Using culture to inform the church
August 18, 2021 by Mike Ferguson
Many preachers get a little antsy about preaching on and around secular holidays, among them the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Mother’s Day — and that biggest secular holiday of all, Super Bowl Sunday. In their minds, the culture and the church ought to be kept at arm’s length from one another.
But the Rev. Dr. James Calvin Davis, the guest Wednesday on the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty’s podcast “Leading Theologically,” said he welcomes opportunities for culture to inform the church.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor and ethicist and professor of liberal arts and religion at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, even wrote a recent book on the topic, “American Liturgy: Finding Meaning in the Holy Days of U.S. Culture.”
Davis appeared via Facebook Live Wednesday as the guest of Hinson-Hasty, senior director of Theological Education Funds Development for the Committee on Theological Education and the Presbyterian Foundation. Watch their discussion here.
For Davis, theology is “a collective enterprise,” the “language and story of the people. So we all ought to be doing it, and we’re better at doing it if we take dives into theological history, translating [theologians’] perspectives to make them just a little more accessible” for both pastors and lay people.
While the book is intended for clergy “facing that annual task” of preaching about secular holidays, “more broadly I hope the book models how clergy and laity think about the relationship between church and culture in ways that are more nuanced” than thundering sermons “saying how the culture is all demonic,” Davis said.
Sometimes church and culture critique one another. Other times they’re complementary and even complimentary.
“The idea of faith transforming culture is too unidirectional. It’s says very little about culture contributing to faith,” Davis said. “There are moments when culture raises up a critical lens we can apply to our faith tradition and leads to the reformation of that faith.”
“You’re starting to preach!” Hinson-Hasty told Davis, adding that the discussion made him think of the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements and their connections to faith traditions. “We like to say the church did that, but not always,” Hinson-Hasty said. “Culture and experience can be critical to transforming faith.”
A good liberal theology — a term Davis said he owns unapologetically — “invests deep respect for Scripture and tradition.” Too often, he said, theologians write and talk “like nothing good was written after 1900.” In the case of LGBTQ equality, for example, “the culture ushered the church to embrace that.”
There’s a lot of good in culture, and for Davis one of those good qualities is embracing fun, recreation, laughter and relaxation, “things the popular culture promotes that we in Christian circles don’t always talk about. There is an element of fun I want to invite people to embrace theologically.”
The Protestant work ethic stands in the way of that, Hinson-Hasty said: “If we aren’t working, we aren’t doing anything.”
Davis includes in his book a chapter he calls “Why God Loves Football,” a tongue-in-cheek look at Super Bowl Sunday. “Despite, or sometimes because of, its less attractive elements,” Davis writes, “football ultimately symbolizes the good in human culture, because it displays the complex phenomenon of human creativity, ingenuity, effort, strategy, cooperation and fun … I am certain that if Jesus lived among us now, he would watch the Super Bowl too. He might even get a chuckle out of the commercials.”
Referring to his chapter on the Fourth of July, Davis told Hinson-Hasty there’s “a whole lot that’s good about being a proud American … But we ought to experience the pride with a critical eye and stand up when our nation fails those ideals.”
The chapter on Labor Day was personal for Davis. Both his grandfathers were coal miners, and his father was injured in a mine during Davis’ childhood, altering the family dynamic and its socio-economic standing, Davis said. “It was an experience that shaped me,” he said. Writing the book was the first time he had the opportunity “to work through (the labor movement’s) personal and theological significance.”
For Davis — and, he hopes, for more and more Christians — Labor Day is “a day of the prophets, a high holy day of labor. I hear utterances of the Old Testament prophets in that kind of work.”
The conversation between Davis and Hinson-Hasty then drifted over to some of Davis’ previous work.
In 2004, Westminster John Knox Press published his “The Moral Theology of Roger Williams,” the Puritan minister and theologian who founded what became Rhode Island and was a staunch defender of the separation of church and state 150 years before Thomas Jefferson ever wrote about it.
Williams’ wall of separation was more for institutions and the enforcement arm of government, Davis said. “He never thought that meant Christians couldn’t be involved in politics … He thought Christians could bring their moral convictions to politics. I try to capture that distinction.”
Hinson-Hasty noted Davis is now writing a book about John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian and the only active clergyman and the only college president to sign the Declaration of Independence.
“It’s a similar theme,” Davis said with a grin. “I’m nothing if not redundant.”
Most of us don’t read enough Witherspoon, Davis said. The president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) when he signed his name to the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, Witherspoon was “on a thousand committees on the formation of the new republic.” Davis said he’s interested in learning more about how Witherspoon thought about “his moral obligations as a minister and public servant.”
For his benediction, Davis offered up Paul’s benediction found in the fourth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
Hinson-Hasty’s scheduled guest for “Leading Theologically” at 1 p.m. Eastern Time on Aug. 25 is the Rev. Dr. R. Drew Smith, professor of Urban Ministry and director of the Metro-Urban Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. That conversation will be available here.