I grew up in an evangelicalism which was unapologetically hostile to cultural engagement and participation. My high school friends and I spent hours debating whether we could listen to “secular” music and watch R-rated movies. There was a whole industry built around this idea, one which wrote songs and produced books and films which sought to mirror the forms of the surrounding world while purging them of any “worldliness” (often marketed by corporations with motivations not similarly purged). The closest I came to true cultural engagement in this bubble was reading a magazine by an unnamed Christian organization which assessed television and cinema based on how often they used words easily abbreviated by single letters. Interestingly, the most profound impact said magazine had on me was inspiring a months-long search to surreptitiously find out what the “c-word” was.
However, while this was my experience in my early teenaged years, the waters for me and for much of evangelicalism have irrevocably shifted. Through the influence of thinkers like Francis Schaeffer, publications like Mars Hill Audio and Relevant magazine and books full of words like “missionality” and “transformationalism,” I and many people around me started to realize that this ghettoized approach to culture was not something Jesus required of us. Indeed, it was detrimental to the cause of Christ.
We follow an incarnate Savior who ate with sinners and dialoged with intellectuals. The apostle Paul quotes Greek philosophers, Jude references non-canonical texts, and Proverbs gladly borrows wisdom from the Egyptians. As Augustine put it, “A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found.” What’s more, the broader culture was not just a sphere to distill truths from, but also a stage on which the gospel can be performed. We could enter into the world as witnesses to Christ, taking every thought captive for His glory. We could disciple nations and cultures; we could stand before Ceasar and witness for Christ.
I say all of this up front because I still very much believe in this calling. We are not Gnostics only concerned with souls or solipsists only concerned with individuals’ internal lives. Christianity is the proclamation of a kingdom, a kingdom which is right now pressing against the gates of this world and will one day topple them. However, I can’t help feeling like the shifting waters which carried me out of Christian isolationism have for too many of the people who joined me in this exodus overflowed the other bank.
Some examples: I still occasionally read the “missional” publications, and for all their insistence on dialoging with culture what I see is instead simply applauding it. I hear lectures about finding God in “Sex and the City”, horror movies and mass-market hip-hop, but after having found God there no one seems to notice the sexual scars, splatter porn and glorified thuggery which surrounds Him. I try to have conversations about art or music or best-selling novels and discover that, while they’ve all read them instead of avoiding them, most of my Christian friends are still equally unable to wrestle with them in a cruciform way. Put simply, what I think we have lost is any sense of cultural critique.
I understand that part of this is simply a reaction to being told something that was once wrong is now okay. Teetotallers turn into drunks far more often than wine-lovers and beer-sippers once they’re told they’re allowed to have a pint or two. Many of my friends seem to have an angry little fundamentalist minister on their shoulders still chastising them for their worldly pursuits, and they’re doing everything possible to avoid considering he might be just a little bit right. The problem is, while it was a call for cultural engagement that set us free from a moralistic avoidance mentality, cultural engagement has too easily been replaced by acculturation.
Put another way, the whole reason Christians ought to be engaged with culture is so that we can challenge it, remake it, and (at times) bear prophetic witness against it. We, like our Savior, are meant to walk in the world as witnesses to a greater world to come. To be in it but not of it. Instead, it seems like what started as putting on our suits to get in the door has turned into an attempt to blend into the crowd. We are, as it were, all dressed up with nothing to say.
A few particular points might clarify my concerns. First, we’ve misunderstood the nature of entering the cultural conversation. We’ve argued, rightly, that a conversation requires us to listen to and understand what the culture is saying. However, it is then our responsibility to talk back. We need to know the language and stories of this world, but only so that we can tell our own story back and show that it is greater than this world has ever imagined. We need to affirm those truths that belong to God, but we also need to challenge the errors. The whole point of finding God in the world is as a first step in helping the world find God.
Take, for example, the way we engage with art. Contra the isolationists, it is good and Godly to engage the cultural artifacts that populate the world around us. We should seek to understand artists and what they are doing, and we should admire the talents God has given (some of) them in producing works of great skill and beauty. However, if we stand in the gallery and sip our wine and nod appreciatively and then go home, we have only finished the first half of our calling – and a calling half done isn’t really done at all. It is only once we have brought Christ to bear that we have lived out the in-but-not-of life of the kingdom. Until we have said “That is truth, and look where it points!” or “Yes I see, but what about…?” or “I don’t think that’s quite right,” we have not engaged culture; we have only capitulated to it.
A second way we’ve gone off the rails is in confusing cultural engagement with consumerism and entertainment. I remember reading an interview with a group of Christians, many former adult entertainers themselves, who felt called to conduct outreach to members of the pornography industry. The interviewer asked these missionaries whether they struggled with sexual temptation in this setting and the response of one member of the group was something like “occasionally; but mostly Jesus doesn’t let me look at them that way.” Those brothers and sisters recognized what we often fail to; that the only way to engage with culture for Christ is to refuse to consume it on its own terms. You can’t evangelize porn stars while still treating them like porn stars; you cannot engage culture while making your primary aim to be entertained by it.
This, I think, often explains why so many Christians bristle at any attempt to seriously critique the world. We have not moved toward the culture missionally, hoping to change it; instead we have raced towards it hungrily, eager to stuff our faces with its desserts. We have moved from an unconditional “no” to an unconditional “yes.” However, neither of these answers is really allowable. To get uncomfortably specific, if you read The Hunger Games, or 50 Shades of Gray, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being in order to understand and critique them, or communicate more clearly with those who have read them, more power to you. If you read them for the excitement of kids killing each other, quasi-BDSM experimentation or continuous adultery, we have a problem. And given that second list, reading them purely for “fun” should raise a few eyebrows. We can biblically justify seeking to be culturally aware and engaged; we cannot justify being culturally entertained.
One last reality I feel more and more: we have confused cultural engagement with cultural acceptance. I cannot count the number of times that I have heard language of relevance and engagement used by some believers to critique brothers who are being perfectly engaged and relevant and simply saying things people don’t want to hear. It is no accident that Jesus starts His ministry talking in riddles and gets puzzled looks, and ends it speaking clearly and getting crucified. Being culturally relevant is replacing the old insistence that “thou art transgressing God’s decrees” with the clearer “you are giving the king of the universe the middle finger”; it is not a stammered “we’re all fine here now thanks… how are you?” We are to engage with culture to make the beauty and the offense of the gospel clearer, not to make them invisible.
One of the great pieces of our Christian heritage is the insistence that we are “aliens” and “sojourners” in the sinful system of culture and power that Scripture calls “the world.” In the model of Christ, we are called to be a part of the world around us; indeed, like Christ, we are to long for its resurrection. I will gladly insist on this reality against those who seek to partition off the Savior’s kingdom, to only give Him hearts and souls and not also offer Him bodies and communities and cultures and kingdoms. However, we cannot forsake the fundamentally alien nature of our engagement. We are not called to live – we cannot live – as natives. We cannot forget that right now our King sits in heaven, and that this world will not be our home until He brings heaven down to earth. Until that day, our task is to stand as prophetic heralds, embracing God’s truth and opposing and critiquing all that would set up against it.