This article originally appeared in the October 16, 1987 issue of Christianity Today.
I had hoped to make through 1987 without writing anything about this year's number one religious news event: the PTL scandal. What more could be said about all the bizarre events that have unfolded since March in Fort Mill, South Carolina?
But one evening, as news reports flashed back and forth between the Bakkers and Jerry Falwell, my thoughts drifted back to a seminal book I had read nearly two decades earlier: Christ and Culture, by H. Richard Niebuhr. It seemed to me the television news clips were revealing the stark contrast between two Christian approaches to culture that Niebuhr had delineated.
Some Christians embrace culture. Niebuhr included social-gospel types in this category. As they spend their energies reforming society, these folks tend to adopt the general characteristics of the culture around them. After a while the distinctives of their faith may disappear, absorbed by the outside culture.
Have Jim and Tammy introduced a whole new strain of culture embracing, one never envisioned by H. Richard Niebuhr? Whatever the world around them does, they can do better. Don't settle for a Chevrolet, Jim used to sayif you really want a Cadillac, pray for a Cadillac! Some people felt a sense of shock, even betrayal, over the disclosures of a Rolls Royce, million-dollar salaries, six luxury homes, and the infamous air-conditioned doghouse.
But why? You can read about similar American lifestyles in any issue of Fortune or Vanity Fair. The shock comes from our instinctive belief that Christians should somehow be different from the world around them. Joan Collins may indulge herself conspicuously, but a minister of the gospel? A television ...