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How to Thrive in a Polytheistic American Culture, Part 1

culture theology Apr 20, 2023
A Polytheistic Cultre

Have you ever struggled to know how to express your faith in the face of American culture? Have you ever wanted to take an important stand based on your beliefs, but were afraid of the backlash? Have you ever struggled with playing by the rules of the game in our culture when those rules go against everything you believe in? How do you thrive in a culture where the rules and norms are stacked against you?


The Polytheistic Culture with an Aggressive Agenda

If someone tells you that they are never intimidated to talk about Biblical morals or Biblical ethics in the face of modern-day American culture, they are either self-delusional or lying.

It’s hard.

How do you make it in the world we are quickly becoming — post-Christian, secularized, humanistic, polytheistic — how do you thrive in that world and still maintain your Christian beliefs? That’s what we’re talking about today!

My thesis is this: In America today, we live in a polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda.

The agenda of any culture is always to turn you into it. Culture values conformity above all else. It knows instinctively that conformity is essential for its own survival. Culture changes only slowly and with a tremendous amount of pain and pushback.


What Does the Bible Say?

As the American culture becomes increasingly polytheistic and increasingly aggressive, is there any help the Bible can give us in coping, surviving, and thriving?

The answer is yes. In fact, there is a wealth of material in the Old Testament that tells the story of a very similar situation and how the biblical characters handled the situation.

I am speaking of the exilic characters of the bible — namely, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Esther, Mordechai, Nehemiah, the writings of Ezekiel, and portions of the writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah. These biblical characters were a part of the Babylonian exile experience of the Hebrew people.

Through no choice of their own, they were forced to live in the Babylonian culture — which was a polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda.


An Outline of this Five-Part Series

So, here’s what I want to accomplish with this series — I want us to glean from Scripture some strategies for thriving in a polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda.

Here’s how I want to do it —

First, I want to establish the striking similarities between the ancient Babylonian culture and modern-day American culture. In so doing I will show each to be a polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda.

Second, I want to study the biblical stories and prophecies that come to us from that time period, in an attempt to understand how the Hebrew people not only survived but thrived under these most difficult circumstances.

Third, I hope to glean some critical strategies that teach us how to thrive in a polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda.

Part One of the Series: 

- I will introduce the basic thesis of this series.
- I will define the terms I’m using to be sure we are on the same page.
- I will clarify the governing biblical-theological principle for how we engage with culture.

Part Two of the Series:

- I will describe the ancient Babylonian Culture and compare it to modern-day American culture.
- I will identify a few critical core characteristics of the polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda.

Parts Three to Five of the Series:

- I will begin to identify the strategies used by the Biblical characters like Daniel and Esther to thrive in their culture while maintaining the essence of their belief system.


Important Definitions

So let’s begin by understanding the thesis and defining some terms that I will use a lot in this series.

Here, again, is the thesis: Not unlike the ancient Hebrew people exiled to Babylon, American Christians live in a polytheistic culture with an aggressive agenda.

I will now define the four key terms in that statement:

1. Babylonians — I am referencing the historical group of people who lived in the area of the world known as Mesopotamia, starting around 2000 B.C. to about the mid 500’s B.C. — so, for about 1500 years. I’ll talk a lot more about them, but for now, just understand that I’m talking bout a specific group of people living in a specific place and time in history.

2. Polytheistic — This is a term that means, “many gods.” The fact that Babylon was a polytheistic culture is a foregone conclusion. My contention is that American culture is also polytheistic and has been since its inception.

3. Culture — The culture of a group of people is a combination of their habits, mores, moral codes, ethics, etiquette, norms, likes, dislikes, religious beliefs, proclivities, shared stories, shared history, perceived enemies, organizational systems, music, poetry, and so much more. It's all the things that signal who they are and characterizes their collective identity. 

4. Aggressive Agenda — A culture may have a number of segmented agendas and tribal concerns, but when I use the term “aggressive agenda,” I am referring to the overarching drive of any culture to promote and establish conformity among its members. That drive is always present in any culture, but the intensity of that drive varies from culture to culture. 


The Nature of a Culture

The agenda of any culture is to turn you into it. Culture values conformity above all else. It knows instinctively that conformity is essential for its own survival. Culture changes only slowly and with a tremendous amount of pain and pushback. Nonconformists are shut down, marginalized, and eventually eliminated.

There is actually a well-defined process for how culture changes over time. When a new idea that goes against the well-established norms of the culture is introduced it automatically goes through a long, arduous, and sometimes violent process of acceptance.

In the first phase, the nonconformists introducing and advocating for the new idea are ostracized, marginalized, and often eliminated (sometimes violently). They become martyrs for the new idea and inspire a new generation (a second wave) of advocates who are also ostracized and marginalized, but this time with less intensity. The process repeats itself until enough people in the culture accept the new idea and it hits a tipping point.

This process historically has taken several generations to complete. That timeline has been compressed with the advances in technology, which have democratized both access and influence. The process is basically the same, but the timeline has accelerated.

