1 Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the brothers and sisters with me, To the churches in Galatia: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
~ Galatians 1:1-5
Christians are in the world, but not of the world, and must consider how we will relate to the culture around us. How are we meant to relate to entertainment, politics, and academia? Francis Schaeffer, in his book ‘The God who is there’ put together a chart that (generally) predicts the steps that ideas take. Here is my adapted 21st century version:
Schaeffer was pinpointing how ideas tend to trickle down throughout the culture around us. An idea takes hold in philosophy, or science, or historical studies, and artists then grab hold of and incorporate them into their paintings, sculptures, architecture, books, and plays. Interestingly, Schaeffer then distinguished music from art, not because music isn’t art but because music is a different form of art. The difference lies, I believe, in the repetitive nature of music and how it is the most universally shared and appreciated art form that crosses cultures. I have added social media to this picture as a modern example of a repetitive art form that is shared and crosses cultures.
The ideas then become grasped and entrenched in popular culture, before eventually influencing Christianity (or, more accurately, Christendom). Schaeffer was identifying how many Christians tend to try and accommodate their message to the world and seek to speak to the issues of the time. Unfortunately, the ideas and beliefs of popular culture can end up seeping into Christianity and become entrenched in ‘Christian culture’. The effect of this is that Christianity can be seen as archaic, stuck in the past, and playing catchup to the society around them.
How are we as Christians to relate with culture? Before we answer this, we need to define culture. Here is my definition:
Culture: Beliefs, practices, knowledge, and art belonging to a community of people.
Culture is not the same thing as ethnicity. Ethnicity refers to one’s biological origins by birth or descent but culture transcends those origins. For example, (for the sake of argument) although I am of the same ethnicity as my mother my cultural identity is Christian first, Australian second, then Chinese third. However, my mother’s cultural identity is Chinese first, and then Australian second.
In Galatians 1:1-5, we see that the world we live in and its culture is, at its basest level, opposed to God. Christians have been rescued from this ‘evil age’ in that we have been called out of the beliefs, practices, and communities that do not acknowledge God and called to follow Jesus Christ as the sole basis of our livelihood. This does not mean that we are to isolate ourselves from the world – Jesus calls His people to be salt and light in the world that are visible and seen (Matthew 5:13-16). But we do need to recognise that the culture around us cannot be accepted as neutral or insignificant; the culture of our age is opposed to the Lord whom we serve.
Why, then, should we care about the cultures around us? Why bother? Shouldn’t we just focus on being Christians and disengage? There are many reasons why we should pay attention to the culture around us, but here are three:
- To share the Gospel in an understandable way.
In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul writes about how he becomes all things to all people for the sake of the Gospel. As a Christian, he is free from the shackles of defining himself based on human cultural assumptions, but in order to remove barriers as he speaks to others he limits his liberty and brings the eternal Gospel to people in a way that they can understand. Christians don’t need to change the message of Christianity to suit our listeners, but we do need to communicate in a way that is understandable (even if it is not accepted). Paying attention to culture allows us to pick up on language, illustrations, and topics of conversation that can assist us in communicating with others. It recognises that God has placed us in a time and context and that the glorious message of Jesus can be spoken into any sphere or situation that we find ourselves in. The challenge is to consider how we can do this in a manner that loves our listeners who do not know Christ.
- To be an ambassador of Christ, showing the way the world should be.
Christians are entrusted with the message of reconciliation and are called to be ambassadors for Christ wherever they go (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). Paying attention to culture means that we can be aware of what messages are being told to others around us. In doing so, we can speak and live in a way that addresses and engages with the culture around us and shows them how God sees the way the world should be. In other words, being culturally aware gives us opportunities to witness to Jesus in every aspect of life.Christians aren’t called to change the culture around us – instead, we can faithfully be a culture. Specifically, we can be a people that embodies what God is calling His people to and what He desires the whole world to be. Faithfully witnessing in the midst of the culture around us means that Christians will look like strangers and aliens in a world that can’t understand why they are the way they are. But, as Stanley Hauerwas is so fond of saying, the Christian community is to live in such a way that would be completely unintelligible if Jesus were not Lord. Being an ambassador of Christ requires us to be present and fully aware of the culture around us lest we fall into the trap of letting our cultural assumptions become shaped by worldly notions, or we cease speaking the truth of Christ to a world that needs to know Him.
- To discern what is excellent and praiseworthy.
Not everything that we see in culture is against God in content. That doesn’t mean that the culture around us can be morally righteous before God, but we do at times still see truths, practices, and art that are good, excellent, and praiseworthy because they accord with the truth of God and the beauty of His creation. In Philippians 4:8-9. Christians are commanded to discern and dwell on these things.Even though the age is evil, humanity is still capable of producing beautiful art, beneficial technology, insightful wisdom, and accurate truths. As John Calvin says,1
If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.
In other words, since God (through His Holy Spirit) is the source of all that is good and true (1 Timothy 4:4) then anything that is good and true in the world could only be due to God’s kindness and grace. Granted, if non-Christians who do produce excellent art and achievements never come to acknowledge God and thank Him then their judgement will be multiplied. However, Christians can discern what is excellent and praiseworthy in culture to encourage other Christians, praise God, and enjoy the grace of God in still allowing good things to come in our fallen world.
Jesus died to rescue us from this evil age. While we are in the world, we are not of the world (1 John 2:15-17). We must stand out like salt and light and remember that our beliefs, practices, knowledge, and art are ultimately shaped by our belonging to God’s family. Nevertheless, paying attention to the culture around us is pivotal as Christians who wish to faithfully witness in our time, while also understanding the challenges that Christianity faces as we may end up embracing the culture around us into our beliefs (as per the flow of ideas seen in the diagram above).
That is why we cannot ‘just’ be aware of the culture and live faithfully in the midst of it – in a sense, all Christians must engage the culture as well. How can we do this? Here are three ways:
- Approve the culture
- Rebuke the culture
- Correct the culture
We approve what is good, praiseworthy, true, and beautiful in light of what we know of God’s word. We rebuke what is corrupted, detestable, false, and evil in light of what we know of God’s word. And, where appropriate, we correct the culture by speaking the truth in love and being witnesses/ambassadors of Christ. This can happen academically, privately, or publicly. It can happen on social media. It can happen over lunch with your colleagues. It can happen as we speak to our sisters and brothers in Christ as they prayerfully discern the culture around them.2
There is so much more that could be covered, from how to effectively engage with academia or music, to how to counter worldly influences in the church. But the great adventure we are on is knowing that what we are facing here is nothing new – since the calling of Abraham, God has always formed a people who are distinct from those around them. The challenge now, as always, is faithfulness in the midst of waiting. For us, we are called to be faithful as we wait for Jesus to return and the whole world will see His truth, goodness, and beauty. Until then, may be seek to be aware of the culture and engage it for our Lord’s glory, for the proclamation of the Gospel, and for the encouragement of our fellow believers.