My friend was a Demolition Engineer in the Army. He complains that now he can’t enjoy beautiful architecture—his mind immediately goes to where to put the charges in order to destroy the building. This is how many Christians relate to culture.
For Demolition Engineers there can be no enjoyment of, nor healthy engagement with culture. Their immediate thought is how to criticize it, how to avoid it, or how to destroy it. This is the general approach of many Christian bloggers. Of many Christian’s Facebook posts. Of many dinner conversations. Of many Sunday morning sermons. Of many ministries’ approaches to their audiences. But I believe it is a wrong posture for a Christian.
Defining the Demolition Engineer
For the Christian Demolition Engineer the culture is like a sinking ship—it is going down. There is no sense wasting time trying to straighten the chairs on deck or polish the handrails. No, we must “call it like it is,” say the ship is sinking, and spend all our energies getting people into life rafts.
This approach takes various forms in our schools, workplaces, churches and ministries. University ministries tell students not to waste their time studying—“it’s all going to burn.” They should do the absolute minimum to pass their classes so they can stay on campus to do the really important work of saving people from the evils of the university. Evangelism and discipleship are the only spiritually significant activities.
Pastors tell their congregations, “There are only three things that last: God, God’s Word, and people’s souls. So your work doesn’t ultimately matter to God—it is just a means to an end. It helps you have money to give to missions. It helps you be in contact with non-Christians so you can share the gospel with them.” In other words, your day-to-day work is of only “instrumental” value—valuable only in as far as it provides the resources or “platform” to do the really important work of “ministry.” There is no intrinsic value to what you do day in and day out.
Media (movies, books, television, music, the fine arts) are seen as corrupted by anti-Christian biases to such an extent that they are unredeemable. Therefore Christians should only listen to (or create) “Christian” music, watch “Christian” TV and movies, read “Christian” books, go to “Christian” arts festivals, and so on.
This view of culture is very pessimistic. By God's design culture is to get more and more “godless” until the point Christ returns to save His people. So trying to "redeem" our “secular” culture is actually working against the very purposes of God. These themes can be found in Amish, Mennonite, Monastic, and Fundamentalist Christian traditions. They are often also associated with more extreme versions of Premillennial views of the End Times.
In essence, for the Demolition Engineer there is full and complete conflict between the work and life of the Christian and the world around us. Therefore our posture is to stand “against” culture and speak to it only with a prophetic voice.
What the Demolition Engineer Gets Right
Before I share my concerns, let’s consider what this view gets right. Most importantly it correctly acknowledged the fact of the Fall and its devastating and all-encompassing effects. We stand alienated from God as a result of our rebellion, and therefore anything we create (any “culture”) will certainly and necessarily reflect that fallenness and alienation. Things are not as they should be, and this is reflected in everything around us.
Therefore we, as Christians, must be ready and willing to stand against what is not as it should be, have a prophetic voice and “call it like it is.” The Demolition Engineer is to be applauded for not running from confrontation with the world, as Paul and Silas modeled in Act 16:16-38, even if it means prison or worse.
The Demolition Engineer takes seriously Jesus’ command to not shy away from, but to rejoice in persecution for His name (Matt. 5:10). He is willing to maintain his fundamental allegiance to God when there is conflict (as did Peter and John in Acts 4), and strenuously work to not be stained by the world (as commanded in James 1:27).
What the Demolition Engineer Gets Wrong
Yet I believe the Demolition Engineer fails to take into account other, equally important biblical themes of cultural engagement that should balance our approach. Beginning in Genesis we learn that God’s creation is good and should be seen as valuable (Genesis 1:31). He commands us to “make something of the world” (to “cultivate” His creation--Genesis 1:28)—meaning to create culture (notice “culture” is a cognate of “cultivate”).
Even after the Fall this command is not revoked. Rather, it is amplified. Jeremiah tells the people of God in Babylonian captivity to settle in, build homes, plant vineyards, and give their children in marriage. They are to create and sustain culture there, and through it find ways to bless and bring wellbeing to the pagan Babylonians (Jeremiah 29:4-7).
