Are you really engaging the culture around you?
When’s the last time you read a Pulitzer-prize winning novel? How many Oscar-worthy and/or Coen brothers films have you seen this season? Are you into the latest TV drama reveling in the vengeful nihilism of our brutal world? What’s your opinion on the latest crop of Broadway and off-broadway shows?
If you’re a little behind on any of this, well then stop wasting time on this blog post and get out there and engage the culture!
Kidding. Look, I love so much of the recent movement to see Christians more thoughtfully engage the culture around them. I really do. But I think that sometimes we feel unnecessary pressure to engage a certain kind of culture that’s totally unnatural to us.
Or worse yet, we’re spending time engaging a culture that has nothing to do with the actual flesh and blood people around us.
Philosophers and Farmers
Much has been made of Paul’s example in engaging the culture around him thoughtfully so I won’t belabor this, but just note two places Paul does this:
- At Lystra in Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas encounter a bunch of pagan farmers who mistake them for greek gods in the form of men. Paul has to explain the gospel to them and even references farming seasons with them (14:17).
- At Athens in Acts 17, Paul preaches to the cultured thinkers in a formal context. He begins with one of their own statues (and the philosophy behind it) as a starting point for explaining the gospel (17:23).
I think it’s helpful to remember a few of the benefits of cultural engagement as modeled in Paul’s example and as practically applied to our lives:
- It helps us understand the “starting place” for people in the way they look at the world. It’s helpful to know what’s common ground and what’s controversial.
- It helps us communicate the gospel in an understandable way. How can we explain sin in a way that they understand? How can we explain Jesus?
- It helps us befriend people. When it doesn’t cause us to sin, sometimes it’s really helpful to take an interest in what the people around us are interested in.
- It helps us understand the temptations and pulls of the culture for ourselves and fellow believers. If we’re not aware of the culture we’re swimming in we’ll simply get swept along with everyone else.
- It can help us enter cultural conversations. I think there’s value in making art and writing business principles from a Christian worldview that helps people see the world the way God made it, helps them flourish, and points them to God.
What is fascinating to me is that when you compare Lystra and Athens you see that Paul spoke in a way each culture could understand. Paul spoke differently to the high culture philosophers noshing on organic olives than he did to the actual blue collar farmers delivering the olives on the back of a dirty wagon.
Here’s the principle I think we often miss: Paul engaged the culture in front of him.
Were there certain aspects of Roman culture pervasive throughout the empire? Sure, and Paul got this. But Paul engaged the specific culture right in front of him, whether it was educated Jewish leaders or pagan farmers.
Football Fans and Fine Art
That should actually be freeing for us today. We can just engage the people in front of us.
But we should engage them. We should understand them. In some smaller towns, it’s helpful to speak about college football, in some university areas it’s helpful to speak Terrence Malick films, in some business sectors it’s helpful to speak Seth Godin.
Many of the evangelicals who are advocating for “cultural engagement” are from urban centers or are engaging high culture. That’s great. But as a result, the rest of us can feel a pressure that we need to subscribe to the Harvard Business Review before we can share the gospel well.
That’s simply not true and in fact, I think it could be profoundly counter-productive.
Recently I heard an interview with Greg Thornbury who is engaging culture through leading a university in urban New York. I love what he’s doing. He’s engaging his culture. And by all means, I think we need more Christians engaging high culture well and writing broadway plays and winning journalism awards. And by all means, some people (like novelists) can even engage higher culture while living in a small town.
But the rest of us don’t have to be Greg Thornbury or Tim Keller or Bret Lott. In fact, trying to be one of them in your hometown would come across as very weird at best and very patronizing at worst.
I live in a largely blue-collar, Hispanic town summed up beautifully in the billboard on the freeway last year “Cuando es Cowboys Time es Miller Time.”
Is there any art to engage here? Absolutely (and I follow a lot of it on Instagram and see it at the Punk Rock Flea Market). But I’m following the Cowboys a little more than I would have otherwise. I’m paying attention to what the local radio DJs think about life as a reflection of the way my city thinks. I read the local editorials in the paper. I never miss the huge Classic Film Festival every year in my city.
I can do all of these things and not feel guilty that I’ve never seen a Terrence Malick film or don’t like the new Bon Iver record (because frankly, it’s just weird you guys!). And if I referenced everything Tim Keller references in his sermons in my own sermons I’d actually alienate a decent portion of my audience.
This is wonderfully freeing and practically helpful.
So, Christian, engage culture but make sure the culture you’re engaging is actually the culture in front of you (either physically or in your profession or natural culture).
There was no shame for Paul in engaging pagan farmers and there should be no shame for us in engaging people that unabashedly listen to Coldplay and Nickelback while chomping down a McDonalds hamburger and Diet Coke. Engaging your culture may take more country music (or classic rock or EDM) than you anticipated. Be okay with that.
Engaging Your Real Culture
Here are some things to think through:
- Where has God put you in life and what is the culture of those people? (Think school, office, neighborhood, etc.)
- Do you naturally like any of the stuff of that culture that you can lean into and build relationships?
- What are the cultural trends influencing the people in front of you? What do they love? What do they hate? What’s their hope? What are their fears? So much of this is reflecting in the TV shows they watch, the music they listen to, the websites they love.
- Share the gospel message and then ask the person you share with what’s difficult to understand? Find out how their worldview is different from your own and how to explain things more clearly.
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