Christianity is not a cultural system.  In fact, in those cases where it has become so intertwined with a culture that the two cannot be separated, this is inevitably to the detriment of Christianity.  Christianity is fundamentally a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, a community and a way of life, all wrapped up historical, moral and theological beliefs, values and commitments.  These things are not culture and civilization.  They shape culture and civilization.  They ground and judge culture and civilization, and they can be expressed in a variety of cultures and civilizations.  But if we grow committed to the culture and civilization, while the faith and spirituality are hollowed out of them, then we worship empty idols.

All of the western monotheistic traditions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have violent elements in their sacred texts and histories, bloodstained threads that run through the tapestries of their stories.  Christianity and Judaism had largely excised or decisively reinterpreted those elements by the time of the Enlightenment.  It’s telling that Breivik had to look back to a medieval order (the Knights Templar) to find a version of Christianity that would arm and equip him for a battle with Islam.  But even as we encourage those remaining pockets of extremists within contemporary Islam to reassess and reinterpret the violent threads in its scriptures and stories, we need to make sure that no one else, like Breivik, draws those violent threads out of Christianity and leaves the rest behind.  If Breivik had been a “religious Christian,” and not merely a “cultural Christian” who chose to honor the most violent strains of Christendom’s cultural history, it almost certainly would have prevented him from taking the actions he took.

Timothy Dalrymple is Content Director and Managing Editor of the Evangelical Portal at Patheos.com.  He blogs at Philosophical Fragments.  Follow him on Facebook or Twitter

Publication date: July 25, 2011