THE COMMUNITY OF FAITH, OF COURSE, NEVER LIVES IN A VACUUM. IT IS always in the midst of cultural reality, which is thick and dense and powerful. As Richard Niebuhr has made clear in his classic study, the relationship between cultural reality and a community of baptismal faith is endlessly unsettled, problematic, and under negotiation.1
The reasons why our time is now commonly judged to be a season of tension are not difficult to detect. It seems evident that technological individualism coupled with unlimited and unbridled corporate power and corporate wealth that appear to be beyond the governance of nation-states has created a set of cultural values that are aggressively antihuman.2 There are times when church and cultural context can live in some kind of mutuality; but this is not one of those times, for gospel rootage requires resistance to such aggressive antihumanism. Such resistance in turn requires great intentionality, embodied in concrete disciplines of body, mind, and heart. For without such disciplines, it is evident that the church community will either be massaged and seduced until it is co-opted, or it will end in the powerlessness of despair.
My own field of study and reflection is the Old Testament. For that reason, in what follows I will explore some of the ways in which the Israelite faith community practiced its intentionality as a community called and mandated by a God with quite peculiar purposes in the world.
Only the most naive reading of the Old Testament can imagine that ancient Israel was a sweet, serene religious community of pure motives. Any alert reading makes clear that Israel was endlessly conflicted. Much of the conflict, moreover, concerns ways of relating to the cultural environment in which it was embedded. It is unmistakable that ancient Israel had a rich, ongoing, variegated interaction with its cultural environment, oftentimes being imposed upon by that environment, sometimes being coerced to accommodate, and sometimes willingly appropriating from its environment. In sum, it is plausible to suggest that the actual practice of Israel was largely synergistic. That is, Israel was not so different from other peoples and freely adapted and adopted, likely in quite pragmatic ways. Over against that actual practice, however, the Old Testament itself is likely written from a distinct, self-conscious theological-ideological perspective. That perspective challenged the actual practice of synergism (syncretism) and championed the practice of distinctiveness that is rooted in distinctive disciplines and expressed in distinctive ethical consequences.3 It is no easy matter to assess the relationship between common practice and self-conscious