Tag Archives: culture

All Dressed Up with Nothing To Say

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. 

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Why the Religious Right (and Left) Can’t Succeed

Note: I owe a lot of this thinking to a recent book I picked up which I found helpful in distilling issues of Christianity and culture: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter.

With a title like that, I’m sure you’re all expecting me to say something inflammatory.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, as I interact with Christians’ attempts to influence and shape culture (the true aim of both the religious poles – politics is merely an outworking of this), I think there are some fundamental misunderstandings of culture which result in misguided attempts to change it.

Both Christian liberals and conservatives buy into what we might call the “democracy myth” of culture. This myth supposes that culture is just an amalgamation of the beliefs most people share in common – as if everyone votes their worldview, and the one with the most ballots in the box ends up setting the agenda. Thus, engaging in a “culture war” primarily consist of convincing people to think correct things and then live out what they believe.

While I’m all for right thinking and right living, the democracy myth is patently false when it comes to approaching culture. It is much more complicated, in three ways. First, culture is not monolithic. Rather, it is a set of overlapping circles, some closer to the center and some to the fringe. The areas in which they overlap form shared beliefs, values and influences, but no two circles in America share everything in common. Thus, while certain cultural forces are represented in a variety of cultures (i.e. the New York Times, some genres of music), each of these cultural circles also have unique forces at work. Because this is the case, simply being a voice in a part of culture in no way guarantees that your voice will be heard in culture as a whole.

Second, cultures do less to instill specific beliefs than they do to erect plausibility structures – frameworks of thought in which certain beliefs are easier or harder to hold. There is a remarkable diversity of specific convictions within any given culture. Every human being is rife with contradictions. It is not that they live in the culture and wake up one day to discover that they’ve become convinced to change one of those beliefs. Rather, within this diversity, not all beliefs seem created equal. Some make sense to people, and some seem more and more unbelievable. It is this “sensibleness” which culture creates.

Third, culture is shaped by the interaction of cultural conservatism and cultural antagonism. When a voice seeks to speak into or challenge culture, one of two things can happen which could end up keeping the voice from being heard. On the one hand, if the voice is too similar to the dominant culture, the conservative nature of the culture will work to co-opt that voice; to use what it says to reaffirm the values of the culture it is speaking into, even if the voice would vehemently disagree with some of those values. On the other hand, if the voice is too different, it will fail to get a hearing in the culture at all. It will so violate its plausibility structure that it will be rejected out of hand. However, this antagonism doesn’t simply result in the voice being ignored. Rather, since values are defined in part by the other – by what they oppose or what they are not – such extreme voices will actually serve to drive the culture in the opposite direction. Thus, trying to change culture often results in it becoming even more deeply established, either by being used to prop up its views or to serve as the other to those views.

When defined in this way, I think it becomes clear why most Christian attempts to affect culture fail. We might categorize the normal modes of Christian interaction into two groups: opposition from without and relevance from within. Many groups end up using a combination of these two strategies, but they are clearly present – and neither of them can affect how culture actually functions.

The problems with the  “opposition from without” model manifest in all three of the spheres I mentioned above. First, it tends to view culture as something monolithic (and which it is outside). Thus, it often goes after a part of culture as if it was the whole thing, failing to see the complexity and gear its critique toward areas of overlap. Second, and more importantly, it tries to change beliefs without recognizing the plausibility structure in which they function. It doesn’t matter how many arguments you make or laws you change. If cultural forces do not work to make these arguments and laws believable to the people interacting with them, they are doomed to fail. The result of this failure is not just being ineffective, either. Rather, since those opposing culture from without tend to be the voices which culture is antagonistic to, they often become bogeymen used to scare people into going in the opposite direction – to affirm more strongly the very things that Christians want them to change.

However, this is in no way an argument for the “relevance from within” model. It fails on all three counts as well. It tends to be incredibly naive about cultural diversity, and so seeks to speak to “culture” by anchoring itself in one tiny circle, often speaking primarily in the unique areas of that circle rather than in those that overlap. What’s more, it tends to be incredibly naive about how plausibility structures work. It often leaps into such structures thinking that they can be adopted wholesale while still holding the right beliefs, only to discover ten or twenty years later that nobody holds those beliefs anymore because they seem, well, unbelievable. As a result, the relevance paradigm ends up being co-opted and used to make culture even more established, rather than moving it in the direction its proponents desire.

So with all that gloom and doom, we might be wondering, what should we do? I’m going to save that discussion for a post next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is this an adequate view of culture? Is there another paradigm of engagement you can see which addresses these problems?

