In this series, we’ve surveyed what is the Biblical view of culture and examined its religious nature in the practices that form us, the stories that give meaning, and the groups that define us. Today, we conclude this article series on a theology of culture by considering how we should live and respond as Christians knowing a Biblical view of culture and the Fall, and being able to perceive the religious nature of culture in its practices (liturgies), stories (doctrine) and groups (community). What are we to do now?
In light of what we’ve covered already in this series, we realize that when we are talking about worldly cultures and the Christian worldview, we are really dealing with competing religions that are fighting for our ultimate allegiance and affections. We see that we are always being discipled and formed by some form of culture around us. So, what do we do?
I’ll offer four thoughts on what our engagement with culture as Christians may look like:
I. Vicious or Virtuous Feedback Loops
These three things – culture’s liturgies (practices), stories (beliefs) and groups (community) form a feedback loop that magnifies the effect of little habits, ideas or social groups that are introduced to the system. The practices you do affect your character, which affects the stories you tell and believe. The groups you belong to also affect the practices you do and the stories that the group tells and sees as believable. It’s all interconnected.
Especially today with our digital lives moving things forward exponentially – it’s like having a massive amplifier on this feedback loop. This feedback loop effect can be massively good or detrimental. Christians can make use of this knowledge to help spur on their lives of holiness and mission by intentionally practising good habits and spiritual disciplines, studying sound doctrine and theology to live out and tell a better story, and forming counter-cultural communities. However, the feedback loop effect can also end up leading us astray and even to ultimately fall away from the faith if we passively go along with where our culture leads us in these three areas.
II. Withdrawal is not an option
With all of this, sometimes we can be tempted to withdraw from the world into our Christian safe spaces. However, as Robert Letham comments:
“We are in a war. There is an enemy. That enemy is no gentleman, prepared to play by the rules and on a level playing field. When the world around us is relinquished to a supposedly neutral ‘common kingdom,’ that enemy will seize control, and in many ways has done so and is increasingly advancing.” (Robert Letham, Systematic Theology, p. 593)
Many of the metaphors the Bible gives us are wartime analogies – a soldier, ready for battle, awake and alert, with weapons that are mighty to the tearing down of strongholds – taking captive every thought and bringing it into submission to Christ. No soldier gets distracted by civilian pursuits. Yet many in the church have been picnicking on the battlefield when they should be on guard. We do not have the option of withdrawal from cultural engagement. As we saw, we cannot help but be part of culture.
“What is at stake here? Nothing less than true and false worship. Nothing in a culture is entirely neutral. Cultural institutions are either directed toward Christ or against him, or perhaps they are an inconsistent mixture of the two. When God’s people neglect cultural engagement, they do so to the detriment of society. To ignore culture is to ignore the cultural institutions that shape people’s lives and that will point people either toward Christ or against him.” (Bruce Riley Ashford, Every Square Inch, p. 130)
Much of the challenges we are experiencing and the hardships we may have to endure have come precisely because Christians had withdrawn from meaningful, Biblical cultural engagement. We had left the cultural engines of our societies – schools, colleges, universities, film, TV, movies, media, arts, technology, science, etc – to our secular neighbours and they did with it what they were destined to do with their worldview.
III. Faithful Presence
So, what’s the alternative? I think we must be in the culture, for the culture but not of the culture.
IN THE CULTURE – because we cannot help but exist within the cultural structures of our world and the structures themselves are not evil.
NOT OF THE CULTURE – because Jesus prayed for us in John 17:15-21 that we would be his witnesses in the world, but that we are not of the world because we are his. This will inevitably bring points of clash and opposition – if they hated our Master they will hate us also.
BUT FOR THE CULTURE – although we may be rejected by the culture, because God has called us to live for the benefit of the world as salt (preserving) and light (witnessing to truth). We live as elect exiles in this world (1 Peter 1:1), as ambassadors for our King calling all people everywhere to submit to His lordship and gracious rule.
I call this disposition to culture Faithful Presence. Since we’re in the culture, not of the culture but for the culture – our presence will be marked by faithfulness to Jesus Christ in all areas.
God’s final plan is to restore his creation instead of trashing it and He expects us to minister within our cultural context rather than attempting to extract ourselves from it. We are required to be prophetic voices to a culture gone astray. God tells His elect exiles in Jeremiah 29:5-7,
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease… seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Here we see a reiteration of the Creation Mandate we saw at the beginning of this series of articles – they were to engage in culture building even during their exile, and this is our task also.
What does this look like?
Renew your commitment to take up the Creation/Cultural Mandate which we saw in our first article from Genesis 1:28. As a reminder, here are the four aspects we saw from the text:
Procreation – God’s general will for humanity and for us as Christians is to be fruitful and multiply. Like the Israelites in exile – we’re to marry, have kids, and train them up in the ways of the Lord. Even for those who don’t have biological kids – adoption and evangelism are other ways we fulfill this command to be fruitful and multiply, both through physical progeny and spiritual offspring.
