How to Study Culture

You can’t engage what you don’t understand.

That might seem obvious, but if we’re honest, many Christians don’t really understand the world around them. It’s easy to disappear into a Christian subculture with our own music, radio stations, books, and websites, to the point that we’re not really existing in the larger culture.

But we can’t leverage our culture’s stories to explain the gospel without knowing both the gospel and the stories. We’ll circle back to knowing the gospel shortly, but for now, let’s talk about knowing culture’s stories.

Get to Know Culture’s Stories

How do you get to know culture’s stories? You learn what’s out there and seek to understand it.

Does that mean you should watch all the movies and shows everyone’s talking about at work, or spend your money on all the same things? No.

You don’t have to watch Game of Thrones to know about it. You don’t have to listen to music that’s degrading to women to hear what they’re saying. Instead, you can learn about these things through cultural commentators whose job it is to know what’s going on in the world.

Become a student of the culture around you, especially those aspects of culture that may be of least interest you but of most interest to those around you.

Studying culture will look different for everyone. To give you an idea of what this is like in my life, here are some of the ways I learn about culture:

Online articles

I read and subscribe to lots of free online publications, both secular and Christian, like The Atlantic (a progressive, secular outlet), The Gospel Coalition (a conservative, Christian outlet), The New York Times (a liberal, secular outlet), Christianity Today (a moderate, Christian outlet), and ERLC (the Ethics & Religious Liberties Commission of the SBC; a conservative, Christian outlet). If I want to know what conservatives are thinking and talking about, I’ll check FOX News. If I want to know what liberals are thinking, I’ll check CNN.

Each of these provides a unique cultural view and help me understand how people who belong to those cultures see the world. But regardless of which outlets you choose to read, try and balance your intake to hear from multiple sides of culture.

Podcasts

This is probably my favorite form of media right now. Podcasts are basically radio-like programs that you download to your phone. There are all kinds of shows, but one of my favorites is The World and Everything In It from World Radio. It’s like NPR from a Christian worldview. It’s definitely conservative, but it helps you approach the day’s new with eyes of faith. Al Mohler’s The Briefing is another great daily overview of the headlines from a Christian perspective. If you want to know what the more liberal, culture makes of the news, there are daily news digests from The New York Times (The Daily), NPR (Up First), and others. Film and TV podcasts like the Slashfilmcast are great for listening to reviews and overviews of some of the most culture-shaping artforms.

Social media

Most major news outlets and reporters are active on social media. Your mileage may vary when it comes to the ease of use or enjoyment of these platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, but if leveraged the right way, they can be helpful sources of cultural study. For instance, I’ve used Twitter for several years as both a way to share information and to keep an eye on what’s going on in the broader American culture. Doing this well requires careful curation of who you follow. 

Books

Obviously, books can be very helpful sources of cultural study. But what may be less known is that book lists and book review outlets can help you get a quick understanding of what books are shaping the cultural conversation. This can be as easy as looking up the New York Times bestseller list or Amazon’s best sellers and reading the descriptions of several of the top sellers, or more involved, like reading the New York Times book reviews or New York Review of Books, the Gospel Coalition’s book reviews, or Kirkus Reviews

I know what you’re thinking: that sounds like a lot of work. And in some ways, it is.

But think about it like this. If you were to go overseas as a missionary in a country you had never visited that spoke a language you didn’t know, you would do lots of homework to learn how to communicate the gospel effectively to the people there.

So why don’t we do the same thing here? We are missionaries sent to a particular place in a particular country with plenty of people who don’t know the gospel. As Christ’s ambassadors, one of our jobs is to understand the culture we live in so we can effectively share the gospel with the people around us.

To that end, the most important way to engage culture and learn how to speak into it is to talk to people in it.

People

We can read all the books and watch all the movies we want, but nothing prepares us to speak into it like speaking into it.

Talk to your neighbors. Talk to your coworkers. Talk to your friends and family. Spend time understanding them so you can reach them for Christ.

Be hospitable. Invite your neighbors over for dinner. Take coworkers out to lunch. Meet people for coffee. Do something to reach out to and love on your neighbors. Hospitality lets people know you care about them, and it creates opportunities for conversations about faith, which ties into asking good questions.

