How to Determine Which Parts of Culture are OK to Engage

I mentioned in my last post that I would cover what to do when you’re trying to determine if a Christian can participate in a particular aspect of culture.

If a particular form of cultural engagement causes you to disobey one of God’s commands, you shouldn’t participate in it. Simple. Sometimes it’s obvious what we shouldn’t participate in.

Pornography is an easy example. It’s an industry built on sin, and it’s impossible to participate in it without sinning. So there’s simply no way our Christian conscience should let us participate in it.

But it’s not always so black and white, is it? What about watching popular shows like Game of Thrones or viewing classic works of art that depict nude figures? Can a Christian participate in these kinds of culture?

Let’s build a biblical framework for thinking through how to determine if a particular aspect of culture is something you can engage in.

No Worthless Things

The first text that comes to mind here is Psalm 101:3, which says, “I will not let anything worthless guide me,” or more literally, “I will not put a worthless thing in front of my eyes.”

When it comes to evaluating a particular aspect of culture, such as a movie, show, book, or product, we should ask ourselves, Is this worthless? Does it contribute anything of value? Is it redeeming in any way?

If the object in question falls under that “worthless” category, then we shouldn’t engage it. No further analysis needed.

But Paul takes this one step further. He says that even if something is acceptable to engage in, that doesn’t mean it’s best.

Just Because You Can, it Doesn’t Mean You Should

In 1 Corinthians 6:12, Paul writes, “‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me,’ but I will not be mastered by anything.”

If you look at this verse, you’ll notice that there within Paul’s quotation are two phrases set in quotation marks, which means that Paul is quoting someone or something else. It’s the phrase, “Everything is permissible for me.” Commentators believe Paul is referring to a popular Corinthian slogan.

Regarding this verse, the notes in my ESV Study Bible say,

The Corinthians have adopted from the culture around them the idea that the body is permitted to have everything that it craves.

Notice two things. First, Paul gives us a “yes, but” scenario. He says, yes, everything may be permissible for me because I am free in Christ, but that doesn’t mean everything is beneficial, or helpful, for me. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

The second thing to note about this verse is why Paul says we shouldn’t do some things. I like how my ESV Study Bible puts this:

Paul knows that human desires are tainted with sin, which uses these desires to master the person for its own evil purposes.

We all desire to participate in the worldly parts of culture. But our desires are not pure. They are tainted with sin. And sin will pounce on our ungodly desires and master us if we’re not careful.

So yes, we can participate in many aspects of our culture. But just because we can, it doesn’t mean we should. 

More on Cultural Engagement

If you want to read more about cultural engagement, I’ve written about why Christians should engage culture, and postures we can take for cultural engagement.

As I said in one of those posts, when Jesus engaged the culture, he rubbed off on them, not the other way around. He ate with sinners but he didn’t sin with sinners. That’s what effective cultural engagement looks like. To be in the world but not of it; working in the world without being stained by it.

And the only way to pull that off is to first engage with Christ. The Spirit of Christ has to have taken up residence in our heart, soul, mind, and strength before we can engage the culture for him. Then and only then will we be prepared to engage the culture.

3 Biblical Postures for Cultural Engagement

Christians should be engaging the culture. As I wrote recently, we Christians (just like anyone) can’t avoid culture any more than a fish can avoid water.

But we don’t engage culture just because we can’t avoid it. We engage culture because it’s part of our calling. The whole counsel of Scripture calls us to engage the world around us so we can speak the gospel into it.

But how do you do that? And how do you do it without compromising your faith or the integrity of the gospel?

The book of Daniel shows us three postures for engaging culture.

Why the Book of Daniel?

I’m pulling these lessons from Daniel for good reason. For some quick background, Daniel was a prophet of God that lived during Israel’s exile to Babylon. Because of Israel’s continual disobedience, God sent the Babylonian army to destroy Jerusalem and send the people into exile.

Babylon was known for its cruelty and gruesomeness when conquering other nations, but interestingly, they didn’t just try and kill everyone in these nations and wipe out their cultures. Babylonians noticed that persecuting religious or ethnic minorities led to unrest and political instability, so they decided to try something new.

Babylonian kings told those they conquered that they were welcome to keep their gods and customs, as long as they conformed to the Babylonian way of life. As long as they kept their culture and religion to themselves, they would be fine. This is called cultural assimilation, and it’s the same pressure we face in America.

