THE CULTURALLY SAVVY CHRISTIAN: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity-Lite
Dick Staub • Jossey-Bass • 256 pages • $21.95

How should Christians respond to a culture that has gradually declined into "soulless" pop superficiality? According to author and radio host Dick Staub, most tend to conform to it, combat it, or cocoon from it. The Culturally Savvy Christian offers an alternative.



Staub argues that the problems of Western culture are the problems of the Christian subculture. He calls this "Christianity-Lite," which he considers the "predominant energy in American Christianity." Unfortunately, he never specifically defines the term, loosely tracing its origins to the rise of evangelicalism in the '50s.

Staub devotes much of the book to encouraging readers to keep God present in daily living. We cannot hope to transform culture without first transforming ourselves through God's Word. Much of this comes across as Mere Christianity-Lite—half a chapter is devoted to why C. S. Lewis was the 20th century's ultimate culturally savvy Christian.

The final chapters show the most thought and personality, challenging readers to be discerning about culture while responding to it tactfully and creatively. Bob Briner's Roaring Lambs better explained how to affect culture, while Staub argues simply that we should become skilled in relating our faith to our culture. Excerpted below is part of the book's second chapter.

—Russ Breimeier
Online Managing Editor, Christian Music Today

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Shrinking Christianity and the Image of God: Christianity-Lite
I want to make it clear that today, one can still find a robust remnant committed to reflecting the image of God through spiritual, intellectual, artistic, relational, and moral vitality in every movement within Christianity—Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, fundamentalist, and evangelical. Unfortunately, the predominant energy within American Christianity is in what I call "pop Christianity" or "Christianity-Lite." This brand of faith tastes great but is less filling, and wherever it prevails, it is a source of impoverishment of faith and culture. Christianity, when it takes on these characteristics, is an imposter. People are seeking the way home to God, but pop Christianity cannot provide it. Yet for many today, Christianity-Lite is all they know, and the consequences are serious for both the religious and the irreligious.

Christianity-Lite's cultural accommodation poses severe consequences for today's spiritual seeker. When seekers become disenchanted with a diversionary, mindless, celebrity-driven, and well-marketed but unsatisfying popular culture, if they turn to contemporary Christianity, they will often find those same qualities. We are witnessing the marketing of a Christianity-Lite that produces conversions instead of disciples. Dallas Willard reminds us of something anyone who reads the New Testament knows, Jesus never called anyone to be a Christian; he only called people to be disciples, individuals who would learn from him and obey all that he commanded. In place of Jesus' call to self-denial and promise of persecution and sacrifice, today's consumer-oriented, commoditized Christianity offers heaven in the future and fulfillment of the American dream now.

The sobering contrast between historic Christianity and Christianity-Lite is illustrated by my recent experience in China. There, I heard the testimony of an underground church leader who had spent eighteen grueling years in prison, where he was beaten, chained, and subjected to physical torture and psychological torment, all because of his profession of faith in Jesus Christ. His captors lied to him, fabricated stories about infidelity on the part of his wife and a suicide attempt on the part of his son, offering to release him if he would just denounce Jesus Christ as Lord. He showed us the purple grooves in his wrist where the chains had penetrated his rotting, infected flesh, rubbing it down to the bones.

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He wept as he told us of how close he had come to denying his faith so that he could avoid the escalating torture and be reunited with his family. Yet he resisted betraying his faith by concentrating on the example of Jesus, who, as the Apostle Paul said, "emptied himself, took upon himself the form of a servant and made himself obedient even to his own death" (Philippians 2:7-8). Though severely tempted, the Chinese Christian could not turn his back on Jesus, who had suffered so much for him. In China, the house church movement has grown, despite persecution, because of the deep faith of Christians like this man, who view their suffering for their faith as normative, not heroic.

