To Culture, Or Not To Culture. that is the question.
One subject we frequently return to is that of culture. Like many Gen Y 20-somethings, we're steeped in cultural expression. Our DVD shelves are packed and our music libraries are extensive. We like to appreciate art and history and science and ideas. We watch TV. We go to the cinema. We play video games. We follow sport. (Well, apart from me.) We're just as likely to share our discovery of a stand-up comedian as we are to discuss the finer points of Christian doctrine. In all fairness, you've probably noticed this already. You can't exactly miss the weekly Doctor Who reviews. Or Owen's discussion of C.S. Lewis. Or his coverage of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy and his recent piece on the important of beauty. I have no doubt that this trend will continue.
That said, we really wrestled with the implications of sharing this kind of stuff. After all, if we're Christians - and theologians - shouldn't we be dealing with proper theological subjects'? The stuff that bores paint dry? (Be honest: it's what some of you expected.) Eventually, however, we decided against this instinct and made a conscious decision to include cultural discussions on the blog.
To a certain extent, this is because it's just more true to our actual lives - i.e. we talk about culture amongst ourselves, so it makes sense to do the same here. But, to a much greater extent, we want to talk about culture because we believe it's actually important to do so. Not at the expense of our faith & theological convictions - but (and this is important) because of our faith & theological convictions.
If you'll let me, I'd like to borrow a few minutes of your time to explain what I mean.
Rejection or Capitulation?
Though, when you think about it ... you can probably understand the bind we're in. After all, Christians haven't always had the best reputation when it comes to engaging with culture.
The Christian's failure in this regard has, historically, taken on several forms. Sometimes, it's been characterised by rejection - shirking 'secular' culture. Movies, music, books, etc, all have either been ignored or dismissed. Sometimes this rejection is explicit and obvious (take the Amish communities, for example), whereas at other times it has a more ancient provenance (e.g. certain Christian monastic traditions). In the context of UK Evangelicalism, the tendency to reject culture has usually been quite subtle. It doesn't usually involve an active denunciation of the world as 'evil'. Instead, the Christian sub-culture often simply replaces what culture-at-large has to offer. Instead of 'secular' music, now we listen to Christian music. Instead of 'secular' movies, now we champion Christian movies. We wear Christian T-Shirts, attend Christian events, read Christian books, pay to see Christian comedians. A sub-cultural universe is created, one that's either been designed or has just appropriated to avoid what its secular parallels have to offer. This is still rejection, of course; albeit of a different flavour.
Sometimes, however, the Christian's failure to engage with culture has been characterised by capitulation - accepting what it has to offer, what it has to say, to the same extent and in the same way as anyone else might. Of course, this doesn't stop you being suspicious or critical. There are many who wouldn't describe themselves as Christians who are suspicious of culture, and for a variety of reasons. But here's the point: when a Christian capitulates to culture her self-description as 'Christian' becomes qualitatively irrelevant. To put this more simply: her worldview, interests, ideologies and preferences become basically identical to that of everyone else. In that regard, her claim to faith is of little to no significance. It has no important role to play. She may still speak into culture but her voice has lost its distinctive Christian accent.
Neither Option is perfect. Neither is Entirely False.
"You're right Nathan - we shouldn't reject culture. Those who reject culture are like dinosaurs, they're no help to anyone. We need to be culturally savvy Christians. How foolish and out-of-date you must be to think anything else."
Well, hold your horses there, 'Fake Me'.
I'm glad you've recognised the importance of not just rejecting culture. After all, it's clear from Scripture that engagement is a requirement. If anything else, we should do so to reach others for Christ. We might remember Paul's words to the Corinthians: "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law that I might win those under the law. ... I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I might save some" [1 Cor 6:20-22]. Also, it's good to keep in mind that it's literally impossible to reject culture. I'm reminded of a panel discussion I watched a about a year ago, the purpose of which was to decry Christian hip hop as 'worldliness'. In the words of one of the panellists: "Reformed rap is the cowardly following of the world instead of confronting and changing it". I remember being bemused hearing these words spoken by a man holding a microphone, sat in front a table of laptops and other such equipment. The clothes you wear, the language you speak, the inflections you use, the laws and idioms and habits you keep to, and much more besides - all this betrays the fact that you're always adapting to and engaging with culture in at least a rudimentary sense. You'll always be borrowing something. It's best to own this loan and wield it appropriately.
However. Can we please be honest here and recognise that the New Testament (the God-breathed, inspired, supremely authoritative Word of God) sometimes describes the wider culture, as well as the world at large, in not-so-glowing terms? I remember reading a Christian festival's website a few years back, and in the 'Vision' section its organisers proudly said that they were 'friends with the world', hence why they wanted to celebrate culture and art, etc. But we must confront the Word of God as it really is: "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world - the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life - is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away" [1 John 2:15-17]. It doesn't help anyone to hold the Bible at arm's length so as to treat it like a hipster's handbook. Sometimes, its words don't comport nicely to our cultural pretensions.
