The Christian Alternative to a Tear-Down Culture
We live in a tear-down culture.
People. Institutions. Traditions. Political opponents. Monuments. Comedians who cross the line. The object is less important than the verb. It doesn’t matter what is being pulled down, only that things are.
This destructive approach to culture is the inevitable fruit of philosophies like postmodernism and deconstructionism, which offer little substance beyond an attack on the status quo. They present a cynical critique of the past without an optimistic—or even coherent—vision for the future. Such thinking presumes that if we keep tearing things down, something beautiful will inevitably grow out of the rubble.
The church is called to live in this culture as salt and light. It is becoming increasingly clear that one of the great challenges to the church’s mission is to be a faith that creates amidst a culture bent on tearing down.
Tearing Down or Building Up
The Bible indicates that there is “a time to break down, and a time to build up.” Of the two, it is easier to tear down. Destruction is simple. Creation is hard. It takes immense talent and masterful craftsmanship to create a beautiful painting but only a brute with a sledgehammer to destroy it. Thus, there will always be more critics than creators.
Today, when anger and outrage are a bankable currency, there is a tendency to become fixated on breaking down culture and people. Nuanced debate, careful listening, and articulating alternative ideas take more effort than thoughtlessly labeling someone as a bigot (or racist, or TERF, or woke, or liberal, or anti-vax, or homophobic) and exiling them from the dialogue. It is easier to de-platform someone with whom you disagree than to grow your platform to counter opposing ideas; it is simpler to boycott Hollywood than to create an excellent film with wholesome values.
New Buzzwords and Old Trends
Tear-down culture is not a recent invention. “Cancel culture” is merely a recent buzzword for an old trend. In fact, one of the ironies about Christians crusading against cancel culture is that it is, in large part, our Frankenstein’s monster. Boycotting Hollywood, forced celebrity apologies, and violent attacks on disagreeable art have all been part of the church’s playbook for decades. Many of the same bully tactics deployed today to suppress conservative or Christian books were perfected by conservatives and Christians to keep Harry Potter out of libraries. Musical albums were famously pulled from the shelves of major retailers because the artists did not censor their lyrics. I personally recall being shamed by people in my local church youth group for going to watch The Golden Compass in theaters. From as far back as at least the 8th century—when artworks were torn down or vandalized—the church has engaged in iconoclasm, boycotts, and tear-down tactics. There has always been a choice between tearing down and building up, and now—perhaps more than ever—Christians need to choose the path of creation.
Offer Something Better
Jesus didn’t spend much time criticizing or complaining about the existing culture. Instead, he used enticing word pictures, stories, and metaphors to describe the new kingdom he was establishing. The Christian movement didn’t spread like wildfire because the apostles convinced the population of how awful the Roman empire or existing pagan religions were. The Christian faith exploded because it represented something new, appealing, and beautiful. The Early Church didn’t need to tear down the non-Christian culture. They knew that no other worldview could compete with the gospel. The answer to an ungodly culture was not less secular or pagan culture; it was more gospel.
An unbelieving world that behaves like an unbelieving world is not the real threat to the church. The bigger problem is when the church behaves like the unbelieving world. It has become commonplace for Christians to claim the narrative of Jesus flipping the tables in the temple (Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-18) as a justification for their relentless cultural anger: “If Jesus can get outraged, then so can I!” But we’ve lost the plot of that famous narrative.
The focus of Jesus’ righteous anger was the temple. The only tables we read about Jesus interacting with in the wider culture were the ones he sat at to share a meal with sinners. The Gospel authors do not record Jesus flipping the tables in the marketplace or at pagan worship gatherings. The only thing that seemed to provoke Jesus to violent anger and outrage was when religious people adopted the world’s ways. Other biblical narratives, such as the woman caught in adultery (John 8), demonstrate that the religious leaders of that day were caught up in tearing down sinners, whereas Jesus was interested in building up saints. Both confronted sin, but only Jesus offered something new and liberating. As Christians, we are called to do the same.
The church can attempt to bully secular culture into acting against its nature, but the only hope for the world is when the church is faithful to what Jesus called us to be. Christians should offer more than our complaints and outrage because we have so much more to give.
To be clear, not all “tearing down” is wrong. An open secret of misogyny in Hollywood or cable newsrooms, racist institutions and caricatures, and corrupt leaders are ripe for tearing down. The answer to abusive pastors, for example, is not just to raise up more godly leaders; it is also to bring abusers to justice and protect the victims. The problem comes when “tear down” becomes the default posture, and Christians spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy venting about the evils of the unbelieving world rather than offering something better.
Against the backdrop of a graceless, unforgiving, destructive world, a Christian faith that creates and builds up the good, true, and beautiful showcases that there is a better way. As my grandfather once said, “When things get dark, don’t blame the darkness. Instead, ask why the light isn’t shining brighter.” Christians are not called to complain or be constantly outraged about cultural darkness. We are called to be a light that dispels darkness.