I recently returned from The Gospel Coalition Conference in Orlando, FL. I enjoyed hearing the preaching and fellowshipping with friends old and new. One of my favorite events was the Christ and Pop Culture panel with Alan Noble, Richard Clark, Mike Cosper, and Derek Rishmawy. This panel discussion started a conversation on the ride home with my travel companion and good friend Chad McKinnon. We talked a lot about engaging with culture and how to know when to reject certain cultural artifacts. It made me think that these conversations might be helpful for my readers.
In his book Culture Making, Crouch says,
“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?”
So how should we posture ourselves toward culture?
1. Cultivate Culture
The story of Scripture starts with God creating. He does this with excellence. He speaks into the void and orders our world. Dr. John Walton says that this is a home story. Let that sink in—God is making earth his home. That has grand implications for our theology of culture. What’s more God has said what He created is good. These are always our starting points: the world is God’s home and what He has created is good.
When He creates Man and Woman, God commands them to cultivate the world. He sends them into it and says, “Make stuff. Make families. Make music. Make gardens. Use your imagination and follow my lead.” Ever since then man has been making culture. We can view the masterful untouched landscape with awe as well as the painting of a master. As I read the Gospels and see the ways Jesus flips creation on its head, it’s hard for me to read the Great Commission without understanding that part of the shift in this resurrection world is the way we create. The gospel must transform in big ways the way we cultivate our world (that’s another blog for another day). Go, therefore, and create!
2. Critique Culture
There’s a sense in which critiquing culture is also cultivating. A literature professor may spending countless hours studying literature in order to critique it in-front of a classroom. He’s doing this not just to tear down, but to build up those who hear his words and are future cultivators. The common dictum that those who cannot create critique is false. There is a type of critiquing that only destroys. That kind of critique can be harmful and in opposition to cultivating of any kind. As an avid user of social media, I immediately think of the watchblogs. These are people who are just waiting for people to slip up to pounce. Andy Crouch make this point in his Culture Making, “If we are known mostly for our ability to poke holes in every human project, we will probably not be known as people who bear the hope and mercy of God.”
3. Enjoy Culture
Sometimes Christians forget culture is made for man and not the other way around. Therefore, we must not forget to enjoy it whenever we can. Reading G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy has reminded me of this in new ways. We live in a world that’s full of magic—enjoy it. Chesterton says, “When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock . We must answer that it is magic.” Often times the culture we create helps us remember this. It should also cause awe, wonder, and enjoyment on its own. Have you ever seen a painting so beautiful you thought How did someone do that? Or read a book and think I will never be the same. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think critically, but sometimes the best immediate response is to just enjoy. Removing that step isn’t good for your soul. Have you ever met someone who was so doctrinaire but had lost all wonder of the gospel? Don’t be that kind of person.
4. Learn from Culture
Sometimes we learn from a culture that’s different from ours. Some people have difficulty doing this. We think that if it isn’t explicitly “Christian” than it has nothing to offer us. However, that ignores God’s common grace and imago dei in all of mankind. C. S. Lewis once said that we have never met an ordinary person. “It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” Let us never forget that. We must be promiscuous learners. In Areopagitica, John Milton said, “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” Don’t be afraid of encountering error. You will encounter it. However, truth should never fear falsehood. Learn as much as you can from whoever you can and when you find a bone spit it out.
5. Reject Culture
Some parts of culture should be flat out rejected. There’s no way to enjoy it and hardly enough redeeming qualities to learn from it. The low hanging fruit here is pornography. We can easily reject pornography. We don’t need to justify it and shouldn’t enjoy it. But what if this one pornographic film has excellent camera work? Even typing that sounds ridiculous, right?
There are, of course, some practical concerns about discerning what might fall into this category. There are some clear examples like pornography. However, there may also be some grey area. So how do we discern the difference? These are not exhaustive, but they may help:
- Command - Does Scripture forbid it?
- Faith - Can I do this with a clear conscience?
- Love - Will this cause a blood-bought brother to stumble?
- Accountability / Wisdom - Am I allowing people (friends, family, church, etc) to speak into my life? Am I hiding what I’m doing?
- Motive - Why am I partaking? (critiquing, consuming thoughtlessly, enjoying, etc).
I want to end by pointing you to some resources for thinking well on culture:
Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and a contributor in Make, Mature, Multiply (GCD Books). He completed over forty hours of seminary work at Geneva Reformed Seminary. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and the project manager for the Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Mathew offers freelance editing and book formatting. He is a member at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.