The day I returned to the United States, I found at the top of my stack of mail a postcard from a new seeker-sensitive church. It pictured a convict in black and white striped prison garb, a ball and chain attached to his ankle. I flipped the card over to read the message on the back: "Does going to church feel like going to prison? Not anymore!" The card went on to offer the seeker comfortable, stadium-style seating at a local cineplex, complete with popcorn, face painting and other fun and games for the kids, and, best of all, no preaching—just multimedia presentations and an inspirational talk designed to lead to greater success in life!

Is the gospel offered by this seeker-sensitive church the same as the gospel preached in China but adapted to our very different cultural milieu, or is this a completely different gospel? Is this simply a strategic accommodation that will produce a vibrant local church with the same kind of spiritual depth and maturity that I witnessed among Christians in China? The answer seems obvious. Christians are called to be light of the world, not the lite of the world.

What kind of culture is today's popularized Christianity producing? Again, the answer seems obvious. Instead of creating a robust, authentic culture, Christianity-Lite simply imitates the broader popular culture's aesthetic in form and content. A friend of mine who was departing the pastorate after twenty years told me, "I embrace evangelical doctrine; I just can't stomach its culture." My friend Ralph Mattson once put it this way to me: "If Christians were going to create a subculture, why did they have to create one that is so boring, imitative, and uninspiring?"

Vibrant faith involves understanding Scripture, employing reason, benefiting from the lessons of tradition, and engaging in a profound personal experience of God. From this kind of spiritual intensity flows cultural transformation. I once heard a seminary professor summarize historian T. R. Glover's explanation about the influence of early Christians on culture this way: the early Christians out-thought, outlived, and out-died their pagan counterparts. This certainly cannot be said of pop Christians.

Illiteracy in Faith
There is ample evidence that in attempting to influence culture, Christians have jettisoned basic, historic Christian beliefs. Not only does Christianity-Lite fail to advance Christian beliefs and practices, but it has forgotten what they are! How else can you describe a situation in which most church-going adults reject the accuracy of the Bible, claim that Jesus sinned, believe that good works will persuade God to forgive their sins, and describe their commitment to Christianity as moderate or even less firm? Our numbers indicate strength, but our shallowness betrays our weakness. We are a mirror image of the moralistic therapeutic deistic culture that I described in Chapter One.

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In the first century, Paul chided the church at Corinth because it was more influenced by pagan culture than able to influence it. In his book of Revelation, John complained that the Church at Ephesus had "lost its first love" and warned the church at Laodicea that although it thought of itself as "rich, prosperous, and in need of nothing," that it was in fact "wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked … lukewarm, neither hot nor cold" and would be "spit out of God's mouth" (Revelation 3:15-17). Such a church cannot influence culture, and Christianity-Lite is producing such a church. Yale University's Louis Dupré laments, "On a fundamental level the West appears to have said its definitive farewell to a Christian culture. … Christianity has become a historical factor subservient to a secular culture rather than functioning as the creative power it once was."

When sociologist Alan Wolfe described evangelicals as a dominant culture, they seized on it with excitement and pride, but Wolfe's extremely significant clarification was often unreported. Wolfe continued, "But that doesn't mean 'fundamentalist.' It means revivalist, personalist, therapeutic, entrepreneurial—the mega-church." Similarly, when the press covers evangelicals, a pattern is emerging: evangelical strength is usually calculated by the size and number of churches, church attendance, economic clout, or political muscle or by its enviable breadth of distribution outlets and educational institutions; the press does not generally find evangelicalism noteworthy for its spiritual depth, intellectual rigor, aesthetic richness, relational health, or moral purity. I've never heard cultural observers describe contemporary Christianity as a profoundly spiritual movement offering deep union with a transcendent God or as the basis for a spiritually inspired, intelligent, and aesthetically rich cultural renewal.