It is, therefore, to some degree the exponential growth of technology that has cranked up the intensity of this process and therefore the aggressiveness of the culture.

It’s aggressive because it uses every tool available in its arsenal of tools in order to change you into it. These tools include but are not limited to all media platforms (books, television, streaming, social media, news agencies, movies, etc.); the educational system; parenting strategies; food, sex, and marketing — basically anything that helps the culture promote its norms and values, in order to turn you into it. 

 That describes 6th century BC Babylon. It also describes modern-day America.


Christians, Culture, and the Common Good

Allow me to clarify something.

I realize it could sound like I am setting up American culture to be the evil enemy of Christ, and something to fight against at all costs.

That’s not at all what I want to do. I don’t believe that to be true, any more than I think that 6th century Babylon was all evil and an enemy to be fought against. In fact, we’re going to learn that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Esther certainly didn’t think that way about Babylon.

There is a basic biblical-theological idea that is important for this discussion, and I want to introduce it now, at the beginning because it will shape our entire discussion and perspective on this subject.

It is the idea of Christian engagement for the common good.

It is the natural ramification of Jesus’ command to love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself. It’s the public manifestation of Jesus’ words — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Or as Paul reminds us in Titus 3:1-2 — “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.”

And centuries before Jesus or Paul, Jeremiah said the same thing — writing to the exiles in Babylon, Jeremiah gives them this sage advice (Jeremiah 29:7) —

“… seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Christian engagement in the American culture should always seek the common good. So, how do we do that?


A Christian's Posture in the Public Square

The first step is to understand the importance of a Christian's posture. 

What Christians need to think about is our posture. The way we carry ourselves in the current cultural moment.

St. Augustine, in The City of God, reminds us that the citizen of the City of God will always find himself thrown into a situation of being a resident alien, in some outpost of what he calls the Earthly City (this world). Every Christian carries a "green card" because we are "resident aliens" of the United States.

Augustine said, that there's something about that stance, that posture, that reality of being a resident alien that characterizes a Christian in every age and every generation. Citizens of the heavenly city, he tells us — “… lead what we may call a life of captivity in this earthly city as if in a foreign land.”

He just described the Hebrew people in Babylon. It’s an ancient language that the church has inherited.

What comes from this recognition that citizens of the city of God are in a sense, resident aliens is something akin to what Public Theologian, James K.A. Smith calls “a kind of calculated ambivalence.”

Smith says, “At times there'll be a certain looseness that is tempered then by evaluations of how we can collaborate for the common good." We hold loosely to this world even as we calculate how we can work for the common good of this world.

In other words — if you are consumed by how terrible things are going in America and you begin to speak and fight as if our eternal destiny depended on how things go in America — then you are not living as a “resident alien.”

By the same token if you are not consistently asking how you can engage the culture for the common good — how you can collaborate for the common good — then you are not living as a “resident alien.”

The resident alien does what Jeremiah advised the Hebrew exiles to do in Jeremiah 29:5-7 —

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

In other words, the resident alien cares deeply for this world and engages in this world, yet always with the understanding that he cannot forget that he is not of this world and is from another world.

 Augustine emphasized that the heavenly city is on a pilgrimage. And he says, "we don't hesitate to obey the laws of the earthly city, by which those things which are designed for the support of this mortal life are regulated."

On the contrary, we participate; we submit; we work alongside. And in fact, he says we do this, especially so that we can live in harmony, even with those who are on a pilgrimage to some other place.


Resident Aliens

So, it’s not a question of whether we are resident aliens. It's a question of how — how do we live out our resident alien hood?

While the church has spent a lot of time and energy wrestling with what views we should hold or positions we should advance (and we probably need to keep wrestling with that question), I worry that we've lost our way and are slouching towards irrelevance because we're digging in our heels in an irrational defensiveness against the culture.

We're forgetting something fundamental about this posture of being citizens of a heavenly city who are only on a sojourn or a pilgrimage in this earthly city.

We have to remember that to worship Christ as the King — to proclaim Jesus as our King — Is to be a people with a kingdom-oriented stance — a kingdom that is not of this world. Which is sometimes going to make us look aloof or disinterested or to quote Smith again, having a “calculated ambivalence.”

At other times it is going to throw us right into the fray of what we need to be fighting for.

So, the posture of heavenly citizenship is a posture of uplifting the culture. It means that we are a people who are tethered by hope to a coming king and proclaiming a better path. Paul reminds us that it's precisely those who have their citizenship in heaven who are called to shine, like stars in the sky.

We start by working on our posture in the public square.


Coming Soon

NEXT WEEK we’re going to talk about the Babylonian culture — what made it polytheistic? what made it aggressive? What was its agenda? And how does modern-day American culture compare?

IN THE FOLLOWING WEEKS we will begin to look at those amazing biblical characters of that time period — Daniel, Esther, Jeremiah, and the rest. We will glean from their lives the strategies that we need in order to thrive in this culture.




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