Subdue the earth – Create to the glory of God. Shape your vocation in light of Christ’s lordship. Whether you’re an artist, business person, stay-at-home mom, or whatever – realize that you are involved in creating culture – in your personal life, your family and home, your community and the world. So create a culture that glorifies God.
Have dominion – We take captive every thought and lofty opinion and bring it into subjection to Christ’s lordship. Our weapons are not carnal but mighty through the spirit to the breaking down of strongholds (2 Cor. 10:3-6). We must live and act as Christ’s vice-regents in creation – to rule and seek to spread His truth and justice for the love of God and neighbour.
God’s blessing – Jesus has told us that all authority has been given to him, and therefore, in light of this we are commissioned to go to the world (Matthew 28:19-20). He has promised his blessing of his presence with us.
IV. Courage and Realistic Expectations
It is always better to prepare in times of peace for the war. Now is the time, indeed, it may be far past time, for us to prepare ourselves. Increasingly it is becoming clear that a nominal Christian faith will be of no benefit to anyone – not that it ever was. I want us to have realistic expectations.
The future indeed may involve many trials and hardships. Our suffering for the sake of Christ may not look like North Korea’s, but it may very soon start to cost us something tangible to be Christians here in North America. Our churches may lose charitable status. You may lose out on job opportunities or even lose your job for your faith. You may be hated and spoken ill of by all men. You may be mocked and scorned. But you will be in good company Jesus says. He told us upfront that following Him was to go the way of the Cross (Luke 9:23-26).
When the famous Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton was looking to build a crew for a dangerous expedition, these were the words of the newspaper ad he put out:
“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”
Shackleton wasn’t trying to pull a bait-and-switch because the stakes were high. If the wrong type of men signed up for the expedition the cost could be their lives. Apparently some 5000 men signed up because of that ad! I’m sure that none of them were asking about if there would be good coffee or comfortable seating (this illustration from McAlpine, Being the Bad Guys, p. 32). Yet, in a similar way, this is how Jesus calls us to discipleship. He tells us we must be prepared to count the cost.
But, unlike Shackleton’s ad, Jesus has already guaranteed our safe arrival into His eternal Kingdom where glory and honour await us. Indeed, the story of God’s people throughout the Bible is always one of “suffer now, glory later.”
The apostle Peter in 1 Peter wrote to Christians who weren’t yet experiencing full-scale persecution. They weren’t being fed to lions or being put to death – that came later. Rather, they were experiencing what we are or may experience in the future. They were being maligned by their culture for not joining in their wild parties (see 4:4), and being insulted for the Name of Christ (4:14). They were being accused of doing wrong (2:12) and being spoken of maliciously (3:16). Yet, it was to these Christians that Peter told them,
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:12-13)
Stephen McApline, in his book – Being the Bad Guys – makes the case that we are living in a culture that increasingly calls good, bad and bad, good. We’re no longer the good guys and this shouldn’t surprise us. How about instead of worrying about winning the world’s approval, we endeavour to be the best bad guy you can be and look to the only ‘well done, good and faithful servant’ that matters?
We need to be those who are convinced that Jesus will come through on his promise to build a church that the gates of Hell cannot prevail against, though our enemy rages against us. We need Elijahs who will challenge our culture’s prophets of Baal and expose them for the frauds they are (1 Kings 18). We need John the Baptists who confront the sin in our culture with an unflinching resolve even if we lose our lives (Luke 3:15-20). We need Pauls who will bring the Gospel to bear on kings and those in authority – wishing that they would become like him, except for these chains (Acts 26). We need those who will love and give sacrificially and lavishly for the sake of the Kingdom (2 Cor. 8:1-5; John 15:13). We need those who understand that, as Tertullian famously said in the third century AD, “the blood of the martyrs is seed.” Who can sing with Martin Luther,
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever.
We need Christian men and women who are fearlessly and fanatically committed to faithfulness to the Word no matter the cost because they realize they’ve already died with Christ and you can’t threaten a dead man. We are inheritors of the faith once for all delivered to the saints passed down by the sacrifices of many thousands of martyrs.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
Our world today requires Christians with backbone who will stand for truth in an age of compromise. We require courage and steadfastness, boldness and perseverance. These only come through dependence on the Holy Spirit and can be cultivated by our regular practice of the spiritual disciplines as they form us to be citizens of the Kingdom who desire a better country – a heavenly one. Let’s live in our earthly country like ambassadors and citizens of our heavenly one.
Articles in this series:
- Series Introduction
- The Religious Nature of Culture | Liturgies
- Our Culture’s Doctrine | Stories that Give Meaning
- Our Culture’s Communities | Groups that Define Us
- Culture & the Christian | Our Response to Culture
- Being the Bad Guys: How to Live for Jesus in a World that says you shouldn’t – Stephen McAlpine
- Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians – Bruce R. Ashford
- Plugged In: Connecting your faith with what you watch, read and play – Daniel Strange
- Redemptive Participation: A “How-To” Guide for Pastors in Culture – Mike Cospers
- Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture – Gene Edward Veith
- The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture and the Church – R. Albert Mohler Jr
- The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth – Mike Cosper
- The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure – Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt (non-Christian book)
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