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We live in an era where the Christian perception of culture is almost certainly negative. Culture is viewed as something to avoid, something that is tainted. While this assessment and response may seem to be valid on the surface-level, in reality, it is a fool’s errand. Avoiding culture is about as possible as avoiding breathing. Culture is what happens when people interact with the world around them. “Creation is what God makes; culture is what we make.” Culture will cease to exist only when people cease to exist.
When a film takes in 100 million dollars in its opening weekend (like Iron Man), and when a TV show is able to generate almost 100 million votes (like American Idol), the Christian can respond in several ways, but ignorance it is not one of them. If, as Henry Van Til has famously declared, “culture is simply...religion externalized,” then we should not be very surprised when the culture follows the prevailing religion of the day, namely humanism. Since humanists would never admit that their religion is actually a religion, we can turn Van Til’s quote around to get much the same effect: “Religion is simply...culture internalized.” In other words, culture is both an internal and external expression of the heart of man; when it is internal we call it “religion,” when external we call it “culture.” But the source—the root—is the same place.
In Luke 6:44-45, Jesus informs his first-century audience that “each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” In his epistle to the “twelve tribes scattered among the nations,” James makes a similar point when he writes: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18b). Or to put it in the language of the eminent 20th century philosopher and cultural critic, Forrest Gump, “stupid is as stupid does.”
Throughout this series, I will maintain that Christians disdain the culture around them to their own peril. The very fact that the culture is hollow and spending its time and money voting 97 million times for the next American Idol is only an indictment on the Church. If we are ashamed of what we see before us in books, magazine articles, newspapers, and on film and television screens worldwide, we had better recognize that the fault lies at the doors of our homes and churches. It may make us feel better to groan and roll our eyes at the trash and hedonism that passes for culture, but we must always remember that stupid is as stupid does. We have the sovereign Lord of Glory, the culture-changer par excellence in our corner, yet all we tend to do is hang our head in shame and defeat, occasionally slinging helpful lines of retaliation like “why don’t you people read?” They do read, they read their own prophets and gurus, as well as watching them on TV and film screens. Iron Man did not do so well in its opening weekend because it was such an advanced product, it did so well because the advancement of the product (i.e. the marketing) was so well-executed. The producers of Iron Man created a need for the product months before it was available. Christians view marketing as some sort of Satanic deception and then sit around in small groups swigging bad coffee pondering deeply why they’re weak and ineffective. Here’s an idea: maybe we could do a Christian Idol and conduct a nationwide search with four judges (we wouldn’t want to appear as if we’re stealing someone else’s format of three judges) and find the next big undiscovered mega-church pastor. We could reward him (or her, wouldn’t want to offend the culture) with a ten-thousand member, 50,000 square foot complex complete with a basketball court and an espresso bar. But then again, maybe the title is a bit much...I’ll ponder this more for next week...