Western Culture in Gospel Context, pt. 1
I first read David’s Kettle’s Western Culture in Gospel Context in a seminary apologetics course taught by Esther Meek. It stuck me then as deeply wise and challenging book, but I also sensed that it was a book that would be more profitable to read again in the context of ministry. Yes, it is a book of theology, but it is also a book that uses epistemology and cultural critique to searchingly probe questions related to the mission of the church. I find now that as a parish priest Kettle poses and seeks to answer the kinds of questions I’m asking myself. Most pointedly, what word might the gospel have to speak to us right now?
The subtitle of the book is “Towards the Conversion of the West”. This may strike some as odd or off-putting. Why speak of reconverting a once converted or seemingly converted context? On the face of it may seem either nonsensical, undesirable, ill-advised, or deeply offensive. But Kettle’s call to conversion is a call first to the church itself and then to the culture because he discerns that the western church has become captive to the culture itself. And I couldn’t agree with him more. For all sorts of various reasons that any one of you could name off the top of your head without really trying, the American church has had a kind of apocalypse experience in the last few years. There has truly been an unveiling of our hypocrisies and our comprised loyalties. We’ve not only peeked behind the curtain. The curtain has been ripped from the rafters, and we have come to see our deepest motivations laid bare. For those with ears to hear, we experience this first as judgement, but it is at its heart an act of mercy because of the ever present possibly of repentance. The exhortation remains, “Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts.” Because there is still a Today in which to hear, there is always the possibility of repentance and so always the possibility of conversion.
It might help to know that when Kettle speaks of conversion, he is no speaking in primarily individual terms. He speaks less of individual conversion and more of cultural conversion, and this is important for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is that we as American Christians, with a national spirit of individualism coupled with two Great Awakenings, tend to think of conversion primarily in individual terms. But Kettle contends that it is us as a people that must be converted and us as a people that must engage in mission. As Kettle puts it, “Authentic mission requires that Western Christians become aware of the pervasive tendency among them towards captivity by the presuppositions of modern culture” (8).
And just as Kettle is not speaking primarily of individual conversion, he isn’t speaking primarily of the church converting the culture either, which we might rightly recoil from. He is first and foremost speaking of the church’s own conversion and the church’s own liberation from cultural captivity. If, as he says, “authentic mission must rise above cultural captivity”, then the church must first be set free from its own captivity. So he primarily speaks of the church’s cultural captivity and of the church’s domestication to culture. Though he describes captivity and domestication separately, I tend to think of them as related. In many ways, what we’ve experienced is cultural captivity through cultural domestication. Domesticated captivity is more a warm bath than a locked cage, but it is none the less captivity. The most dangerous prison is the one that doesn’t feel like a prison at all.
Even with these caveats, the language of conversion might still be off-putting. We can see the hesitation to use the word by looking at the words we use instead. We hear a lot about renewal perhaps or about flourishing, but not a lot about conversion. Perhaps there are lingering questions. Is conversion even possible any more? Has the word itself and perhaps its underlying logic become unspeakable and unthinkable? If these are your own questions, I’d encourage you to still engage Kettle, primarily because of the keen and humble ways he speaks of the need for conversion within the church, a conversion that first comes to terms with the church’s own captivity.
It is important to remember that the gospel of the kingdom was first a call to repentance for Israel, who were already the people of God, and yet they were called to a kind of conversion, a turning away from what they had trusted in and turning to the coming Messiah. This is a picture of what Kettle is speaking about. The gospel is forever and always situated within a cultural context and is communicated with cultural forms. But the gospel is also the Word of God that breaks in to challenge and to call us to repentance, so it also stands above any given culture as well. Kettle points to this paradox saying, “(T)he gospel speaks at once to and within the context of a our personal life-world: paradoxically it is always at once transcenedent and contextual. In this same encounter it at once discloses God’s fulfillment of and God’s judgement upon the context that makes up our personal life-world with its beliefs, practices, and commitments.”
It’s interesting to me to think of Jesus in a first century context and view his ministry as both transcendent and contextual. As the Messiah Jesus is certainly the fulfillment of Jewish hope and expectation, but also a judgment of false ways of being and doing. If Jesus were not bringing a kind of judgment then “Repent and believe the Gospel” would be a meaningless imperative. But at the same time, if he were not the fulfillment as well, then “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4), would be hubristic nonsense. And he speaks these words to God’s people because judgment and therefore conversion begins in the house of the Lord. By speaking within a culture, Jesus makes himself known in ways that are accessible to those he speaks to. What he says may baffle or offend, but it is on some level intelligible because of the cultural context. But his words are also a summons out of those aspects of culture which enslave, which hold people captive. And as such Jesus through offers liberation through conversion.
Liberation through conversion is an important theme of Kettle’s book, and I want to close by saying that liberation from cultural captivity is different from liberation from culture itself. The former is our great hope, while the latter is impossible. I hope to explore this theme further in later posts as I work through the second of half of the book which proposes ten conversions the West must undergo.