v. Culture

Apr 16, 2008 |Jonathan Dodson

It's much easier to take a side in the culture wars than to critically or redemptively engage the issues we fight over. How, then, do we engage culture Christianly?  

In a recent interview, singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright surprisingly remarked: "We're so obsessed about debunking Bush in this country that we don't spend time on any other subjects. That's a little depressing."Michael Barclay, "On the Record: A Conversation with Rufus Wainwright," Magnet No. 76 (Summer 2007), p. 37.

Wainwright's point is that many Americans neglect a whole range of cultural issues, often at the expense of political engagement or finger pointing. What's more depressing is that many Christians are just as guilty of this charge as non-Christian Americans. As a result, there are few citizens who think through cultural issues critically, and even fewer who think them through redemptively.

In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Church historian Mark Noll pointed out that American Evangelicals in particular have surrendered robust thinking that engages culture and the spectrum of the classical disciplines. This is an error that borders on transgression:

"For an entire Christian community to neglect, generation after generation, serious attention to the mind, nature, society, the arts — all spheres created by God and sustained for his own glory — may be, in fact, sinful."Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 23.

It's likely that many Christians need to repent over cultural negligence, but how then are we to responsibly proceed in our engagement with culture? How do we engage culture, critically and redemptively?

Are We Critical or Theological Enough?

It is much easier to take a side in the culture wars than to critically or redemptively engage the issues we fight over. All too often our engagement with the culture goes the way of the sectarian or the secularist. The sectarian Christian simply takes the view prescribed by his theological sect. If fundamentalist, then the view is almost always: "The 'culture' has it wrong." If liberal, then the view is often: "The church has it wrong." Both are not critical enough.

Others choose the way of the secularist, jettisoning theological engagement with culture and stockpiling secularist viewpoints. Many Christian's views are often indistinguishable from secular non-Christian perspectives on cultural issues. The secularist Christian commits the folly of privatizing faith in the public square, relying upon "reason alone." The problem with this approach to culture is that it assumes too much, that secularism does not require faith and that faith does not seek understanding.

C. A. van Peursen defined "secularism" as the deliverance of man "first from religious and then from metaphysical control over reason and his language."Cited in Harvey Cox, The Secular City (Macmillan: New York, 1990), 1. In other words, the secularist deliberately eliminates theological faith from the discernment process. When Christians uncritically embrace secularist perspectives, they agree to remove their faith from their perspective. This approach to engaging culture is not theological enough.

How are we to productively push forward in our engagement with culture? We must be critical, both of our own theological sects and of secularist views that jettison faith. Engaging culture well will mean striving to avoid the path of the sectarian and secularist, retaining faith and reason. If we are to move beyond religion and reason to the redemption of culture, we will also need the gospel. How then do we engage culture?

Here I offer six ways to redemptively engage culture: 1) prayerfully, 2) carefully, 3) biblically-theologically, 4) redemptively, 5) humbly and 6) selectively. Much more could be said; however, my hope is that this article will facilitate more robust, redemptive, critical, and theological engagement with culture.

1. Engage culture prayerfully. I'm not suggesting that we should actually bow our heads and recite a prayer before reading a newspaper or book, watching TV or a movie, or going shopping, though that certainly wouldn't hurt. Instead, we are to live life and engage culture in a spirit of dependence upon God; we are to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). We should approach culture just as we should approach all things, prayerfully.

What should we pray? We should thank God for the gift of culture, confessing that all cultures contain truth, beauty and virtue, asking Him to help us recognize and rejoice in these good gifts, which come down from the Father of lights (Js. 1:17).

Alternatively, all cultures also disdain truth, beauty, and virtue. Thus, we are dependent upon God to enable us to recognize and reject those things that are harmfully false, ugly and immoral. By asking God to give us the perspective of His Spirit, "the Spirit who searches out all things, even the depths of God" (1 Cor. 2:10), we can begin to discern between the things which are true, beautiful and good and the things that are false, ugly and evil.

2. Engage culture carefully. When approaching any given issue, from parenting to politics, we all have our biases. In order to engage culture well, we must strive to avoid the path of the sectarian and the secularist, of blind rejection and uncritical acceptance. This will require careful investigation into the issues we face, taking the opposing view seriously and weighing its merits.

Make a habit of hearing both sides of an issue before you baptize your opinions. Be slow to speak and quick to listen (Js. 1:19).

3. Engage culture biblically-theologically. Why hyphenate biblical and theological? Why not just say "think biblically"? Well, the plain fact is that the Bible does not explicitly address most cultural issues. It does not tell you what political party to join, which school to go to, movies to watch, whether or not you should date, whether or not to abort your baby, or how to respond to cloning. Instead, the Bible offers theological principles which we can appropriate in order to form opinions and convictions about cultural issues.

