The Culture War: Sacred, Common, and Profane Culture
While in college I visited the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. Inside was an American Indian display with a tepee and a young dark-skinned woman sitting Indian style besides a faux campfire. A railing in front separated the exhibit from the common area. In the realm of the demonstration, the fake village was sacred. Crossing the barrier was to profane the sacred place. I found out the hard way. I gave my camera to a friend and ducked the partition. In a very literal fashion, I attempted to penetrate that American Indian culture, fake albeit. Immediately a loud, piercing alarm went off and I was quickly back to the other side, walking away, passed by rushing security with walkie-talkies. I sensed that the guys with the uniforms wanted a continued practice of separation. The barrier was more than a decoration.
It would be great if churches cared at least as much about the things of God, to keep them sacred. Winning the culture war requires preserving the sacred by holding the line on what is sacred and what is common. That can be accomplished only by the gospel, but it will be accomplished through the gospel. It isn’t the gospel if it doesn’t set believers apart from this world system (1 John 2:15; Romans 12:2; James 4:4).
(I know this probably won’t bother you or stop you from reading the very meaty, doctrinal central portion to get to the cutting edge, practical ending, but this article will have no pictures.)
Sacred and Profane Things
Anything that violates the holy things of the Lord is considered profane. Some things have been set apart by God for His own use. They are therefore holy. They are sanctified or hallowed. God places special boundaries around these objects, and these boundaries can lawfully be passed only on God’s publicly specified terms.
One sacred object was the Ark of the Covenant. It was not to be touched. It had rings on its sides through which poles were inserted, so that no one would need touch it when moving it (Ex 25:14). Furthermore, only Levites were permitted to carry it (Deut 10:8). When one man dared to reach out to steady it as it was being moved, God struck him dead (1 Chron 13:9-10). When the Philistines brought the Ark into their territory, God struck down the image of their god Dagon, and struck them with boils (1 Sam 5). They sent the Ark back to Israel on a cart pulled by oxen. They also placed gold objects into the cart as a trespass offering (1 Sam 6:8; Lev 21:7,14). God dealt even more harshly with the Israelites at Beth-Shemesh, who dared to look into it. For this act of sacrilege, God struck down over 50,000 of them (1 Sam 6:19). The interior of the Ark itself was sacred space. No one was allowed to look inside it. It was housed in the holy of holies, a sacred room inside the tabernacle and temple. Only the high priest was allowed to enter this space, and only once a year (Lev 16:2). He had to sprinkle the interior with blood as a ransom payment for himself and the people (Lev 16:14, 15). In short, this most sacred of objects was surrounded by sacred space—in fact layers of sacred space, beginning at the national borders of Israel. Inside the Ark were the two tablets of the law (Deut 31:26). The Ark served as the earthly throne of God, the place where the high priest annually placated His wrath. This is why the holy of holies in which the Ark was so holy.
We see in Leviticus 20:24-26 that God had made His people sacred and He expected them to stay that way. We can see that He reminded them of that with the clean and unclean animals, some animals being sacred and others profane. God’s people had become sacred to Him. His priesthood was sacred to Him. His temple or tabernacle was sacred to Him. Certain animals were sacred to Him.
Why Is Something Sacred?
Something is sacred because it has been judicially declared sacred by God. A good example of this is found in Exodus 3:4, 5. God declared soil as sacred soil. It was not sacred before that time.
God’s name is sacred. We are commanded not to say the name of the Lord God in vain, because God’s name is not to be profaned with a common kind of usage. The church is a sacred place. We know that it is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:17), the place of Jesus special promised presence (Matt 18:18-20; Rev 1:19-2:1). The believer offers his body as a sacred sacrifice to God, not conformed to the world (Rom 12:1, 2). A Christian’s worship of song is a sacred offering unto God (Heb 13:15), the fruit or calves of his lips. The Lord’s Table is a sacred practice, the bread and the cup the sacred symbols of the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor 11). Christians are sacred people, their bodies the temple of the Holy Ghost (1 Cor 6:19, 20), a holy priesthood offering up spiritual sacrifices unto God (1 Pet 2:5). Anyone who is a friend of the world is an enemy of God (James 4:4).
In Isaiah 6, Isaiah was impressed and humbled about the lack of sacredness of his own worship in comparison to what he saw in God’s heavenly throne room. He was a man of unclean lips. More than any other area, we are to be discerning in our worship. We see this fact through the Old Testament starting with Cain and Abel (Gen 4). Israel’s kings profaned worship by burning their incense in the high places, common areas that were not specified as places of God’s choosing. We are still supposed to show judgment in worship, discerning the sacred from the profane, understanding that God is blasphemed by the common.