Babylon would assimilate other cultures into theirs until those that had been assimilated couldn’t tell one culture from the other. They did this by capturing the best and brightest a culture had to offer and indoctrinating them in the Babylonian culture. Which brings us to Daniel:

The [Babylonian] king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the Israelites from the royal family and from the nobility—young men without any physical defect, good-looking, suitable for instruction in all wisdom, knowledgeable, perceptive, and capable of serving in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the Chaldean language and literature.  —Daniel 1:3-4

The king’s goal for Daniel and his friends was to assimilate them into their culture so that the Babylonian culture would then permeate the Jewish culture, rendering it ineffective and non-threatening.

Because God’s favor is on him, Daniel quickly rose to the top of the class and became one of the king’s most trusted advisors. So here’s Daniel, who was raised as a young boy to fear the one true God, serving in the bureaucracy of a pagan nation that had just murdered many of the people he grew up with and desecrated his city. How in the world could he serve God faithfully in that setting?

We’re going to learn three lessons from Daniel’s story about how to faithfully engage culture. The first is non-participation.

Posture 1: Non-Participation

Remember, Daniel and his friends had just been taken into the king’s custody and were being told to eat and drink the king’s diet. Let’s pick up with the story, starting at verse 8:

Daniel determined that he would not defile himself with the king’s food or with the wine he drank. So he asked permission from the chief eunuch not to defile himself. God had granted Daniel kindness and compassion from the chief eunuch, yet he said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and drink. What if he sees your faces looking thinner than the other young men your age? You would endanger my life with the king.”

So Daniel said to the guard whom the chief eunuch had assigned to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then examine our appearance and the appearance of the young men who are eating the king’s food, and deal with your servants based on what you see.” —Daniel 1:8-13

Daniel had a choice to make: he could participate or not participate in the diet, meaning he could participate or not participate in this aspect of the Babylonian culture. But everyone else was participating? Surely Daniel could just wink at this, right?

No, he couldn’t. Daniel chose not to participate — non-participation — in this aspect of his culture because he knew he couldn’t eat the Babylonian diet and obey God’s commands at the same time. That’s how we should decide whether or not to engage in culture today.

(Now, not every situation is black and white. Sometimes it’s unclear if we can or cannot participate in a particular form of culture, but for the sake of space, I’ll have to explore that in a future post.)

Daniel chose non-participation despite the very real danger to his life because to do so would be against God’s commands. All of us will face moments where non-participation is called for. Our lives may not be endangered, but our reputations, or jobs, or savings, or relationships might be.

Posture 2: Faithful Presence

Daniel chose non-participation when a particular form of cultural engagement would cause him to disobey God’s commands. But what about those times when engagement wouldn’t cause us to disobey a direct command from God?

That brings us to the next lesson from Daniel’s life, which I’ll call faithful presence. Faithful presence is what it looks like to participate in a sinful culture in a godly way.

This lesson comes from all of Daniel chapter 2, where the Babylonian king is distraught over a dream and is looking for someone to interpret it for him. So he told the mediums, necromancers, magicians, and wise men that if they didn’t tell him what the dream was and interpret it, that he would have them and their families killed. Daniel was considered a wise man, so he was on the chopping block too.

The wise men were, naturally, in disbelief, because how could the king ask them to read his mind? No one can do that. But the king wasn’t backing down.

When word of the king’s decision made its way to Daniel, he was understandably grieved and afraid. Daniel hightailed it back to his house and told his buddies, and urged them to pray so that they, along with Babylon’s other wise men, wouldn’t be destroyed.

In the night, God came to Daniel in a vision and revealed the king’s dream and its interpretation to Daniel. Not wasting any time, Daniel found someone that trusted him in the king’s guard and pleaded with the guard to let him go before the king.

Here’s what happened next:

The king said in reply to Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, “Are you able to tell me the dream I had and its interpretation?”

Daniel answered the king: “No wise man, medium, magician, or diviner is able to make known to the king the mystery he asked about. But there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has let King Nebuchadnezzar know what will happen in the last days. Your dream and the visions that came into your mind as you lay in bed were these: Your Majesty, while you were in your bed, thoughts came to your mind about what will happen in the future. The revealer of mysteries has let you know what will happen.

As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have more wisdom than anyone living, but in order that the interpretation might be made known to the king, and that you may understand the thoughts of your mind. —Daniel 2:27-30

Daniel was forced to participate in his culture or he and his friends would be killed for an unjust cause. This was a time where participation in the culture was good and right.

Daniel’s answer reveals what that being a faithful presence starts with acknowledging God. Daniel told the king who thought he was the lord of the earth that there is a God in heaven who is actually the one in charge. And that God is in control of what happens to the king, his kingdom, and everything else. 