Cultural Imitation
All my cautionary observations about evangelicals grieve me, for it was within evangelicalism that I got my start with Jesus. My critique is meant to be constructive and corrective, and I am not alone in my concerns. Within evangelicalism, many thoughtful people are troubled about the price we have paid for our "success." Some believe that in our quest for numeric growth, we have grown big but are shallow, producing an American Christianity three thousand miles wide but two inches deep. Others observe that our apparent success has been accomplished by conforming to American culture rather than transforming it, pointing out, as Alan Wolfe observed, that instead of theological, it is therapeutic; instead of intellectual, it is emotional and revivalist; instead of emphasizing a serving community, it is consumeristic and individualistic; instead of producing spiritual growth and depth, it is satisfied with entrepreneurialism and numeric growth. Instead of being a moral and spiritual beacon, evangelicalism is viewed as an important political and economic niche.

None other than the late Carl Henry, an early founder of evangelicalism and its intellectual champion, expressed alarm at the accommodation of culture. Near his death, he wrote, " 'I have two main convictions about the near-term future of American Christianity. One is that American evangelicals presently face their biggest opportunity since the Protestant Reformation, if not since the apostolic age. The other is that Americans are forfeiting that opportunity stage by stage, despite the fact that evangelical outcomes in the twentieth century depend upon decisions currently in the making.' The Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals states that toward the end of his life, Henry was concerned that the movement he had helped shape was losing its identity due to uncritical accommodation." Our forfeits take many forms. Certainly, popular culture has played an important, shaping role in Christianity-Lite's conformity that is reflected in Christians' media consumption, beliefs, and behavior and in their media creation.

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Media Consumption, Beliefs, and behavior
Ted Baehr, author of The Media Wise Family, reports, "Extensive research indicates that most Christians have the same media diet as non-Christians, though many Christians complain about the entertainment media. The same percentage of Christian teenagers as 'non-Christian' watch R-rated movies with the same frequency." Researcher George Barna has also documented the increasing role of popular culture as an influencer in the life of evangelicals; he reports that born-again adults spend "an average of seven times more hours each week watching television than they do participating in spiritual pursuits such as Bible reading, prayer, and worship. … They spend roughly twice as much money on entertainment as they donate to their church. And they spend more time surfing the net than they do conversing with God in prayer."

In his book Hollywood Worldviews, Brian Godawa correctly observes that most Christians are on the extremes in their consumption of popular culture. They are either "cultural anorexics," cut off from culture completely, or "cultural gluttons" who uncritically consume anything that comes along. My friend Russ Ward adds a third category, "cultural bulimics," who indiscriminately gorge themselves on the worst of pop culture and then purge themselves through vociferous condemnation of those who produce it (and others who consume it)!

George Barna's research consistently exposes Christianity-Lite's conformity to culture's beliefs: "Only four percent of Americans hold to a biblical worldview," defined simply as "believing that absolute moral truths exist; that such truth is defined by the Bible; and firm belief in six specific religious views. Those views were that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; God is the all-powerful and all knowing Creator of the universe and He still rules it today; salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned; Satan is real; a Christian has a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people; and the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings."

Barna's research also indicates troubling trends in behavior among the "born-again population," including a higher divorce rate than the general population and patterns of consumerism matching the general population. Evangelicals condemn abortion and sexual immorality but are relatively silent about the accumulation of wealth and concerns for the poor. He notes particular concerns about the next generation: "The emerging generation of parents is the least likely of any demographic subgroup in the nation to possess—and, therefore, to transmit—biblical moral values. They will naturally impart to their children their own beliefs, and model and reinforce behaviors that fit their own values. Within the next quarter century we will likely see a state of radical moral amnesia in America."

Media Creation
Today, thousands of companies offer Christians cocooned options in radio, TV, Web sites, film, games, books, magazines, cruises, retail stores, clothing, resorts, retirement communities, insurance, amusement parks. Virtually every aspect of life can be experienced without the messiness of interactions with unbelievers.

