Culture At Large

Christianity's Cultural Versatility: From Madison Avenue to Wal-Mart

Nathan Bierma

"Tim Keller Wants to Save Your Yuppie Soul," read the title of New York magazine's recent profile of Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. The piece was generally fair and reasonable in its treatment of Keller and his congregation. My snobbery detector did go off a couple times; I sensed the writer and editors thinking to themselves of Keller, "He's such an enlightened and cultured person, so why is he so hung up on this gospel thing?" One line reads, "for all their modern urban sparkle, his sermons unfailingly resolve into the same Evangelical endgame: Jesus died for our sins. Wake up New Yorkers and accept divine salvation." Was I the only one to sniff some derision in that sentence?

The same week I found the link to that article, I came across this piece on the new book To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise by Bethany Moreton. The book argues that Christianity in the American South—particularly its conflation of free market economics with Christian values—contributed to the rise of the corporate behemoth in Bentonville, Arkansas, and not always in positive ways. For example, the ideal of male headship, Moreton suggests, may have led both to alleged discrimination in the company—which was sued for offering female employees fewer promotions and lower pay than their male counterparts—and to an adapted version of supervisor headship, in which men were all but told to submit to their superiors at work the way their wives submit to them at home.

I'm not convinced by these particular examples. Fortune 500 companies far away—geographically, culturally, and religiously—from Bentonville manage to pull off plenty of sex discrimination and supervisor tyranny without the supposed help of religious fundamentalism. But the book does raise some troubling questions about Christianity's role in making free market economics an American religion—and in particular, its role in the rise of a corporation with a questionable record, to say the least, on sweatshops and worker rights.

Beyond the subject matter of these two articles, though, the experience of reading them both in the same week got me thinking about the scope and reach of the gospel across cultures. Here was one article showing how Christianity is making a connection with upper-class professionals in Manhattan, and another saying that Christianity seamlessly blended into a working class culture in the rural South. It actually reminded me of a sermon of Keller's, on Acts 16, called "A Woman, A Slave, and A Gentile." Keller noted how the gospel message transformed three different people from three very different social classes, and said part of the power of the gospel lies in its ability to transcend these boundaries. In this age of niche-ification, when anyone can pick a cable channel or iPod playlist that caters to their specialized tastes, and Manhattan residents and Bentonville residents seem to have next to nothing in common culturally, I'm struck by how the gospel refuses to be niche-ified; it doesn't fit one type, one culture, one interest group, better than any other.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends