In my own experience, I have found that many Christians do not understand the “hows” and the “whys” of cultural engagement, even to the point of wondering why Christians should be concerned in the first place. Cultural critic Ken Myers states the issue well when he writes: “It might seem an extreme assertion at first, but I believe that the challenge of living with popular culture may well be as serious for modern Christians as persecution and plagues were for the saints of earlier centuries…Enemies that come loudly and visibly are usually much easier to fight than those that are undetectable…the erosion of character, the spoiling of innocent pleasures, and the cheapening of life itself that often accompany modern popular culture can occur so subtly that we believe nothing has happened.”1 If Myers’ assertion is correct, and I believe it is, should it serve as an alarm to retreat, or as a call to advance?
The modern Christian’s response to culture is usually one of either passive consumption, or the exact opposite one of active condemnation. Both extremes are flawed in their approach and misunderstand popular culture. In one sense, the condemner realizes the power of pop culture on the individual, which is why he chooses to avoid it. He has made a decision that he believes is right for his own personal sanctification, yet he becomes little more than an earth-bound vapor to the culture around him. In other words, in the name of not becoming “of the world,” the condemner of pop culture also ceases being “in the world.”
Conversely, the indiscriminate partaker fails to critically analyze the effect that pop culture is having on him and soon becomes so “of the world,” that he must compartmentalize his thinking into “church” things and “non-church” things. That is, he becomes convinced that a split exists between the “secular” and the “sacred.” Forgetting that God created everything in this world, the partaker eventually comes to believe that Christianity only touches on certain things—going to church, praying before eating, reading the Bible daily (or…almost daily), etc. But regardless if they are condemners or partakers, Christianity for these individuals becomes nothing more than a religion of legalism—a man-made system of dos and don’ts—than the all-encompassing worldview that it actually is. The Gospel redeems the whole man, not just a portion. “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Modern Christians are quick to forget just how much Christianity has influenced Western civilization. We take our freedoms and way of life for granted mostly because we have come to view them as “givens.” But in reality, “Christianity gave birth to the idea of humanity as we know it. Never before the 2,000-year-old religion were slave and free, man and woman, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile welcomed in equal measure and with immeasurable love…it is the life and death of Jesus Christ that has transcended the ages: for Christians, faith is not merely a cultural logic but a cosmic truth.”2 The idea of “cosmic truth” has mostly been lost during the last fifty years. The Christianity being offered up by the modern church has been accurately described as “privately engaging, but socially irrelevant.” Christianity cannot shape the culture if individual Christians do not get involved in the culture, bringing the “cosmic truth”—the salt and light—of Jesus Christ to bear on everyday life and living.
But it is this very idea of bringing the Gospel to bear on everyday activities that introduces a large amount of confusion. Very often, this confusion is perpetuated by church leaders themselves. For example, in his book, Dual Citizens, PCA minister Jason Stellman makes the following observation:
Our sacred activity, such as hearing God’s Word and receiving the Lord’s Supper, therefore, is about as unique and countercultural as we can get, while our secular activity is just the opposite—it is thoroughly common. It is primarily on Sunday, therefore, rather than on Monday through Saturday, that believers display their peculiarity and distinctiveness from the world.3
On the surface, Stellman’s quotation sounds good, until we begin to realize that he is simply reinforcing the unbiblical notion of a secular/sacred split. Stellman is correct in affirming that the church is at the peak of its countercultural activity when it is worshiping the risen Savior, but he also misses the obvious point that even Christian worship uses “common” elements like music, speech, bread, and wine (i.e.grape juice). And this is the very point of the Gospel: the common becomes uncommon. God manifests His truth both in the world and in the Word. Would Stellman argue that there are “common” things in heaven, or that there are some things in heaven that do not manifest the glory of God? I suspect not, so I find it a bit confusing as to why he would believe it about this world, where we are taught to pray that God’s will be done, as it is in heaven. Jesus taught that even the stones would cry out in praise to Him if His followers were silent. It’s difficult to imagine something more common than stones.
Later in the same chapter, Stellman approvingly quotes D.G. Hart as saying:
For some Protestants, the goal of applying the faith to all areas of life misconstrues the essence of the Christian message, which has far more to do with eternal rather than temporal realities. The application of Christianity to social and personal problems can hurt religion by leading believers to forget what makes their faith holy or sacred…In sum, the application of religion to practical affairs sacralizes things that are common (e.g., exercise, eating, politics) and trivializes things that are sacred (e.g., creed, sacraments, and pastoral ministry).4
Aside from the fact that the Bible never once says that creeds are sacred or that eating is common (in fact, the opposite should be true: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,” 1 Cor. 10:31), Stellman and Hart seem to miss that the Gospel is comprehensive in its scope of redemption. John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world“—His entire created order—not just certain “sacred” aspects of His creation. Robert Webber is precise on this important point:
The historic understanding of the incarnation as the assumption of the entire created order has been replaced by a view that in the incarnation God stepped into history to save souls. The focus is no longer on the cosmic work of God in history but on personal salvation. The language often used to describe salvation through Christ expresses this shift. We speak of God “saving souls.” We focus then not so much on God who redeems the world but on Christ who saved me…The current misunderstanding of the incarnation logically results in a split between the sacred and secular because if Christ only redeems souls, the stuff of this world is unredeemable…Creation separated from redemption will always result in the secularization of life.5
Webber makes it evident that the biblical teaching is one of totality. Just as the Church is made whole by its individual members, so is God’s comprehensive redemption of His creation made whole by the Church taking dominion and doing everything to the glory of God; including mundane things like eating and drinking. Worship, like prayer, is something that should characterize Christians every moment, not just when we are gathered corporately on Sunday. “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18). It is only when we come to see that everything is ordained for God’s glory that even our daily, “common” activities become an opportunity to worship our Father.
If more Christians began to see their daily activities as an extension of worship, we would also begin to see a cultural shift. Stellman seems to be more than willing to hand the world over to contemporary culture because, “as pilgrims, we will always be outsiders in this passing evil age…After all, we are not the nucleus of a Christian society whose aim is to conquer, but an alien colony whose aim is to ‘endure to the end’ (Matt. 10:22).”6 If this is what is being taught to Christians on Sunday—the day when their “peculiarity and distinctiveness” should be most evident—is it really any wonder that we are making little to no impact on the culture the other six days of the week? Stellman seems to be content to wait for the world to come to us on Sunday to see how radical and countercultural we are, but Jesus had a different concept in mind. His final command to His disciples was not one of enduring, but of conquering: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…” (Matt. 28:18-20). There is little in the Great Commission to indicate that Jesus had anything less than victory on His mind—and neither should we. The Gospel of Jesus redeems souls, lives, and cultures. And it does this because all authority and power has been given to Him.
- Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1989), xii-xiii [↩]
- Kate Kirkpatrick, “Reframing Human History,” Christianity Today (Sept. 2009), 81-82. [↩]
- Jason J. Stellman, Dual Citizens: Worship and Life between the Already and the Not Yet (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2009), 22-23. [↩]
- D.G. Hart, as quoted in Stellman, Dual Citizens, 26. (Emphasis added by Stellman.) [↩]
- Robert E. Webber, Who Gets to Narrate the World? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008), 76-77. (Emphasis in original.) [↩]
- Stellman, Dual Citizens, 27. [↩]