No, we can't just reject culture. And no, we can't capitulate to it either. But let's recognise that there are shades of Biblical truth to both of these instincts. Both are trying to capture something of what the Scriptures teach. Unless we actually wrestle with this, we can't possibly say that our understanding of culture is sufficiently Biblical.
Two Kingdoms, Dual Citizenship
[King Nebuchadnezzar] commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility ... They were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. ... To these young men God gave knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom. ... In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the King inquired of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom. [Dan 1:3-20]
The Word commands us to engage - with the world, with culture, with others.
The Word commands us to be distinct - from the world, from culture, from others.
These are two sides of the same coin. God has, in His providence, placed us in this country, at this time, in this century, in this culture - a move pregnant with potential.
With one voice, He asks us to have our first foot in the world of the Church. Distinct, holy, different; growing in the likeness of Christ. With another voice, He asks that we plant a second foot in the world at large. Movies, music, books, TV, internet memes, and much more besides.
In this regard we might find it helpful to identify with the Old Testament story of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah. The people of God found themselves in a strange nd sometimes uncomfortable world. Nebuchadnezzar sends for Israelite men of royal and noble identity: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.
Now, this is important, pay close attention to what the passage says next: "They were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans". Daniel and company were knowledgeable in the promises of Israel's God, as well as the culture of the Babylonians. By His providence, God had placed their feet in both of these worlds. But to what end? What was God's purpose in all this? Before we know it we're told that this company of Israelites proved themselves to be "ten times better" in matters of wisdom & understanding than those in the King's court! More importantly, we read that Daniel and company eventually had to make stand for their God before all of the Babylonians, having refused to break God's Law.
In what ways might we identify with Daniel here? Well - here we are, in a strange and sometimes uncomfortable world. We're described as the children of God and the inheritors of a crown of life [James 1:12]. In His providence, God has placed our feet in both of these worlds. We're in this strange, Daniel-esque position - trying to be distinctively Godly, noticeably of "God's Kingdom" - at the same time as seeking to flourish in a 'secular' and non-Christian context. But there's more. In Daniel's story we saw how this 'dual citizenship' brought prosperity and persecution, opportunity and tribulation. Perhaps, like Daniel and his friends, we may yet have an important role to play in this divine arrangement. Perhaps, like Daniel, we must prepare ourselves for the lion's den.
The Three Instincts
- As Christians, we've not always found cultural engagement easy: we've either rejected it, or given in to it.
- Unfortunately, although there's truth to be found in both options, neither are biblically viable.
- Instead of this, British Christians are tasked with being of 'two Kingdoms'. It's not either/or; it's both/and.
Instinct : It's good for us to host a cultural discussion.
We want to provide a safe and enjoyable place to discuss Marvel films, and Doctor Who, and video games, and sport, and music, and so on - all in the context of our love of one another as friends. We desire to follow the Scriptural mandate, in this regard, and be hospitable. [Look at 1 Pet 4:9, for example.] We also want to provide a witness. Just like Daniel in Babylon, we want our 'dual citizenship' to mean something. We'd like to show that, no, believe it or not, Christians are not rainbow-strapped, sandal-wearing, pale creatures with no knowledge of how to use a toaster. We can love the same music but perhaps just in a different way. Finally, we want to provide an example. For hundreds of years, some of the best cultural contributions and discussions were made by Christians. Think of Bach, or Handel, or Rembrandt, etc. We're not saying we're of that calibre but - like Daniel and company - we don't just want to 'make a contribution'. We want to make a great contribution.
Instinct : It's good for us to love culture.
A big reason why Christians continue to reject what the culture 'out there' has to offer is that they have bought into an erroneous and unbiblical distinction between that which is 'sacred' and that which is 'secular'. If you're in the former then you can't be of the latter, and vice versa. This is nonsense. God owns everything. There is no 'Christian' world over which He presides and a 'non-Christian' world over which He doesn't. There is one world, one creation, and it all belongs to Christ. Abraham Kuyper once remarked that "there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, 'Mine!'" A wonderful truth. As was said above, we do not want to talk about culture at the expense of our faith, but because of our faith. It is exactly because we recognise the absolute breadth and depth of God's sovereignty that we refuse this sacred/secular distinction and so get stuck into both.
Instinct : It's good for us to handle culture with caution.
Elsewhere we've talked about how the vocation of a theologian involves doing the hard thing. Doing the difficult thing. Well, it's certainly true that engaging with culture is hard. This is because the Bible rightly warns us against being friendly with the world. It's not easy to have one foot in each world. But it's still absolutely necessary. Therefore, as theologians, we want to demonstrate holding this tension. Sometimes we'll fail. Sometimes we'll get way too much into Doctor Who, or whatever. And sometimes we'll probably talk way too much about boring theological stuff as well. But by the grace of God we'll handle culture with caution.