But Daniel was also humble. He could have easily just taken credit for what he already knew. After all, God had already revealed the king’s dream and the interpretation to him.

You’ve no doubt found yourself in a similar situation where you could easily keep quiet about the God of the universe his Son who rose from the dead. In those moments, don’t forget to acknowledge God. Like Daniel said, God is the only reason any of us has anything to offer.

When you receive a promotion, are you quick to pat yourself on the back and allow others to sing your praises? It would be easy to do. What if you first acknowledged that God gave you the wisdom or work ethic or experience needed to get the promotion?

Posture 3: Resistance

The last lesson we’ll look at from Daniel’s life comes from the famous Daniel and the Lion’s Den story in Daniel chapter 6.

By this time, Daniel had risen through the ranks to be one of the king’s trusted satraps, or governors. The Lord blessed him in everything he did, so, naturally, the king loved him and his fellow governors hated him. They hated him so much, they decided to try and get him killed. 

The only problem was they couldn’t find any faults with him. He was so competent and faithful that he was above reproach in every area of his life. But there was one thing they knew Daniel wouldn’t compromise—his God.

So they tricked the king into making a law that all Babylonian citizens were required to pray to the king alone. If anyone prayed to another god, they would be thrown into a den of lions. The trap was set, and the king’s decree went out to the nation. Daniel 6:10 records what happens next:

“When Daniel learned that the document had been signed, he went into his house. The windows in its upstairs room opened toward Jerusalem, and three times a day he got down on his knees, prayed, and gave thanks to his God, just as he had done before.”

Resistance is taking action to pursue obedience to God in defiance of a cultural norm. That’s exactly what Daniel was doing. He learned the document had been signed, so he went home.

What does he do at home? What he’s always done. He prays with the windows open, facing Jerusalem, giving thanks to God. He knowingly disobeys the newly established cultural norm because obeying the norm would mean disobeying God.

This is more than non-participation. This is Daniel taking action to resist the culture.

Each of us is presented with moments like these, probably more than we think. Have you ever found yourself in a culture of lying at work, where everyone fudges the numbers or slips an extra receipt on the expense report? Do you resist or give in?

Or maybe you’ve been out with other your married friends when they started bashing their spouse and they wanted to know what bugs you about yours. Do you resist or give in?

These are everyday moments. All of us are called on to take action to resist culture when participation would cause us to disobey God’s commands.

The Danger of Cultural Engagement

Now that I’ve covered these three postures for cultural engagement, let me say a quick word of caution. The danger with cultural engagement is that we enter the culture trying to influence it but we end up being influenced instead. Too many Christians set out to colonize the world and end up being colonized by it. That’s not what we’re after.

When Jesus engaged the culture, he rubbed off on them, not the other way around. He ate with sinners but he didn’t sin with sinners. That’s what effective cultural engagement looks like. To be in the world but not of it; working in the world without being stained by it.

And the only way to pull that off is to first be colonized by Christ. The Spirit of Christ has to have taken up residence in our heart, soul, mind, and strength before we can engage the culture for him.

So, please don’t engage the culture if you haven’t first engaged Christ. Otherwise, you have nothing to offer the culture that it doesn’t already have.

Engage with Christ through faith — spend time with him by reading his Bible and praying with him and seeking his insight. Then and only then will you or I or anyone else be truly prepared to engage the culture.

Should Christians Engage Culture?

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 shouldin fact, they mustengage 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.

How to Put Out a Dumpster Fire

A dumpster fire is like porn: it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it.

Fortunately, Merriam-Webster is here to help. Its lexicographers added the term to the dictionary this year:

Dumpster fire (noun, US informal): “an utterly calamitous or mismanaged situation or occurrence: disaster.”

Depending on who you follow on Twitter, you may not have needed anyone to define it for you. Dumpster fires spread like wildfire through social networks. Whether it’s your beloved sports team’s abysmal season, another campaign nightmare, or a public official’s latest gaffe, you’ve surely witnessed a dumpster fire burning across your social media feeds. This is true even of “Christian Twitter,” where it’s not uncommon to see prominent figures sparring over a blog post or deleted tweet.

If Christians want to present a winsome gospel in this cultural moment (and I hope we do), we can’t get bogged down in the muck and mire. We have to find another way to engage the public square and bring the love of Christ to our neighbors. Fortunately, the book of Proverbs is full of countercultural wisdom for putting out dumpster fires.

