There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
So begins the late David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address to the graduating class at Kenyon College. The fish in this parable are surrounded by water and have been for so long that they take it for granted. For fish, water is an unavoidable part of life that it defines and shapes every aspect of life, to the degree that it’s impossible for the mythical fish to imagine a world without it.
Culture is like water — we can’t avoid it any more than fish can avoid water.
But we don’t have to engage something just because it’s unavoidable. As long as there have been Christians, they have been debating the issue of cultural engagement. There are many viewpoints on this issue, but we have to start with a simple question: should Christians engage culture?
What is Culture?
Before we can answer that question, we need to define some terms. Let’s start with culture.
In his book, Culture Making, Andy Crouch says,
Culture is the fruit of the human quest for meaning in the world. Culture is both the things we make and the meaning we make in the world around us. Those things and meaning we produce are culture.
According to Crouch, as we make something of the world, whether through meaning or things, we’re making culture. That means when you bake a cake, you’re creating culture; when you develop a spreadsheet, you’re creating culture; when you take a family vacation and make memories, you’re creating culture.
Now let’s define “engage.” When we say “engaging” culture, we’re using engage as a verb. When used that way, it means “to participate or become involved in.” So to say Christians should be “engaging culture” means that they should become involved in culture, or participate in culture.
In one sense, it doesn’t make sense to say we should participate or become involved in culture, because all of us participates in several cultures already, such as our family’s culture or our workplace culture. But when Christians use the phrase “engaging culture,” what we usually mean is engaging non-Christians on their terms, in their culture.
So, to come back to our question, should Christians engage culture? Let’s see what the Bible says about culture.
What Genesis Says About Culture
Whenever we go to the Bible to see what it says about a topic, it’s a good idea to start at the beginning — the very beginning. So let’s go to the Creation account on the first page of the Bible. In Genesis 1:28, right after God made man, the Bible says,
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.”
So here’s this brand new world filled with all the wildness of animals and plants and trees and oceans — a new world teeming with life and possibility. Then God creates Adam and Eve and tells them to subdue it and to rule it — to make something out of it — using the raw materials he has provided. And that’s essentially what culture is — the meaning and the things we make.
This verse, Genesis 1:28, is referred to as “the cultural mandate” — the mandate to make culture and renew the world for the glory of God. So from the first page of the Bible, we’re already talking about culture. But let’s keep going. And let’s just go straight to Jesus.
What Jesus Says About Culture
What did Jesus say about engaging culture? Well, when Jesus relayed what could be called his mission statement, or why he came to earth, he said,
For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
“The lost” refers to those who are living in sin apart from saving faith in himself. If Jesus came to seek the lost, that means he had to go and find them. And where would Jesus find the lost? In the culture, in the world, around him.
If Jesus was interested in seeking and saving the lost, which he clearly said he was, he had to enter into the culture to find them. So, clearly, Jesus was interested in engaging the culture.
What about Paul; what did he say about engaging culture?
What Paul Says About Culture
In perhaps his most far-reaching statement on cultural engagement, the Paul writes,
Although I am free from all and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law — though I myself am not under the law — to win those under the law. To those who are without the law, like one without the law — though I am not without God’s law but under the law of Christ — to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so that I may share in the blessings.”
—1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Paul is saying that he engaged all sorts of cultures — Jew and Gentile, slave and free — in order to reach them with the gospel. Paul was clearly engaging the culture around him.
We also know that Paul and other New Testament writers quoted non-Christian sources in their letters and teaching, indicating that they had enough knowledge and understanding of their culture to be able to apply it to their teaching to help their audiences understand them.
Participating in the Work of God
Based on the few examples found in Genesis and the teaching of Jesus and the Apostle Paul, Christians should engage culture. But notice why Christians are called to engage culture.
In each of the scriptural examples listed above, there is a common reason for engaging culture: to participate in the work of God. And what is the work of God? The work of God is to renew all things — including people and the world. This means we engage culture to renew the world and win people to Christ.
Christians should — in fact, they must — engage culture. Christians can’t be faithful to the call and commands of Christ without engaging the culture around them.
And besides, a fish can’t avoid water.