For instance, there is no verse in the Bible that reads: "Thou shalt not have an abortion." However, the Bible does inform us that God is the author of life and that to take life is murder, which is prohibited by God. The circumstances surrounding abortion can be complex. A mother's life may be threatened if the life of the baby is not taken. The Bible does not say, "Preserve the mother's life." However, there are principles and practices in Scripture that can help us make wise decisions about cultural and ethical dilemmas.

The problem, however, is that we often start with cultural assumptions about what is right, beautiful and good and go to the Bible to prove them. Instead, we need to bring cultural questions about what is true, good and beautiful to the Bible, reflect on them theologically and then prayerfully and carefully form our opinions.

Don't begin with cultural convictions and end with biblical proof-texts; end with cultural wisdom by beginning with biblical-theological reflection. Start with the biblical text and reflect theologically on the cultural issue. Move from Text to Theology to Culture, not the other way around.

4. Engage culture redemptively. Strive to connect your theological reflections regarding culture to redemption. We can redemptively engage culture in two ways: practically and positionally.

To practically redeem, identify what is broken, what is in need of redemption and take restorative actions. Ask yourself questions like "How can I bring the gospel to bear on this issue?" or "How can I restore, forgive, or reconcile in this situation?" For example, if you come to the conviction that abortion is ugly and immoral, think about how you can help those who are suffering from the devastating affects of abortion. Don't just debate others. Volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center. Learn how to counsel mothers. Don't become self-righteous and inactive; practice your cultural convictions. Live them out redemptively.

Let's say that through prayerful, careful, and biblical-theological investigation, you decide that global warming is a real threat and that you should make some lifestyle changes. You start buying energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, driving a hybrid, recycling, and using a reusable totes instead of plastic sacks when grocery shopping. These are practical ways to participate in the redemption of the earth. But how should these actions affect our identity, our position as redeemed children of God, as a citizen of Zion?

Our practice should flow from our position in Christ. Our actions ought to reveal our redeemed identity, not form our identity. Consider the danger of mistaking your newly formed habits for who you are. For instance, do you think of yourself now as an environmentalist or as a citizen of Zion with an environmental conscience? Do you draw significance from being a "pro-lifer" or from being new creation in Christ Jesus?

Ask yourself, "Am I confusing my practice with my position?" or "Am I finding my significance in what I do instead of who I am in Christ?" Guard yourself from subtly allowing cultural convictions to take the place of your identity in Christ. Ground your identity in the gospel and your practice will be more redemptive and more honoring to the Lord.

5. Engage culture humbly. Recognize that you have much to learn from a given culture. Read, converse, and reflect on cultural issues with a teachable heart. Ask God to shape your convictions through whomever or whatever He wills. Avoid proud dogmatism and cultivate humble conviction. Don't put others down who believe differently from you. Consider others more important than yourself without surrendering your convictions. Yet, be willing to revise your opinions through a process of Text-Theology-Culture.

6. Engage culture selectively. Realize and embrace the limitations of your own time, experience, interests. Spend your time wisely. Don't sacrifice time with God, church or family in order to become more culturally savvy. Everyone has been created differently, to live a unique life. Make the most of your experience by redemptively engaging culture, but try to avoid making the experience of others your own.

There are too many issues in the world for you to become an overnight expert on Christ and culture. Be selective about what you engage.

Summarizing the Six Ways

When engaging culture prayerfully, we depend on the wisdom that comes from the Spirit who searches out all cultures, who can enable us to recognize and rejoice in what is true, beautiful and good, and reject or redeem what is false, ugly and immoral. As a result, engaging culture can become an act of communion with God.

Relying on the wisdom of the Spirit will also mean careful investigation of cultural issues, being critical of our own biases while maintaining an open ear to the arguments of others. However, we're not left to navigate the turbulent waters of our culture with prayer and reason. God has given us his Word, a divine and authoritative Text from which we can glean wisdom and theological principles to engage culture.

When wrestling with issues, we must be careful to bring questions, not assumptions, from our culture to the Word, following a pattern of Text-Theology-Culture. This biblical-theological engagement with culture should always lead to redemptive action, restoring what is ugly and immoral from our position as accepted children of God, citizens of Zion. In turn, we can engage culture humbly and selectively, recognizing our limitations and rejoicing in our unique opportunities to engage the world around us.

Finally, try to practice these six ways of engaging culture, not just as an individual but in community. To put a spin on Rufus Wainwright's words: Only when the Church in this country becomes obsessed with glorifying God in all things, will we critically and redemptively engage our culture on all kinds of subjects.

Copyright 2008 Jonathan Dodson. All rights reserved.

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