Abortion, reproductive technologies, end-of-life issues, LGBT rights, environmental concerns, racial tensions, artistic expression. These are just a few of the important conversations currently underway in our culture. They are ultimately questions about how we define the nature and ends of humans, what the good life is, what constitutes human flourishing and how to promote the common good.
Christians should be involved in these conversations. They are extremely important issues, and we have something helpful to offer. But how?
Over the centuries Christians have developed three general approaches to cultural engagement. (See my posts on "How We Lost The Christian Mind And How To Find It Again" for how this relates to the three approaches to Christian thought.) In this series I’ll discuss these three approaches, offer pros and cons of each, and argue in favor of one. But first, let me set the stage…
This discussion is often identified as how “Christ and Culture” relate. By “Christ” we really mean “Christians”: how we, as followers of Christ, should relate to our cultures.
By “culture” we usually mean something like the sum total of what humans have created and continue to create, or some subset of that. I like Andy Crouch’s definition as a simple, elegant, yet theologically rich summary: Culture is what people make of the world—it is “the activity of making meaning.” (Culture Making, p. 24)
By “and” we are referring to how the two should be related. How Christians should engage culture. How we should try, or not try, to change it. What we may hope to accomplish.
Some say this is a meaningless question, because the “culture” is like the air we breath—we are so immersed in it that we can’t stand “apart” from it and “engage” or “change” it. It just is, and we can do nothing other than be a part of it.
I disagree. The analogy of air shows the fallacy of this reasoning. Even though we are indeed surrounded by air and we usually don’t even notice it, if it becomes polluted it can become the focus of our attention. We then evaluate it to determine how much pollution it contains, and if the levels are high enough to begin air quality improvement efforts.
So it is with culture—we tend to notice it when it appears to be in some way less than what we hope for. We then begin thinking about how to improve it.
Furthermore, we can’t help improving or impoverishing culture, because everything we do, even inactivity, contributes to the creation of culture, for good or ill. Therefore we must think long and hard about how we, as Christians, should be “in” our cultures.
So are there any guidelines we as Christians should follow to best evaluate and influence our cultures? I believe there are.
Three Ways To Relate To Culture
I’m a big fan of taxonomies. I realized this during graduate school when there were so many new ideas, distinctions, definitions, authors, positions and ideas coming at me that I was buried under the avalanche. I especially liked professors who would start class by drawing taxonomies of the various positions on the board. This gave me a structure to make sense of all the parts and pieces. I could fit them into the broader whole and see how they related to one another.
That’s what I hope to do in this series by summarizing the hard work others have already done to create taxonomies of how Christians have and do relate to culture. I have derived my three categories from the five categories suggested by H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic Christ and Culture. Even more helpful have been the five (slightly different) categories Andy Crouch offers in his modern classic Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. I highly suggest you read each of these books if you have even the slightest interest in this issue.
What To Look For In This Series
More specifically, in this series I will identify each of the three approaches Christians take to cultural engagement. I will offer what I believe to be the positive features of each approach, as well as the concerns I have. I will conclude each discussion with how useful I believe the approach to be for Christians. Along the way I hope to offer examples and illustrations that help you identify each of these approaches by Christians at work, at school, in church and in public discussions.
Caveat #1: Temporary Positions vs. Ongoing Postures
This first caveat comes from a very insightful distinction Andy Crouch makes in his Culture Making (though he uses the term “gestures” for what I’m calling “positions”). I used to spend quite a bit of time spelunking (exploring caves). Inside caves I would often have to hunch over to squeeze through low passages. It was the normal, right and appropriate position for that situation. I realized how necessary that position was the first time I forgot to hunch over and hit my head on the overhang! However, if that were my normal posture, something would be wrong. It is not the right or appropriate way a person should be most of the time.
So it is with our relationship to culture. In the weeks to follow I will discuss three distinct postures Christians take toward culture. I believe only one of the three is the correct posture. In other words, it is the way a Christian should normally relate to culture. However, there are times that a certain situation calls for us to relate in one of the other ways. Though not our normal posture, in that situation that should be our position for a time.
I believe we can tell when a position different from our normal posture is required by listening to the Spirit and the wise counsel of others we trust. If we fail to understand this we can become rigid and fail to see the unique situation calling for a different position (and pay the consequences, equal to the knot on my head when I failed to hunch over in the cave!)
Caveat #2: I’m Settling For Limited Objectives
Secondly, much has been written on this topic. So my hope is to sketch the simplest of taxonomies, in order to provide a basic framework for these issues. For those who have thought much about these issues, I’m certain my treatment will be unsatisfying. But for those who are just starting to think about this, I hope to highlight the key issues and provide some help in developing your own view of the proper “posture” of a Christian toward culture.
Next week I’ll begin with the view prevalent in many of our churches today. It may occasionally be the correct position. But I think it is the wrong posture, and has led to more than a few harmful consequences!
Until next week, grace and peace.