What Profanes the Sacred?
What profanes the sacred is the lack of or loss of distinction. People have become sovereign, even as in the last days men shall be lovers of their own selves. The lines of delineation between the sacred and the common have been blurred, erasing the separation necessary to preserve holiness. A news program reports dozens killed in Kozovo and during the commercial break Ronald McDonald hops across the screen. The advertisement impacts the message of the news story. People have seen so much violence on television that when they see real violence, they often report that it didn’t seem real; it was like a movie. In the same way, we have lost the clear differences God expects between His culture and the world’s.
What we must understand is that everything has meaning. Tight jeans on women have meaning. A piercing has meaning. A tattoo has meaning. Messy-style hair has meaning. Pants sagging below the waistline has meaning. A particular font style has meaning. Street slang has meaning. A youtube promotional video for a youth conference that stylistically looks like a hand-held horror film has meaning. A butch haircut on women has meaning. A smiling, casually dressed family on the brochure has meaning. Lispy speech from a man has meaning. Short sermons with lots of humor have meaning. The meaning of the gospel of Christ should come to bear on every area of life. To retain distinctions we must discern the meanings and separate ourselves as believers, as a holy priesthood, from the common and profane. A Godly culture should be elevated above a common one.
Church goers dress casually with the emphasis on their own comfort. Soloists in church act like performers, using a style of music that is fleshly and worldly. Young men obtain a wife with the same methods as the world. Churches advertise “fun” as a legitimate reason for joining. Joy has been replaced by happiness. Love has been exchanged for lust. The grace of God has turned into lasciviousness.
Christians are different, not just forgiven. They are new creatures. Their old lifestyles, philosophies, and perspectives have changed. Their lives are sacred—the way they act, dress, play, and talk has changed. They have a barrier set up between themselves and what is common, that is, the world.
The Enemy of Sacred Culture
The biggest enemy of the sacred today isn’t the profane, but that there is nothing sacred. Some call this multiculturalism and others egalitarianism. By tolerating everything, we believe in nothing. If every culture is equal in value, then nothing is sacred. Instead, everything has meaning so everything must be judged To preserve the sacred we must discern where the world system, the zeitgeist, clashes with a Scriptural culture and draw our battle lines right there.
We once thought we were right to take strong stands on cultural issues. Then the United States as a whole began confusing pluralism and multiculturalism. Churches took their cue from the world. They compromised Scriptural application to culture and found out they could be more successful when they did. The world became more comfortable in the church. Now we’ve moved way beyond that into arguments over the roles of men and women and the legitimacy of homosexuality.
Churches and church leadership have made this cultural cave-in look legitimate in several ways. The first one sounds very spiritual. “Where does it say anything about that in Scripture?” The Bible doesn’t say “Thou shalt wear a tie.” Or, “I don’t see anything in there about rock music.” This theology of cultural compromise has become very elaborate and convincing to the shallow and weak. Now having standards is Pharisaaism and making the teaching of man into the commandments of God. Many have bought into this to their demise and destruction. Of course, the Bible says nothing about crack-pipes either and this is where they have to start doing the heavy lifting of applying Scripture to culture.
We’ve gone from there to “can we really be sure how Scripture applies?” Or even further to “can we really know what Scripture says?” These two are an attack on the authority of the Word of God, which is what all this is anyway for scoffers walking after their own lusts. There are so many viewpoints that we can’t say that any one is legitimate, so we’ll have to just agree to disagree. Sound familiar?
If I were to gauge the second biggest enemy, it is the false idea that in order to transform culture, we need to engage the culture on its terms. To get an ear from the cultural elite, you need to wear a black t-shirt, shave your head, and sport a soul patch. We’ve taken the world’s dress, the world’s music, the world’s art, the world’s vocabulary, so that we have nothing left that is distinctly Christian in our culture, all so that we can “reach” the culture with the gospel. By the time you get to this point, words and symbols have become so devoid of meaning, that we don’t have much of a gospel left either.
All it takes is a little compromise to go from sacred to profane. God’s holiness is, well, holy. And we, His saints, are His sacred people. We too are to remain distinct from this world, not taking on its attitude, look, characteristics, or spirit. Jesus left heaven’s glory, but He didn’t take on the spirit of His age. He stuck out. So should we.