Stop Heaping Trash

Everyone’s first reaction to hearing about a dumpster fire is to add their take. Fires need fuel to burn, and all too often, we’re happy to provide the fuel. Our negative reactions and hot-takes might seem clever, but all they’re really doing is heaping trash on already flaming dumpsters. Is this not what social media and infotainment sound like today?

The only way out of a world of dumpster fires is to stop fueling them. Proverbs 26:20 says, “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.”

John Stonestreet, when asked about the negative tone of public discourse in a recent Q&A, said, “Our ability to not escalate our emotions even when our opponents are is going to be the only way we can really obey Jesus in a cultural moment where our views have gone from being considered wrong or outdated to being considered wrong and evil” (emphasis mine).

If Christians choose not to add opinions and retweets to arguments that are clearly going nowhere, the quarreling would cease, at least in our spheres of influence. But as it is now, we are too often drawn into dumpster fires and come out looking just as foolish as everyone else. Proverbs 26:4 tells us, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” The more we answer a fool (especially online), the more foolish we become, and the more foolish we make the Church look.

The best way to extinguish a dumpster fire is to stop feeding it. After all, “If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet” (Prov. 29:9). And it’s only in the quiet that we can learn to read the signs of the times. It might feel good at the moment to vent your anger, but as millions of deleted tweets testify, you’ll regret broadcasting those unguarded thoughts soon enough. “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Prov. 29:11).

The reality is, the more we talk or type, the more we sin. There’s wisdom in keeping quiet at the right times. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent”  (Prov. 10:19). Stop heaping trash on dumpster fires. Quietly hold back whatever you feel compelled to say. Wait 24 hours and ask yourself if it’s still worth it.

Be Slow to Anger

It would be great if we learned to stop stoking dumpster fires, but the real issue is in our quick-to-anger hearts. James writes, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jas. 1:19-20). The calamity of a situation dubbed a dumpster fire beckons us to be quick to anger, quick to speak, and slow to listen—the opposite of James’ command.

Christians’ refusal to heed the Holy Spirit’s instruction in James puts our folly on display. Proverbs 14:29 says, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” When we jump into a dumpster fire, we show a lack of understanding.

But when we control our emotions and exercise self-control, we demonstrate good sense. “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). It’s good sense to be slow to anger. Those who are slow to anger guard themselves from saying something they’ll regret, and, for Christians, they guard the witness and integrity of the church they represent.

Believer, be slow to anger. Not only does this reflect the character of God (see Ex. 34:6), but it makes good sense. What a witness it would be to have churches filled with men and women who gave measured responses and weren’t driven and tossed by the cultural winds.

Give a Soft Answer

There are times when a response to a dumpster fire is called for, times where conscience or faith compels a reply. In these times, believers can dampen the flames with a gracious word. Proverbs 15:1 counsels, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Before Gideon led Israel into battle with Midian, God whittled down Israel’s army to just 300 men so it would be clear that God won the battle. The men of Ephraim confronted Gideon afterwards, demanding he explain why he hadn’t called them into battle. Gideon thought quickly and gave a soft reply: “What have I accomplished compared to you? Aren’t even the leftover grapes of Ephraim’s harvest better than the entire crop of my little clan … ? God gave you victory over Oreb and Zeeb, the commanders of the Midianite army. What have I accomplished compared to that?” (Judg. 8:2-3). The Ephraimites’ response? “Then their anger against [Gideon] subsided when he said this” (Judg. 8:3).

Our words can bring peace or pain. This was highlighted by a recent Washington Post article on Kristen Waggoner, the public face of Alliance Defending Freedom, the nonprofit behind high-profile religious liberty cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop. The author doesn’t appear to share Waggoner’s views, but she can’t help but be taken by Waggoner’s joy:

“Waggoner answers all questions about her work, even on the most contentious of issues, with a smile. Her colleagues say she is always, always smiling. Her incessant pleasantness can come off as strategic, a way of dismantling those trying to paint her as cruel or intolerant. She says joy is just the mark of a person of faith.”

Wouldn’t it be great if Christians—if you—were marked by “incessant pleasantness” instead of backbiting and infighting?

Standing Out in a World Gone Mad

In a world gone mad, Christians have an opportunity to stand out in a good way. Instead of adding fuel to the dumpster fires around us, we can douse the flames with the grace of Christ.

There will never be a shortage of calamities and mismanaged situations. But if we stop heaping trash on dumpster fires, start being slow to anger, and learn to give a soft answer, we can put the grace of Jesus on display and show the world that there’s a better way to have a conversation—one that doesn’t involve shouting louder and louder.