Ken Myers on the Danger of Cultural Accomodation
Updated: Feb 21
Myers’ thesis in this piece is that the goal of Christian maturity is undermined when church leaders become preoccupied by cultural relevance. Church leaders have a tendency to adopt current cultural ethos, sensibilities, and forms without any thoughtful appraisal. We fail to even ask the question of the actual state of the culture.
Such accommodation is pursued so that those outside of the church will be more likely to assent to a few Christian propositions. But the strategy is akin to the young suitor who drinks hemlock to impress and woo the object of his affections. The method defeats the purpose. Myers writes, “We might be able to sustain some resonance with our confused culture by remaining barely Christian, but becoming thoroughly Christian, exploring and enacting the cultural ramifications of our faith, requires us to be more prophetic toward the cultural status quo. Real cultural engagement requires the wisdom to repudiate and shun cultural disorder.”
Many Christians assume that form is adiaphora, a matter of indifference. According to this line of thinking there is no moral underpinning to questions of form. Myers’ rightly begs to differ. He cites the cultural shift from more formal patterns of behavior. For example, forty years ago it was commonplace for men to wear ties and hats (not ball caps) to baseball games. Now people might wear the same clothes to a restaurant that they wear to bed. But Myers’ salient point is that this move toward informality is really an expression of the elevation of individualism and moral autonomy.
The relationship in culture between form and content in inescapably related. Myers’ is more specific: “Conviction and conventions always live in a kind of symbiotic ecosystem. That, after all, is what a culture is: a network of mutually reinforcing conventions and convictions, interlocking patterns of form and content.” He goes on to illustrate this principle by noting that we could not expect to use heavy metal music to instruct listeners about the virtues of gentleness and humility simply by changing a few lyrics.
Biblically, the apostle Paul has a clear understanding of the symbiotic relationship between form and content. In his letter to Titus, he understands that the disorder in the church in Crete can only be addressed as the Christians learn to repudiate the prevailing cultural moods in which they live. Paul cites one of Crete’s own poets who describes the culture of the island in rather unflattering terms. Rather than adopting the ways of lying, evil, and lazy gluttony, the leaders of the church must be above reproach. The form of their lives must be shaped by content of the gospel.
The article concludes with Myers observing that people who have no faith in Christ, but who poessess moral seriousness and intellectual honesty, are often more astute observers of cultural malaise than Christians. Rather than ignoring the prophetic voices and emulating practices of sucessful cultural enterprises, the church must learn to listen to prophetic cultural critique. We must listen even when, as in the case of Paul, the critiques are coming from the pagan prophets of our own time.