What happens when the country boy goes to the big city, or the big city girl goes out to live in the country? What happens when a person who has lived in extreme poverty in a “third world country” moves to a large metropolitan region of the “first world”? What happens when people from “back east” move to the California coast?
Such people, to some degree or another, experience what has been called “culture shock.” They have grown up and been raised with particular ways of understanding the world based on what they have learned from their parents and culture and what they have experienced, and now they are interacting with people who come from very different backgrounds and who grew up and have been raised with their own ways of understanding the world based on their parents, culture, and previous experiences. The differences may be so stark that they feel as if they are aliens who have landed on a different planet! Such culture shock proves very disorienting.
Culture shock is understandable, even expected, in situations when people move from one place to another as above. Westerners, particularly in America, may be forgiven for experiencing a quite unexpected form of “culture shock”: they have not gone anywhere, nor perhaps have changed very much, and yet the culture around them has changed so quickly that they are left to feel as foreigners in their own land. People around them express very different ideas, values, and behaviors; it seems as if they are speaking a different language and live in a different universe even though they all may be Americans. How, as Christians, should we manage this type of “culture shock”?
Two extreme reactions tend to follow experiences of culture shock. The first, almost instinctual response, is to condemn entirely and reject the differences in the “new” culture, presuming the superiority of the culture from which one has come. The opposite response involves entirely accommodating the “new” culture, denying and spurning the culture from which one has come.
Complete rejection of the new or changing culture may seem to be the appropriate course of action, but it lacks Biblical merit and wisdom. Such a perspective presumes that one’s previous or existing culture was entirely accurate and appropriate in every facet. All human culture falls short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); every culture is rooted in worldly and vain philosophies and not in Christ (Colossians 2:8-9). Therefore, one’s “old” or existing culture has its own flaws and deficiencies, and some such flaws and deficiencies may not be present in the “new” or developing culture. Just because it is old or comfortable does not automatically make it right (Ecclesiastes 7:10); Christians must exercise appropriate judgment and discernment to ascertain what from “old” culture is worth preserving and what from “new” culture is worthy of consideration (John 7:24).
Likewise, complete accommodation to the new or changing culture is no better, for without a doubt the new or changing culture also falls short of God’s glory and is rooted in worldly and vain philosophies and not in Christ. This is especially true in modern America. Most of the sweeping changes seen in culture over the past few years have sprung from a root of rebelliousness that rejected a belief in the God who made Himself known through the messages contained in Scripture, basing understanding instead on science and what passes for post-Enlightenment philosophy. If the root is poisonous, how much more so are the fruits of the plant?
For Christians it should not matter whether ideas, approaches, viewpoints, or behaviors derive from older, more “traditional” perspectives or from newer, more “progressive” perspectives. Such things are not right or wrong because they are old or new, traditional or progressive, comfortable or disruptive; what is right is what conforms to the good news of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, lordship, and return, and all that is properly rooted in Him (Romans 1:16, Colossians 2:8-10). Human cultures have been acting and reacting for generations; one generation’s ideas born out of rebellion become the next generation’s orthodoxy, and a future generation’s rebellion just so happens to be the orthodoxy of a previous generation. We should not be attracted to ideas merely because they are old or new; we should be attracted to ideas because they help us serve the Lord Jesus and promote His purposes in our culture.
Many modern philosophies are simply fancier versions of ideas known to the ancient Greeks; sexual libertinism was as much a part of the warp and woof of elite Greco-Roman society as it is among “progressives” today. Meanwhile, discrimination against the Other is as accepted and tolerable today as it ever has been; we all still prove all too ready to turn a blind eye to the failings of our favored viewpoint and favored people and an all too critical eye toward viewpoints and people with whom we disagree.
As Christians we must not be conformed to this world but be conformed to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29, 12:1). In twenty-first century America we may be experiencing “culture shock.” If we will remain faithful to Jesus we will be compelled to reject many current ideas and stand against many changes; nevertheless, we should make quite certain that we are truly and actually defending the Gospel principles of Jesus and not merely our favored cultural ideology. Much of the present rebellion is corrosive and destructive; some of it is well founded, attempting to correct the corrosive and destructive forces in culture in the past. In all things may we prove faithful to the Lord Jesus and hope in the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry