When the bridges between the church and its society were wide and plentiful, the traffic brought both good and bad into the church, which we can continue to sift through. But there is no reason to feign shock that the best artefacts of Christian culture are often older than 100 years. This is Island Culture.
Le Mont-Saint-Michel is a tidal island off Normandy, France. Water levels have varied over the centuries, but at its highest, the island would be completely cut off from the mainland, and at low tide, foot traffic could recommence.
The tidal island is a decent illustration of the relationship between the church and its surrounding culture. The church is rather like the island, somewhat separate, but still somewhat connected to the dominant culture. The culture is like the mainland. The tides represent how accessible the one is to the other.
When the waters were low, it meant plenty of traffic between the Island and the Mainland. That meant people, art, language and even categories of thought travelled back and forth. The Island influenced the Mainland, and vice versa, and in times dominated by Christian thought, there was enough homogeneity between the two for there to be only a minor culture shock when going from the one to the other. People going from Mainland culture to the Island church didn’t feel like complete foreigners.
The rising waters of secularism mean that the traffic between the two diminishes, until friendly relations between the two are basically ended. Faithful churches become island cultures. Their identity, norms, loves, customs, and art forms become increasingly localised, with little counterpart in mainland secularism. The Island and the Mainland are increasingly distanced from one another, and become foreigners.
When this happens, churches have two choices. They can attempt to maintain enough familiarity with the Mainland, by importing various secular forms into their churches. Alternatively, they can put their heads down and cultivate Island Culture.
What does Island Culture look like? It means unabashedly perpetuating your own Christian culture in your local church, without respect to how many links it retains to secular culture. That includes the coveted links of relevance, novelty and recognisability.
For example, Christians do not worship the way they do or teach what they do because secular culture announces this week’s List of Relevant Topics. We teach what we do because God has already limited and bounded what will be perpetually relevant in a book called the Bible. Christians do not worship, disciple and shape church life with an eye to how new, updated, or contemporary they seem. Island culture means how old or new something is becomes of secondary concern. What we’re interested in is if something is True, Good, or Beautiful, regardless of whether it was made yesterday or in the fifth century. We have no irrational prejudice towards what is new, nor do we have some nostalgia about a supposed Golden Age of Christianity in the past, but we should not be surprised if much of what we use in island culture originated in eras where Christianity was far more fruitful and culturally dominant. When the bridges between the church and its society were wide and plentiful, the traffic brought both good and bad into the church, which we can continue to sift through. But there is no reason to feign shock that the best artefacts of Christian culture are often older than 100 years. This is Island Culture.