Culture, Religion, Philosophy, and Myth
By Louis Markos
The word Christianity is not automatically associated in popular use with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, or even with the belief in those historic events that is expressed in the creeds of the church. Christianity more often is defined or described as either a culture, a religion, a philosophy, or a myth. It is none of these, however. Unlike culture, which can only instruct us in how to interact with others in our group, Christianity answers our deeper need: to know that we possess intrinsic value. Unlike religion, which teaches us that we must earn our salvation, Christianity shows us how to access a salvation that has already been won. Unlike philosophy, which seeks after abstract truth, Christianity offers us Truth as a person. Unlike myth, which embodies the desires of a thousand cultures, Christianity provides the historical fulfillment of those desires.
Plato’s “Republic” is the greatest book ever written on the subject of justice. In this timeless dialogue, Socrates constructs a full and nuanced definition of the nature and function of justice by building (in his imagination) an ideal state within which justice can be identified and studied. Socrates pauses to clear the ground, however, before attempting to lay the foundations for his ideal state. One by one, he allows his friends to share their definition of justice, then systematically explodes each of these definitions by revealing its inherent flaws. Only after he has cleared away the debris of false definitions of justice does he proceed toward a true definition of justice.
Just as Plato felt a need in his day to distinguish true justice from its many counterfeits, so is there a need in our day to distinguish true Christianity from its many counterfeits. Perhaps the best way to do this is to follow Plato’s lead—that is, to seek out a clearer, more precise definition of what Christianity is by first determining what it is not. We shall consider below four things that often masquerade as Christianity: culture, religion, philosophy, and myth. Though these four things resemble Christianity and are even related to Christianity, they are by no means equivalent to it.
NOT A CULTURE
As a university professor I am in constant contact with international students from such diverse countries as Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and India. I have found that one of the greatest stumbling blocks to international students who are interested in learning about Christianity is the long-standing misconception that Christianity and Western culture are inextricably bound together. It is true that much that is excellent and lasting in the cultures of Europe and America owes a great debt to biblical precepts; however, it does not therefore follow that Western culture and Christianity are two sides of the same coin.
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The claims that Jesus made and the gospel that He taught (or, rather, effected) have little, if anything, to do with culture. One of the greatest innovations in modern missions indeed was inspired by the recognition that the gospel of Christ transcends the narrow confines of race and culture. Gone are the days of the Victorian missionary who would bring to India and Africa a gospel laden with British cultural values and prejudices. Once he has shared with the native population the good news that Jesus died for their sins and rose again, the modern missionary seeks to set up indigenous churches that will eventually be led and managed by the native peoples themselves. His goal is not to convert the natives to a Christian culture, but to “let them in” on the news that God’s love for the people of the world was so great that He left behind His heavenly throne to become one of these people. This is indeed great news, a message that has relevance for all nations and for all cultures.
What is culture, after all? It has to do, I suggest, with the way we interact; it sets up what the French historian Michel Foucault has called “discursive structures.”1 The function of these structures is to facilitate and define the boundaries of such interactions, and by so doing guide us through the many rituals that give life meaning and continuity (e.g., adolescence, courtship, marriage, and death). Our cultural heritage and the rich traditions on which this heritage is founded are what direct us to the questions and the problems that have most plagued our ethnic forebears, that let us know when it is proper to laugh or cry, to sing or dance, to love or hate, and that provide us with a strategy for dealing with the joys and the hardships of life. Culture helps to make life a comprehensible and manageable experience by setting down rules that everybody (at least everybody in our “group”) agrees to play by…
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