Towards a Theology of Cultural Engagement
The church has debated the relationship it should have with the world since the earliest times. Just over a century after the death of the Apostle’s, Tertullian mused, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” The heart of Tertullian’s question was, what relationship does Christianity have with culture. The church has debated this topic ever since.
In the 1950’s, Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture set the agenda for all discussions on the topic that would follow. Neibuhr classified five approaches to culture. First, Christ Above Culture. This carries the idea that Christ is so transcendent that he is separate from culture. Culture deals with daily human issues, Christ deals with the weightier issues of the soul. Next, we see Christ and Culture in Paradox. This view pits Christ against culture, not in a hostile way, but more in an indifferent way. Christ is over here, culture there, never the two shall meet. As we approach the more common views we find Christ Against Culture. This view posits that culture (both pop and high) if not done explicitly for the glory of God by Christians is by its very nature hostile to God and Christianity. This is the prevailing view of popular, American evangelicalism. It is what has created the Christian ghetto, sub-genrizing anything it can. Since the turn of the millennium, the view of Christ of Culture has picked up steam. The Anglican revival coupled with the rise of the Emerging church has given new life to this view, previously buried by the other views. This view says that culture flows from Christ. It is often critiqued because of its failure to distinguish carefully from what is God’s Word and what are the mutters of the culture. The final category that Neibuhr presented was Christ Transforming Culture. This view (held mostly by Reformed Christians) carries the idea that Christ is very present in this world and “He is making the Kingdom of this world to be the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ” (to borrow from Isaiah/Handel).
As Christ kingdom grows in its expression we find the Gospel in seed form in places where Christianity is unknown. There are numerous examples of this, but one in particular comes to mind. In Japan there is a folk-legend called Hanasakajijii. This legend tells the story of two neighbors in dispute over a magical dog. After a bit of intrigue, the dog is murdered and transported to the floating world. As the family mourns, they are comforted by the “man who makes dead trees bloom”. This man restores the land from a drought. This is an extremely poor retelling of the story, but as early missionaries arrived in Japan, this story quickly helped the Christians explain their faith in an intelligible way. It was a cultural point of entry where adherents to Japanese folk religion could be engaged and taught of the gospel.
Here it may be helpful to distinguish between cultural relevance and cultural engagement. Many who find themselves in the Christ against Culture camp still use culture for a number of purposes. Often the idea is simply to illustrate a point or in other cases simply to show that the speaker is not “afraid” of culture. These uses are typically guarded and sparse. The idea here is to garner attention or to prove a point. This differs greatly from cultural engagement. In cultural engagement a speaker/minister/whatever may reference a number of pieces of pop or high culture. The idea is not to garner cool points or even to simply illustrate a point. Here the goal is a bit broader, by incorporating pop culture, the speaker is modeling a lifestyle that engages the world around the hearers and cultivates the beauty from the ashes. It finds the cultural touch points that have been buried in the culture and excavates them, showing where Christ has gone before us. We participate in His redemption of the world by sifting the beauty away from the ashes. We can see the messianic beauty of Children of Men, the redemptive significance of The Matrix, the nature of narrative in Stranger than Fiction. Here the goal is not illustration, but the cultivation of a life that engages the world with our beliefs and seeks to understand how and where Christ is working.
In closing it may be helpful to give the Biblical rationale for this view. When Paul came to Athens, he found a culture inundated with views, opinions, beliefs, and idolatry. When he was invited to speak at the Areopagus, Paul preached (Acts 17) one of his most eloquent sermons. In this sermon he quoted Epimenides of Crete in verse 28. This is the same Epimenides who was responsible for one of the most popular accounts of the origins of the Greek gods. These Theogonies (accounts of the where the gods came from) were often graphic and read more like a soap-opera than a history. Paul however engages Epimenides and shows how he was (inadvertently) speaking the truth. He then quotes the poem Phanomena by Aratus. This poem is a praise song used to worship Zeus. Nevertheless, Paul culls the truth that we have our being in YHWH, not in Zeus. Paul quotes other works in his epistles as well. He even quotes Epimenides a second time in Titus. Paul engaged his culture, and I believe this should be normative for us as well.