The Gospel through the Cultural Lens

A visit to a charity shop doesn’t seem like the most obvious inspiration for a blog post, particularly a visit accompanied by one’s own mother. But last week, I found myself in exactly that situation. I was on holiday from Scargill for a week, giving me plenty of time to see my family and catch my breath having all but worn myself out. One afternoon, Mum and I found ourselves in one of many local charity shops (there is a reason my home town is colloquially known as the ‘charity shop capital of the UK’). Among the items for sale was a china mug with a picture of the baby Jesus, along with Mary and Joseph, on it.

Any other time, I would’ve admired it and moved along. But I couldn’t help noticing the way these three figures were depicted. They were all very pale-skinned, and all wearing 1800s-era fancy clothes.

In other words, they looked exactly how we now know they almost certainly DIDN’T look.

Now, this didn’t strike me as a bad thing, at least not to begin with. I just recognised it as being a product of its era, neither a good nor a bad thing particularly. I assumed that back in those days, that was genuinely how people thought Jesus and His earthly parents looked. It wasn’t that the artist was deliberately trying to suggest they were wealthy or upper-class; he or she was just honestly mistaken. It interested me how we can place artwork  in history based on things like this, and how it can show us what the collective understanding was like at the time.

But after reflecting on it for a good few days, I started to think about how the Gospel is shaped and re-shaped by the cultures and means in which we share it.

This usually comes about for one of two reasons. Either we play with little aspects of the Christian message in order to make it seem more appealing to people, based on what our society is like. In the case of that mug, it could be that the artist was trying to hide the fact that Jesus lived on earth as a poorer member of society, in an attempt to sell the Gospel to the upper classes. Alternatively, we can find ourselves subconsciously being influenced by our societies, which in turn shapes our understanding of the Gospel. Maybe back when that picture was made, it just wasn’t the done thing to portray lower-class members of society, so that’s why Jesus and His earthly parents were depicted in the ways they were.

In any case, though, it can result in our preaching an inaccurate Gospel. For example, the painting on that mug would’ve led some people to believe Jesus really was a rich fellow. It should go without saying that this isn’t ever a good thing.

And it still happens today. Let’s face it, our society is terrified of saying anything that might offend someone. Thus, we preach a neutered Gospel – one that doesn’t tell people they’re sinners who deserve punishment and can’t be saved by their own works. Our society places a lot of emphasis on individual satisfaction, as I said here, so we preach the Gospel as if it’s more about me than us. It’s not always clear whether this is because we actually have changed the Gospel in attempts to win friends and influence people, or because this is just how our societies have led us to think.

There’s usually nothing wrong with using up-to-date means to share the Gospel, as long as our efforts to be ‘relevant’ don’t compromise the accuracy of our theology. If you want to write contemporary worship songs or make blockbuster movies about the life of Christ, then go for it. All I’d ask is that you’d stay as close to the text of Scripture as possible, and not try to dress things up to look more appealing. The message of Jesus ought to be life-changing enough as it is, so there’s really no need to alter it in any way.

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