosperity the world has never known. The emperors, through their “august genius” began to be seen as wielding power over the visible and invisible, the heaves and the earth.
There was an imperial cult in Colossea. Paul confronts it throughout his letter but let’s look at one of the most explicit examples: Colossians 1:15. Interestingly, this is also the text we looked at last week when discussing the proto-gnostic/Jewish mysticism prevelant in Colossea that saw the spiritual world as being dominated by elemental spirits, thrones powers authorities that had to be placated. Paul is addressing that false belief here, but he’s doing more than that—he’s also taking on the imperial cult. Let’s read:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:15-16)
The Caesars are not the tangible image of the divine…Jesus is. Ceasar does not rule the visible and invisible Jesus does. All earthly and heavenly, thrones, powers, and authorities…including that of the Caesars…were created through Jesus and for Jesus.
Now to us, it’s glaringly obvious that the Caesars were not gods and were without divine attributes of any sort but when you set yourself down in the time and try to understand patronage, the way patronage effected religion, the blessings brought by Rome, I think you can see how seductive the idea could be.
That’s the power of culture. It wouldn’t have been easy for a first century new Christian to stop thinking of gods as patrons and the emperor as at least in some sense divine.
And let’s not think badly of them. Culture has just as much impact on us even though we’re often blind to it.
In 2001 I was walking with Anne through DeGaul airport in Paris and she hissed at me, “stop that”. “Stop what?” I asked. I was just walking along and had no idea what she meant. “You’re walking like a Texan”. I didn’t know Texans had a special walk but apparently we do. I was strolling along in my normal way but my normal way, apparently, was a swagger. I looked around I noticed everyone else—French people—walking a little less “spread out” and taking up much less space—narrow shoulders, arms and legs closer to the body. I could see how, to them, even the way I was walking might appear arrogant—like I’m throwing my weight around. But in Texas, that’s just the way everyone walks. You wouldn’t ever notice it if you lived there.
That’s the power of culture. It shapes the way you think, talk, eat, dress, even the way you walk and the most important thing for us to recognize is that it does all of these things without us noticing.
As I was preparing for this sermon I was trying to find a good definition for the culture. Here’s the one I landed on from a paper written, I think by a proff, at Texas A&M on the influx of hispanic culture in Texas: “Culture is a way of life of a group of people—the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.”
I chose that definition because it points to culture as a force that shapes us in ways we don’t recognize.
Think about it. We live in a country where you go to the grocery store and find an entire aisle—100 feet long—of different brands and flavors of breakfast cereal.
Go to another aisle and find 10 different types of laundry detergent.
We have competing brands of milk for goodness sake.
And after shopping you can go home, turn on the television and flip through 300 cable TV channels until you find a show you like. And if you get bored midstream, you can turn the channel.
And if there’s nothing you like on TV, you can turn fire up the laptop, go online and suddenly you have the world at your fingertips. You can go anywhere, read about anything, see pictures of anything, watch video clips of anything you want.
How does this infinite variety and freedom shape us? What happens when you grow up with the ability to create and live in a world surrounded solely by things you like? How does that effect the way you relate to other people? How does that effect your faith?
One result, I think, has been a sense of entitlement that many of us carry. We are entitled, we have the right to—its good and normal for me—to do whatever I need to do in order to make the world a better—and by that I mean a more pleasing—place For Me.
So I form relationships with other people or end them—based solely on whether or not another person meets my needs. Like the cereal I choose, you’re in my life to satisfy a craving or a hunger I have and when you no longer do that, there’s lots of cereal on the shelf.
And, just as the ancient system of patronage mirrored the ancient view of religious devotion—our “modern” sense of entitlement easily bridges over into our spiritual life as well. The question many people ask when making decisions about denominations, spiritual practices, religions, churches is: “Does this give me what I want?” Not, “Is this true?”
That is a huge cultural shift. Go back about 100 years and I think you would not see the same thing.
So, today, in America, in Binghamton, lots of people end up creating their own individual faiths. Robert Bellah studied this published a book about twenty years ago called ‘Habits of the Heart.” In the book he interviews a woman named Sheila Larson who seems to have grabbed some bits of Buddhism, some bits of Christianity, some bits of New Age spirituality, and rolled it all into one and so Bellah asked her: Sheila, how do you define your religion? Here’s her answer: “It’s ‘Sheilaism,’ just my own little voice.” Religion for her is like a shopping cart—like a trip to the grocery store—you take what you want off the shelf and buy it and leave the rest. But hey if that doesn’t work for you, just buy something new next week. What’s in your cart changes every time you go shopping because what you need to please yourself changes constantly and you are the center of the universe.
That spirituality with its emphasis on what my heart tells me versus what is true is born of the culture most of us have grown up marinating in.
So when Americans, even Christians, run face first into Jesus who claims to be the only valid choice; the only true option for life; who claims to be the exclusive Lord of all things—we balk.
A recent Pew forum study found that over 50% of mainline protestant Christians (that’s us) do not believe that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. Amazing.
That’s what our culture does to Christianity—it makes us consumers rather than disciples. We take the Jesus bits we want and we leave the Jesus bits we don’t. When Jesus confronts our consumerism and our entitlement our first instinct is to make him another product to be consumed in just the right portion to please our own little appetites.
Well there is very little difference between that, and its something that as 21st century Americans we all do—that’s just who we are because of where we live and what we’ve been raised with in this country—and what people were doing with their gods and goddesses in the first century.
And Jesus will have none of it. Through Paul he is going to be ruthless and relentless in this letter—turning the lights on, tearing the veil, leting us see behind, beyond and underneath the cultural assumptions and worldviews that we simply take for granted and saying to us: this way of living and thinking and acting cannot stand. It must go. If you are to be my disciples, everything must change.