Culturally Christian

Today I’d like to talk about what it means to be culturally Christian.

My Background

Christianity affected where my family lived, where we vacationed, what we did on the weekends, what we listened to, read and watched, how we dressed, with whom we were friends, and which holidays we celebrated and how we observed them. Yes, much of this was due to the fact that Dad was a pastor.   There were many other families who lived as strictly as we did, though. Some families were even more strict.

When I was a Christian I took it all very seriously. If the Bible taught X according to my spiritual leaders (even if X was only one of many interpretations, even if what we think of as X today was not what the original authors were thinking about when they wrote what they wrote), I believed it at that time.

No one in my immediate family ever went to seminary, but we studied and discussed the Bible on a regular basis. I knew all but the most obscure stories in the Old and New Testament before I learned to read them for myself.

In other words, our faith wasn’t just something we did once a year (or even a few times a week.) It permeated every part of our daily lives, as much so as us being Caucasian or living in a succession of primarily working-class neighbourhoods. It was part of who were were as a family and as individuals in a bone-deep way.

Culturally Christianity?

In the last few years I’ve become friends with various people who identify as Christian. They are wonderful, kind, amazing, intelligent, witty people who just don’t happen to seem all that interested in the particulars of their faith.

It puzzles me that they don’t appear to follow many of the rules that most of the Christians I grew up with knew almost intuitively. They drink alcohol (although not in a destructive manner), attend church sporadically, watch secular movies and television shows, read secular books and dress, talk and behave just like us non-believers.

I realize that there are many different degrees and expressions of the Christian faith out there and that the churches I grew up in came from a small sliver of Christendom. Part of my confusion is no doubt related to the different sets of rules that different denominations adopt, especially when one compares Christians living in a small, rural, midwestern town in the United States to Christians living in a large urban area in southern Canada. I’m going to assume that these are cultural (or even just family/individual) differences.

There’s something else going on, though: these friends don’t seem to know the Bible or church history that intimately. Sometimes Drew will make what I think of as a fairly common Bible reference or joke and they seem to don’t understand what we’re talking about. Spending time with them is no different than hanging out with our friends who are spiritual but not religious or atheist in the sense that their faith doesn’t come up as a topic of conversation.

This is all highly unusual to someone who grew up in churches that heavily promoted ideas like friendship evangelism and the importance of fellowshipping with other believers, to say the least!

Q&A

I fully acknowledge that I grew up in a family that encouraged us to read the Bible and ask intellectual questions and that not all Christians were raised in a similar environment or even are interested in the minutia of faith. Belief cannot be limited to what one reads in a book but this all still puzzles me.

How does one believe in God and identify as a Christian without wanting to know more about what it is that he or she is agreed to when he or she became a Christian? From my point of view this is like accepting a job (or moving in with someone you just met, or signing consent forms for elective surgery, or agreeing to any sort of business contract) without reading the fine print first to see what it is exactly that you are agreeing to do except that in this case one is deciding the fate of his or her soul for all eternity (assuming a traditional, Christian view of the afterlife.)

If there is anyone reading this who has ever identified with this way of thinking about one’s religious beliefs, can you explain it?

4 Responses to Culturally Christian

  1. great post! I took my faith too seriously in high school – according to some people. But like you, I thought if I’m going to do this, then let’s do it right! 😉

    I think the whole “cultural” thing explains it. The people who don’t read the fine print of their faith probably don’t really believe it’s their ticket to heaven or anywhere else. It’s merely cultural, in the same way that they don’t study the details of the empires from which their families descended 1800 years ago.

    I think some of this is linked to the concrete way that some faith traditions operate – the Bible is the literal Word of God, etc. If you think that way, then you take it seriously. If you think of it as allegory, then the details don’t matter nearly as much, as it’s all up to interpretation. my childhood church was into literalism, and combined with my personality, that made me a very serious christian as soon as I was able to think about it clearly. and then I married a similar person, and passed it on to our kids!

    at least that’s my theory.

    • Thanks.

      Taking the Bible literally vs. as an allegory does make sense and there are Christians of both persuasions up here. I think we just spent a good deal of time with the former instead of the latter as us kids were growing up and therefore I thought/think of it as the default. 😉

  2. This is a very interesting post. I’ve asked myself these same questions. Growing up, I took being a christian very seriously. We raised our kids in a home that used Biblical principles as our example. I know some ‘christians’ who are exactly like the ones you are referring to. I’ve even spent time thinking about this, because it’s such a different ‘way’ of life than what my christian walk was all those years.

    I think one reason is that a lot of emphasis is put on ‘eternal salvation’…it all comes back to the ‘fear factor’. “If you died today..do you know where you would spend enternity?” Once people get saved they are taught that they have eternal salvation and the pressure is off. I think it’s prevelant today in the ‘seeker friendly’ church. The messages they hear in their church services promote well-being and don’t teach as they used to about the spiritual disciplines. It’s acceptable to go out and party..drink..watch any movie or TV show you want to…etc. and not feel remorse or guilt.

    While I am SO glad to out from under any kind of legalism about what I wear, what I drink or eat, who I spend time with, how I spend my time, how I view homosexuality, and the list goes on. At the same time, if I continue to use the word ‘christian’ to label myself (I hate labels by the way) then I do have some responsiblity to exemplify the characters of a follower of Christ.

    I never thought of it being a ‘cultural’ thing but that makes so much sense. That explains a lot of why I still struggle with so many things I was taught from the time I was a small child. Some of them were good…some of them not.

    • I hadn’t thought about seeker-friendly churches influencing this. Interesting.

      I’ve heard of people who identify as Jewish culturally but are personally agnostic or atheist. (I’m sure there are people like that in many different faith groups.) It’s an intriguing thing to think about and I’m not quite sure how that all works.

      If only we had the words to differentiate between people who are culturally religious (which is probably the weirdest phrase I’ve ever typed here!) and those who take it more literally and seriously. Sort of like how we talk about casually dating around vs. seeing someone regularly vs. building a life with that person.