Christ and Culture, Part II: God is in Control - Daniel 1
Conversation that seeks to examine the intersection of Jesus Christ and culture
This is the second article in a series entitled “Christ and Culture," a conversation that seeks to examine the intersection of Jesus Christ and culture.
“Then the king commanded Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the people of Israel, both of the royal family and of the nobility, youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king’s palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Da 1:3–4.
BONHOEFFER, PASTOR AND THEOLOGIAN
If you do not know the name, I hope someday you have a chance to read the letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who worked in pre-World War II Germany; although many of his peers quietly agreed with Nazi law and rule, or tacitly agreed through complicity, Bonhoeffer resisted with every fiber of his strength. His letters, sermons, and books tell the story of his labor against the Nazi machine, resulting in his arrest in April of 1943. His story is ultimately a sorrowful one; although engaged to be married, his fiancée would never see him again. He was transferred to Flossenbürg concentration camp, tried, and executed fourteen days before that camp was liberated in April of 1945.
Thus, it might seem strange to draw on Bonhoeffer as we think carefully and Biblically about the role of a Christ follower in a culture in the weeks that lie ahead. Didn't Bonhoeffer resist Nazi rule to death?
Actually, his intention was to do quite the opposite: "talk of going down heroically in the face of unavoidable defeat is basically quite nonheroic because it does not dare look into the future. The ultimately responsible question is not how I extricate myself heroically from a situation but how a coming generation is to go on living. Only from such a historically responsible question will fruitful solutions arise, however humiliating they may be for the moment.”
Bonhoeffer’s phrase, "dare look into the future" is compelling. In his mind, it was easier to be a martyr than it was to hold gospel hope for future generations that would live with the consequences of the actions of today.
Bonhoeffer is quite clear that he held his hope in the gospel for future culture, and he expressed a burden to stay in the game as long as the Lord allowed.
THE EXAMPLE OF DANIEL AND THE DEFINITION OF CULTURE
In that regard, we certainly have a fine Biblical precedent. In the book of Daniel, we see Daniel as archetypically Hebrew: well-spoken, well-read, intelligent, thoughtful, and devout. So, when the Babylonians came to enslave his people, one would have expected Daniel to lead in an all-out revolution. After all, it is his culture that is getting wiped out.
But let us pause there and be precise: by 'culture', we take cultural psychologist Richard Shweder's definition: "shared understandings made manifest by act and artifact".In other words, 'culture' consists of the things that we point to that identify us nationally or civically or politically that we act on. It is our heroes, our language, our books, our villains; what we see, hear, how we express, and what we all hold in common.
Perhaps that last bit is the most troubling as we look around today. I think if we can agree on anything at all, it is that we cannot seem to agree on much these days. Our country does not appear to hold much in common in terms of language, goals, heroes, or villains. Those 'artifacts' (Shweder's word) vary wildly depending on the person. As a result, neither do we share much in the way of acts.
DANIEL AND CULTURE
To this, Daniel would heartily agree. The acts (also Shweder's word) of the Babylonians were offensive, dangerous, and terrifying. In Daniel 1:3-4, we see the Babylonian plan for assimilation: force the most virile youth of his nation to surrender to the chief eunuch (google that if you are unsure what it is! And yes, it bodes quite ill for poor Daniel!), and assimilate them to Chaldean culture by taking away their language, their stories, and even their names. (Daniel 1:7). Everything that made Daniel a Hebrew was in danger of being lost. But that is not where Daniel drew the line. Daniel did not draw the line of battle around the sacred artifacts of culture with the Babylonians, because culture was not sacred to Daniel, and he was not at war with the Babylonians.
This is the important part: Hebrew culture is not what saved. Culture is not what made Daniel who he was. His identity--his salvation and his significance and his security-- was not derived from Hebrew culture; it came only from God.
But for today, could we note that even as Daniel's Hebrew-ness is stripped away by a culture quite hostile to him, he studies that culture and learns their ways well? Daniel studies the language and the literature of the Chaldeans. I am not saying he did not grieve the loss of Hebrew culture, or express dismay of anxiety over what was happening to him. But in the record of his own book, later in chapter 4 we read this: "the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men."(Da 4:17.)
It is God that sets up governments; it is He who deposes and installs kings. It is God that judges His people for their iniquity; God, in His mercy, restores them in His time. It was God that allowed Babylon to invade Judah; God that decreed Nebuchadnezzar would be eating grass like a donkey just a few short years later. Who can fathom the work of His hand? God is the only one responsible enough and powerful enough to shepherd the rising and falling of the tide of culture.
As a result, as with Daniel, our wrestling amid His sovereignty is not a human war with culture, but a spiritual war for culture."For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." (Eph 6:11–12). To entrust the rescuing work to any created being, either king or fool, would be idolatry in the first order.
My friends, even as culture displays every earmark of rebelling against God, our war still is not with the Chaldeans. Daniel did not assimilate, nor did he jam his fingers in his ears and sing the national anthem. In fact, he did something quite counter-intuitive: he studied culture, and as we will see He studied and loved God. In other words, Daniel showed us how to be 'in, not of' first and best. Like him, we must dare to look into the future, and see God in saving power: we do not render the artifacts of culture sacred; we do not hate our enemies or the enemies of the cross. We certainly do not entrust the saving work to anyone apart from Him.
We trust that God is in control, the Gospel is His power to save, and even when matters are dangerous, offensive, or terrifying, we will follow and trust Him.
I look forward to our next opportunity, to sharing with you where Daniel does spark into resistance, because we will see there is a point upon which he is unwilling to bend.
Joshua Rasdall | Senior Pastor, Grace Fellowship Church