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.