On Engaging Culture
In the late 1940s, conservative Christians were called to come out of the forts to which they had retreated under the onslaught of modernistic thinking and to re–engage their culture. The call was heard, and evangelical Christians have been increasingly involved in academia, the arts, the media, medical ethics, politics, and other strategic areas of our culture. Of course, there’s also been significant involvement in pop culture with examples ranging from Christian trinkets sold in Christian bookstores to some pretty good music.
A phrase that is often used for this cultural involvement is “engaging culture.” In fact, that phrase forms a third of Probe’s abbreviated mission statement: “renewing the mind, equipping the church, engaging the world.” What does it mean to “engage” culture? The phrase might give the impression that Christians stand outside their culture and need to re–enter it. This is a simplistic understanding. With the exception of a few such as the Amish, we are all embedded in American culture. We buy food from the same grocery stores as non-Christians and eat the same kinds of food. We watch the same ballgames, wear the same kinds of clothes, drive the same kinds of cars, speak the same language, visit the same museums, take advantage of the same medical care—we could go on and on. In fact, even the Amish don’t stand totally outside American culture. Participation is a matter of degree.
To note this participation is not to denigrate it; this is the way life is on this planet. People have divided into different groups and developed different cultures, and within those cultures there are both Christians and peoples of other faiths or no faiths at all.
Christians have always had to deal with the issue of living in a world that isn’t in tune with Christian beliefs and morality. When we become actively involved in our culture, our differences become more acute. Given these differences, how are we to “engage” our culture? What should that look like? It’s doubtful whether those who first sounded the evacuation order would approve of how deeply some Christians have embedded themselves in contemporary society. Polls by the Barna Group show how much evangelicals look like their non-Christian neighbors. What is a proper involvement in culture?
A new book on the subject has gained a lot of attention: Culture Making by Andy Crouch. Crouch presents two sets of concepts which together form a framework for how we might interact with our culture. He names five strategies and two ways of employing these strategies.
First, the five strategies for interacting with culture are condemning, critiquing, copying, consuming, and cultivating. Condemning is finding fault with a thing or practice or person. Critiquing refers to analyzing culture. Copying is bringing cultural goods into our own subculture and forming a parallel culture. Consuming is simply enjoying the fruits of our culture. Cultivating refers to creating and nurturing. I’ll come back to cultivating later.
Second, the two ways of employing the strategies Crouch calls postures and gestures. These are metaphors taken from our physical stances and motions. Posture is the way one stands when not paying attention to how one is standing. Some people have a very erect posture and some slouch. Gestures are ad hoc motions we make throughout the day. I need the book on my desk, so I pick it up. I greet someone by shaking hands. I get someone’s attention by waving my arms over my head. I don’t constantly use the gestures of arm waving or hand shaking or picking up; I only use them when needed.
Now let’s put the strategies together with the stances. The first four of the strategies are the ones most commonly practiced. All of them have their places as gestures. Occasionally we need to condemn. Some things are bad, and we need to say so. Critiquing is something we need to do as well from time to time. Some law is being debated, for example, and those involved have to analyze the proposal from a variety of angles. Copying our culture is something we do sometimes that is okay. Because we live alongside non-Christians in our broader culture, we will be influenced to some extent by musical styles or styles of clothing. In the area of sports, some churches have softball teams and compete against teams from other churches. Consuming is something we all do routinely. I go to movies that don’t have distinctly Christian messages. I eat at a local Italian restaurant without checking the religious credentials of the owners or employees. I drive on our interstate system without worrying about the fact it wasn’t created with distinctly Christian purposes in mind.
A serious problem for Christians is that we often allow these gestures to become postures. That is, what should only be an occasional behavior becomes a lifestyle or character trait. For example, some people adopt a posture of condemnation. They condemn constantly. You’ve seen the facial expression: eyebrows up, piercing eyes staring, head shaking. Such people seem incapable of finding anything good in culture.
Other people adopt a posture of critiquing. Everything is put under the microscope for analysis. Nothing is simply enjoyed. Occupying one’s time with critiquing leaves no place for actually bringing about change.
The posture of copying is often seen in our Christian subculture. Whatever is new in clothing or hair styles or music, we’re all over it. On our t-shirts we print Christian slogans (sometimes cheapening the gospel by a cheesy use of company logos, such as T-shirts with “Christ is King” in the style of the Burger King crown logo). Christian lyrics are written for the latest styles in music. We master the latest marketing techniques. When we are always copying, we are getting our cues from people who don’t share our values. Another problem is that we are always following behind. This posture also reveals a separatist mindset; we can enjoy “their” music, but we have to bring it over the wall into “our” world.
Consuming as a posture results in us becoming indiscriminant in what we “eat.” Others are always deciding for us what is good. There is such a concern with keeping up with the latest, with not being left behind, that we are often unaware of how what we consume affects us. A posture of consuming also leaves little room for creating something new.
These strategies are the same ones non-Christians employ. The difference is the values which determine how they are employed. All of our condemning, critiquing, copying, and consuming are to be governed by scriptural norms.
If we stop here, we will miss the major point of Andy Crouch’s book. While these strategies have their places, there’s one which we can leave out completely to our detriment and the detriment of our society. That is cultivation. Cultivating involves creating and nurturing. Crouch uses the metaphor of gardening to illustrate. The gardener looks at what is there—landscape, sunlight, etc.—and considers what could be grown. Weeds are removed, the soil is tilled, and the seeds are planted. Water is provided to enable growth. This is the stuff of culture making. We aren’t just to react to what is there, but to bring new things into existence and to care for what is there that is good.
Crouch has some questions for Christians:
I wonder what we Christians are known for in the world outside our churches. Are we known as critics, consumers, copiers, condemners of culture? I’m afraid so. Why aren’t we known as cultivators—people who tend and nourish what is best in human culture, who do the hard and painstaking work to preserve the best of what people before us have done? Why aren’t we known as creators—people who dare to think and do something that has never been thought or done before, something that makes the world more welcoming and thrilling and beautiful?
I suspect that one problem some Christians might have with this has to do with eschatology. Those who hold to a premillennial, pretribulational view of end times see this world as being doomed for destruction, and some wonder why we should put any effort into cultural engagement beyond witnessing for Christ. A big problem with that is that no one knows when the end is coming. In the meantime, cars and factories spew pollution into the air that is harmful to our health and to the well–being of other living things. Cancer still ends lives way too soon and is often attended by much suffering. The decay of inner cities is depressing to its inhabitants. Are Christians engaged in making cars that don’t pollute? Fighting cancer? Cleaning up and reversing the decay of declining neighborhoods?
To some, this will sound suspiciously like the “social gospel” of the mid-twentieth century. It isn’t. For one thing, it is grounded in Christian theology. We are created in the image of the Creator and have been made creative ourselves. For another, because we are made in the image of God we should care about the health and well-being of all people. Consider, too, that God Himself is interested in beauty (Ex. 28:2, 40).
Most of us will never invent something that will drastically alter people’s lives. We won’t do anything really big like find the cure for Alzheimer’s or solve the nation’s economic crisis. But we can do small things. We can tutor a child who has trouble reading, fix up our yards and houses so they aren’t eye-sores to our neighbors, join a local civic chorale or orchestra. In short, it’s just a matter of using our talents to make our world a better place, and in doing so to enrich the lives of other people and point to the glory of God.
In doing so, we may also find that non-Christians are more apt to listen to our reason for doing so.
© 2009 Probe Ministries