This comes to full expression of the Incarnation—God taking on our very nature, living in our very world and being directly involved Himself in our fallen culture. We don’t see Jesus condemning culture. No, He is busy spending time with those who are a part of the broader culture—the “tax collectors and sinners.” He doesn’t call them to leave or demolish their culture. He tells them to pay their taxes and in general be good citizens, while also seeing God as their ultimate King (Mark 12:17). He calls them to live redeemed lives in their culture. In fact, he goes one step further and spends much of His time condemning the religious leaders who were the Demolition Engineers of their day.
The ultimate problem with this view, which the Incarnation rectifies, is that it deeply divides the “sacred” and “secular” worlds. This is the old “Gnostic” error I wrote about in an earlier post. It is driven by a belief that everything “down here” is evil and unredeemable. Therefore the only things of value and worthy of our best time and effort are those things “up there.”
This rejection doesn’t take seriously the biblical idea of “common grace”—the fact that God continues to be gracious and bless this world, in all its fallenness, due to his great loving-kindness (Matt. 5:45). If he continues to value this fallen world, should we not also?
Furthermore, the Demolition Engineer fails to understand the biblical teaching about the “new heaven and new earth”—that God’s ultimate desire is to redeem all things. Not only souls, but also the best of culture. In the final Chapter of Revelation we read of the new City of God, where “People will bring into it the glory and the honor of their nations.” In other words, the best of culture will be gathered in the city at the heart of the New Creation. As Andy Crouch observes, “And at the very end of Revelation, just as at the very beginning of Genesis, we find culture in a prominent role.” (Culture Making p. 163)
Finally, this view is very impractical in at least three ways. First, it makes irrelevant what most Christians spend most of their time doing—going to work to farm, manage projects, balance books, lead, develop, produce, market, or service products, teach, write, learn, and so on. It reduces all this to “busy work” that must be done so that we have the time, money or a “platform” to do the things that are really important—the “spiritual” things. This rejects God’s call and gifting in the lives of those called to be teachers, students, businesspeople, artists, farmers, public servants, and so on. It also deprives them of any motivation, encouragement, and support in these important callings.
Second, it actually is counter-productive to what the Demolition Engineer, and all other believers, greatly desire—that men and women worldwide come to saving faith in Christ. This view leads believers to be alienated from culture, and thus from all those who are part of culture. The result is less common ground, less honest, healthy, robust engagement with non-believers, and less impact on our fallen world.
For instance, George Marsden, in his Fundamentalism and American Culture, has chronicled how this occurred in U.S. higher education. During the late 18th Century, the view of the Demolition Engineer became predominant in a number of American Protestant denominations. As a result men and women were no longer encouraged to pursue PhDs and teach in our leading universities because they were becoming so secular and "worldly." As a result we withdrew from public higher education, going off to form our own “Christian” colleges (note the founding date of many Christian colleges in the U.S. are in the early part of the 20th century, during this mass exodus from public higher education).
Without the redeeming influence of Christians these public institutions continued to become more and more secular. We are now reaping the consequences of adopting a Demolition Engineer posture over 100 years ago, as the Christian worldview is now severely marginalized in U.S. higher education. It may take another hundred years to rectify the current situation.
Third, the Demolition Engineer fails to understand that it is impossible to stand entirely apart from culture. We are it. It influences us. We influence it. So no matter how much we want to deny this, we must choose to thoughtfully engage and interact with culture. We must find a way to do so that is biblical, effective, and leads to our and others’ flourishing.
In Search of a Better Way…
In conclusion, the Demolition Engineer is to be praised for taking seriously a central theme of Scripture, as discussed above. And there are certainly times this is the correct position to take on a certain issue.
But as a general posture, I believe this to be the wrong way to go. It fails to balance its approach with equally important biblical teachings concerning positive ways we are to engage our culture. So I cannot endorse, promote, nor encourage believers to be Demolition Engineers.
However, for this reason some believes go to the other extreme—they become Cultural Cheerleaders. I think this is equally wrong. I’ll discuss this view and offer my critiques of this approach next week.
Until then, grace and peace.