When Christianity first started, the followers of Jesus lived in a world full of people in situations that were really at odds with Christ and his teaching. What were they to do now that they were spiritually Christian while almost everybody around them was a culturally very Roman?
The early followers of Christ often took an approach to spreading the Good News of the gospel that was not only counter-cultural to the Roman and Greek way of life, but was countercultural to how the church today often handles the uneasy tension between the church and society. The early church wanted to reach their cities – they cared about them, after all - but they lived in places where they were surrounded by a lot of really bad stuff.
The early followers of Christ decided that the best way to communicate the Gospel was to enter the current cultural stream and divert it to Christ’s ends. They didn’t move out of the neighborhood; they moved even more deeply into it. As a result, we see some interesting intersections of church and culture, a tradition with a history in the Old Testament as well:
- Circumcision was borrowed from the ANE culture at large (Philistines excepted). Judaism turned it from a sign that one had earned his place in the community to "a sign of faith in God to grant Israel their life, identity and future. It was not something earned, but a gift and a promise."
- Pre-Christian religions practiced baptisms of water and blood; Christianity used the symbol but changed the reason: now it was for spiritual regeneration.
- The blowing of trumpets and the shofar, as well as the instruments listed in the psalms to make music for God, were widely used in the ANE by other cultures.
- The kriophoros, or lamb bearer (for Christians, The Good Shepherd) was a popular icon of a shepherd that early Christians used to symbolize the passages in Scripture that referred to Christ as a shepherd.
- The orant, a praying figure that symbolized piety, was used to symbolize the praying saint.
- Endymion, a young man who fell in love with a goddess, was often depicted sleeping in a cave, which is where his lover arrived to visit him. This image became the early church’s motif for Jonah under the withered vine.
- Though not nearly as common as the Good Shepherd motif, Christ also appears in early Christian art in the form of the Greek god Orpheus. There is a fresco of Christ as Orpheus in the Catacombs of Peter and Marcellus in Rome, which dates from the 4th century. Another example of Christ as Orpheus is in the Catacomb of Domitilla. Clement of Alexandria wrote: “Orpheus pacified wild beasts by the power of his song… Jesus’ new song tames the most intractable of all animals – man.”
- "The scenes of jovial dinners (symposia) that were often depicted in Greek funerary contexts (and later in Roman ones, with a slightly less exuberant tone) became models for the Christian funerary images of the rewards of heaven."
- As for holidays like Christmas and Easter, there is a fair degree of historical murkiness. If the early Christians did, in fact, simply attach themselves to already existing pagan celebrations and redirect them toward Christian purposes over time, it would be in line with everything else I have noted.
This, I think, is what we mean when we Christians talk about “being in the world but not of it.” We are people with a dual citizenship. Our goal is enter the stream of history and, wherever possible, find a way to channel the life and the energy that is there to the glory of God.
Here's my question: is the modern church 'moving into the neighborhood' well?
The images and stories of our culture will almost inevitably play a significant formative role in us and our kids. Are we retreating and ignoring, or are we engaging and redirecting? The history of our faith would suggest we must live embedded lives, learning how to divert polluted streams toward the cleansing, filtering message of the Gospel.
On the other hand, we must be careful that we don't uncritically absorb everything around us. We are called to baptize the cultural imagination, not be baptized in it. We will either immerse the narratives around us in the gospel or be immersed by them.
This tension will never be easy, but it will always be important. May we do it wisely.