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Facebook, “It’s Complicated,” and the Tyranny of Simple Answers

From time to time, I still see them crop up on my Facebook news feeds: relationships described as “It’s complicated.” Sometimes it makes me chuckle. Occasionally (as in the case with certain friends I particularly care about) it makes me feel sad. However, it always elicits one wry response from some sardonic backwater in my brain: whose isn’t?

While I love being married, it’s certainly complicated. I cringe when friends ask me “how’s your marriage going?” – not because its going badly, but simply because I don’t know how to respond. Every day has a hundred moments of success, failure, discovery and frustration. Such is the nature of relationships, because they involve people. Glorious, messy, complicated people. I can give you the definition of the word “profligate.” I can summarize “Anna Karenina.” But I can neither define nor summarize Elizabeth. She is a wife, an employee, a Christian… but also much more. She is light-hearted and expressive… except sometimes when she’s not. And it’s not just her; the same is true for every other person that I know.

It’s not just Facebook and marriage, however. The fact is, life is complicated. The more I read and think about theology and Christian living, the more I think we need to recognize this fact. I own so many books that purport to offer “the” solution. “The” view of culture. “The” position on politics. “The” final answers on doctrine. In almost every case, the singular answer they supply is singularly insufficient to address the problem they confront.

I’m not trying to undermine the existence of truth – or even of Truth, as much as it might frustrate some of you. What I am proposing is that truth is not necessarily simple. In fact, it is necessarily as complex as the thing it is seeking to describe. It exists in propositions, but also in contrasts, tensions, and situations. There are true and false words for a given object, but the final word might sometimes be a sentence or a paragraph, a story or a poem.

Since I’m notoriously abstract, let me offer a concrete example. H. Richard Niebuhr, in his well-known book “Christ and Culture,” gives five different perspectives Christians have toward the broader culture (opposition, affirmation, synthesis, paradox, transformation). Interestingly, he argues that all of these perspectives can, at one time or another, be correct. While I might quibble with details in the book, this is a profound insight. In every culture, there are things Christians should approach in each of these ways.

This is because culture is necessarily a complex thing. It is not geographically consistent. Even within the same place, it comes in different shades and shapes. There are sub-cultures and counter-cultures. There are inconsistencies within cultures. To take one position over against the others is necessarily to belie this complexity, to pretend as if culture were a monolith rather than a mosaic.

The same is true in other areas. We cannot sum up Christian living with a simple purpose statement, because living involves a multiplicity of things. When we try, we either truncate life (as in those who separate secular and sacred vocations, or those for whom “spirituality” is a dimension of life disconnected from everything else) or offer a statement so broad as to be useless in particular application (it is true that I need to glorify God in all of life, but without complex application I still have no idea how to raise my children or what to eat for dinner). We cannot sum up church strategies with a single ministry model. Answering the question of whether to feed the poor, preach the bible, love the sacraments, evangelize the lost, worship God, seek justice or disciple believers with anything less than a “Yes” leads to distortion and error. In a real sense, we cannot even sum up theological truth in such easy propositions. God is holy, just, merciful, loving, angry, Three and One. Christ is our sacrifice, our ransom, our elder brother, our penal substitute, and our victor. While we can look at the relationships between these truths, we must not remove a single one of them or we become something less than Christian.

This point is important because we often live under the tyrrany of simple answers. We feel obliged to make our case for the eye, or the ear, or the foot, and to do so to the detriment of the rest of the body. This reality does not mean we should embrace relativism – if the body has cancer, we should not welcome it but rather cut it out. There are wrong answers to questions of culture, life and theology. But to deny every one of the above statements about God or Jesus is no more an error than to affirm all but one of them.

In practice, this means we need to constantly be on guard against either/or distinctions that pit truths against each other. This has come out a lot in my recent reviews of Brian McLaren’s new book. He constantly offers us the either/or. Either we must stop loving certain doctrines or we will fail to engage with the world. Either we must embrace all religions as equally good or indulge in discrimination, hatred and genocide. However, this is not an error he alone makes. It is rampant in our world, in our churches, and in our own hearts. In the end, this is where the true battle lies. The sort of brazen confidence we crave, the world where we can give our pithy answer and consider the matter settled, simply doesn’t exist. The beautiful thing about the bible is that it doesn’t require such a world. It is a beautifully complex book, looking at God and history from a variety of angles, different times and places, in different eras and through different eyes. It is complicated enough to deal with the complexities of this world, and it should be lived out no other way.

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