However, the Christian entertainment culture (Christian TV, movies, music, and books) is often characterized by the same spiritual confusion, intellectual superficiality, and marketing- and money-driven values as the broader popular culture. I will deal with this issue more extensively in Chapter Nine in which I discuss artists who are Christian, but at this point, I simply note that Christian use of the media has been primarily imitative, striving to look like and sound like mainstream media while adapting the lyrical and moral content to the reductionist, feel-good gospel of pop Christianity. Generally, it lacks spiritual depth, intellectual firepower, and artistic originality, and for the most part, it is satisfied with being a counterpart to the popular culture: entertaining and mindless and driven by celebrity, technological competence, good marketing, and, above all else, profitability.

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Many contemporary Christian musicians and young authors aren't personally or stylistically predisposed toward cocooning, yet they are partnered with a vast network of Christian radio stations and distributed through a network of Christian retailers that advertise themselves as places where listeners will never hear anything "offensive" and will always feel "safe." The result is a diversion from reality and the perpetuation of feel-good Christianity-Lite.

As it goes mainstream, pop Christianity tends to aim low. When Bud Paxson started PAX TV, there was a surge of hope followed immediately by dismay when he made comments like "I wish there were the kind of programs that could get huge ratings, like wrestling, and yet bring people into the Kingdom." Pop Christianity aims for family values programming and ends up with sentimental shows that are ineffective at connecting with today's younger generation. Many religious conservatives revered the TV series "Touched by an Angel," but in a reader survey in Maxim, a magazine geared toward eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old men, 75 percent said they would rather kill themselves with a steak knife than watch an episode of "Touched by an Angel."

In his book All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes, cultural observer Ken Myers warned that popular culture might swallow up evangelicals: "It might seem an extreme assertion at first, but I believe that the challenge of living with popular culture may well be as serious for modern Christians as persecution and plagues were for the saints of earlier centuries. Being thrown to the lions or living in the shadow of gruesome death are fairly straightforward if unattractive threats. Enemies that come loudly and visibly are usually much easier to fight than those that are undetectable."

Christianity-Lite and the Image of God
A strong case can be made that in trying to seize the opportunities offered by culture, contemporary followers of Jesus have been overwhelmed by its threats. Having rejected both cocooning and combat, a majority of today's Christians have slid from a conciliatory and constructive engagement of culture to an attempt at relevance resulting in conformity. Christianity-Lite is not in a position to restore and transform culture because it is too enamored of it and enmeshed in it. Alan Wolfe observes, "American culture is an enormously powerful force. It will change religion, just as religion will change culture." Already, he says, evangelicals "are far more shaped by the culture than they are capable of shaping it to their own needs." New York Times columnist Walter Kirn puts the final nail in the proverbial coffin: "Christianity doesn't compete with pop culture. It is pop culture."

This overall assessment of Christianity-Lite leads to a staggering conclusion. It seems fair to say that Jesus would not recognize the message and practices of Christianity-Lite. When it comes to finding God, in the words of the Beatles, "once there was a way to get back homeward," but today, the very ones who claim to know the way, the truth, and the life are obscuring the path. Again, I believe that humans possess innate spiritual, intellectual and creative, relational and moral capacities, and it seems clear that what we are seeing in Christianity-Lite is a diminishment of God's image on the part of followers of Jesus. But we're all in the same boat; today, irreligious and religious seekers each face a losing proposition: either the delusional cultural blender style of spirituality or Christian religion in the form of Christianity-Lite. This is a grim scenario, because every human since the dawn of time has intuitively sensed that, in the words of Joni Mitchell, "we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." How does the noble idea of every human being created in God's image—with spiritual, intellectual, creative, relational, and moral capacities—relate to Christianity-Lite? If neither culture nor contemporary Christian faith can show us the way, where can we turn?

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From The Culturally Savvy Christian by Dick Staub (April 2007, $21.95, cloth) by permission of Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Imprint



Related Elsewhere:

The Culturally Savvy Christian is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.

Staub's website and blog, "where belief meets real life," has a section on The Culturally Savvy Christian.

In The Dick Staub Interview, formerly a weekly feature on our website, Staub spoke with writers, theologians, and other cultural influencers.

Relevant Magazine interviewed him about churches using film and broader questions of culture and faith.

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