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As we continue our discussion of culture and the Christian response, I wanted to stop for a moment and make sure that a point is particularly clear. Last week, I referenced the 2007 film, Bee Movie, as an example of how culture not only reflects, but projects. It reflects in the sense that it is something of a mirror that we as cultural participants can look into and study what we see. That is, do the popular viewpoints of high-visibility American society reflect our attitudes and beliefs? If so, why; and if not, why not? Secondly, culture projects by being a direct and tangible outworking of the philosophies and lifeviews of its creators. In this way, culture gives us a window into the thought patterns and primary values of the ones who made it.
I once heard Douglas Wilson declare that “theology is what comes out of your fingertips.” I like this, it’s a good word-picture and a helpful restatement of the oft-used Henry Van Til quote: “Culture is religion externalized.” In fact, Van Til himself was simply restating the words of the apostle James, written nearly 2000 years ago: “Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). Christians need to realize that the culture that we are surrounded by is nothing more than the physical consequences of the war of ideas. In actuality, we are at philosophical tension with the “city of man.” It is this antithesis—at the presuppositional level—that creates conflicting cultural ideals. When Christians get all bent out of shape and complain about Hollywood’s use of nudity, sexuality, vulgarity, and violence in its films, or Madison Avenue’s use of deception, or Wall Street’s use of greed, we need to remember that these vices are simply by-products of a sworn allegiance to the mission statement of the City of Man. When we only focus our battle on the by-products, we are quickly dismissed as prudish, puritanical vestiges from a bygone era of “traditional values.”
Until the Christian Church understands this concept we are doomed to repeat yesterday’s battle over and over again. If William Carey had listened to the conventional wisdom of the church leaders of the 18th century, where would overseas missions be today? Carey understood that missions must involve assimilation into a particular culture—to comprehend their point of view—so that the Gospel could do its full work of reclamation and restoration, not just a surface-level spit and polish. Instead of constantly pruning the fruits of disbelief, Carey diligently labored to chop down the trees.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water (James 3: 9-12).
Christ offers a comprehensive gospel that redirects both hearts and minds. Abraham searched for a city “whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). This doesn’t mean that he was looking for a city that didn’t have a Wall Street. Abraham was the first foreign missionary, “not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise” (Heb. 11: 8b-9). Cities are not built without unifying principles. The city of man and the city of God have different leaders, but similar agendas. Cultural clean-up will not have a lasting effect until the king of the city of man has been dethroned.