What’s Kingdom, and What’s Just Culture?

The comedy troupe Monty Python once performed a sketch called The Four Yorkshiremen. Four old rich gents sit on a fancy veranda, puffing cigars. One after another they start telling stories about how difficult their upbringings were, each story more ludicrous than the last. Finally, the fourth Yorkie finishes his story with the crowning phrase “And you try and tell the young people of today that, they won’t believe you!”

It’s funny watching their parody of reverse-snobbery. It can be tempting to romanticise one’s own generation or culture and see only the negatives of other cultures or eras, especially those immediately preceding or following one’s own.

“Every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.”
– Lewis Mumford

“Hipsterism” is a funny form of grandparent-appreciation. Tweed, beards, homebrewed beverages and fixed gear bikes; this subculture longs for vintage, something that feels more authentic. So many people want to be unique just like everybody else, it’s ironic.

But it illustrates a point. The visible trappings of a culture never really mean much, it’s the underlying value system that carries the real power.

We talk about there being two kingdoms. Jesus seemed to define them pretty sharply. The kingdom of God is the place where God is king over everything. It’s where people love what He loves and hate what He hates, and dual citizenship with the kingdom of this world is impossible. It’s black and white. However, I wouldn’t say culture is as black and white as that.

Here’s why.

God has made us in His image and planted inside each of us a longing for Himself. However, we’re also born estranged from Him, lost and fundamentally broken.

Now, if the culture of a group is shaped by its members, it follows that in each culture there will be some elements that express a longing for God and others that express a rejection of God, mirroring the fact that we are born as estranged image-bearers.

God’s always at work in the world, His common grace is threaded through every culture and generation, but the opposite is also true: the spirit of the world runs amok, shaped by our natural selfishness and Satan.

Two kingdoms vs cultureBut God has a plan. Every culture and every generation have their own quirks, some that make them more open to aspects of the kingdom, some that oppose it. The trick is picking up the scent of the current cultural climate and seeing God’s plan to establish His kingdom, both in answer to the culture’s longings and in opposition to the culture’s counter-kingdom values.

This brings us back to the four Yorkshiremen. If every culture has some elements that make them more open to Jesus and others that make them less open, we can’t simply say “we had it tough” or “it’s so much harder now” or “what God did in the 70s is impossible now, times have changed”. Those are lazy answers. God’s still at work. His kingdom is the same, but the way it will be expressed in today’s culture may be quite different.

Neither should we confuse our past or current cultural expression of the kingdom with the kingdom itself. There’s the funny old chestnut “If the KJV was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it’s good enough for me”. We can all laugh at this, but it’s so easy to think like this with other things, things that are English culture or the culture of our particular church. These traditions may have been created by a discovery of the kingdom, but if we lose sight of the kingdom in them they lose their purpose, and so become dangerous religion. We end up “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7).

How about we spend a whole lot more time getting to know people, listening to their longings, anger, worries and learning what they care about? Then as we do that let’s seek the kingdom of God through prayer, scripture and discussion, digging to find what it means for these people to be citizens in God’s kingdom.

 

If you’ve got to the end of this article and you’re thinking “yes, but…” or “no, because…” write your “yes but” or “no because” in the comments below.

Tree climber, pancake eater, initiator. Trying to keep up with Jesus. Webmaster, writer, video maker & creative coordinator thingamibob for Jesus Army.