When you’re talking to people, ask good questions that get them to go below the surface.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m around people I don’t know well, or even people I do, it’s easy to stay on the surface. It’s safer there. I don’t have to tell you what I believe or what I think. I don’t have to be vulnerable.

Do the heavy lifting

The thing about us is that we want to go deep, we just don’t want to make the first move.

We don’t want to do the heavy lifting in the conversation, but we want someone to ask us about something that really matters.

Do the heavy lifting. Ask good questions. When someone tells you they had a good weekend, ask them what they did. When they tell you what they did, ask them why they find those things fun.

When someone tells you they had a crazy day at work, ask them what they mean. When they tell you what they mean, ask them how the difficult moments made them feel.

Say things like “Tell me more about that,” or “What do you mean by that?” or “How did that make you feel?”

Proverbs 20:5 says, “Counsel in a person’s heart is deep water; but a person of understanding draws it out.” Draw out the counsel in a person’s heart, bit by bit. Most people have plenty to say if you take the time to listen and ask good questions.

Do Your Cultural Homework

God has you in your family, your neighborhood, your workplace, and your community because he wants you to speak the gospel to the people in those particular cultures.

But you can’t do that well if you don’t know the stories those people are living and breathing. 

So do some cultural homework. Read some stuff, listen to some things, but most importantly, talk to some people — for God’s glory and neighbor’s good.

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.

Where You Are

When I was younger, my eyes were always on the horizon. I wanted to go somewhere else, be someone else, and live a different life.

Now that I’m in my thirties, my aspirations have flipped. I don’t want to go anywhere else, be anyone else (at least, on my better days), or live a different life.

I live in the same area I grew up in, and love it. I run or walk one of two routes every morning, and get anxious if I can’t. I work from home, and though it’s nice to get out and, you know, see people every now and then, I find it immensely comforting.

Instead of running from my roots, I feel like planting them.

This sentiment is not new to me. It’s reflected well in two Disney movies (I have 3 girls, so an increasing number of my reference points are Disney princess-themed, sorry!): Moana and The Beauty and the Beast.

Consider these lyrics sung by Belle in the opening number of The Beauty and the Beast:

Little town It’s a quiet village
Ev’ry day
Like the one before
Little town
Full of little people

There goes the baker with his tray, like always
The same old bread and rolls to sell
Ev’ry morning just the same
Since the morning that we came
To this poor provincial town

There must be more than this provincial life!

I used to identify so much with Belle. My world felt too small, too routine. There must be more than this suburban life, I thought. Surely I was made for more.

Or consider the updated take on the same idea from Moana, where her father and others try to convince her that their home is all they need:

Moana, make way, make way
Moana, it’s time you knew
The village of Motonui is all you need
The dancers are practicing
They dance to an ancient song

Who needs a new song?
This old one’s all we need

There comes a day
When you’re gonna look around
And realize happiness is where you are

Certainly, I would be one of the young listeners rolling my eyes at this point, had the movie been released in my childhood. But instead of feeling my eyes rolling, I feel my head nodding.

I listen to some new music, but not much. For the most part, the old songs—the ones I internalized in high school and college when I had the time to do so—are all I need. At some point, my eyes opened and I realized that happiness was (or rather, could be) found right where I was.

I suspect some of this nostalgia has to do with my aging, but more than my age, I find my faith informs my feelings on rootedness.

I’m a Southern Baptist by confession, and so my focus is squarely on fulfilling the Great Commission. I pray often that God would send my family wherever he wants us, whether that’s across the street or around the world. And I mean that prayer.

But regardless of whether a Christian stays or goes, they are called to belong where they are—to contribute to the flourishing of the place they find themselves in.

When God’s people found themselves exiled in Babylon because of their disobedience, God told them to put down roots in their new home:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

Israel is to contribute to Babylon’s flourishing because, by doing so, they would flourish, too.

And notice that God said, “the city where I have sent you.” We are where we are because God has put us there. Yes, he may send us elsewhere at some point, but wherever he has us, we should be praying for the good of the place and the people in it. And we should be making it a better place while we’re there.

So yes, I live in the same place I was born. I married my high school sweetheart. I live most of my life within five square miles. And I couldn’t be happier.

For however long it lasts, I’ll enjoy the life God has given me in the place he has me. I’m singing along with Moana and her village,

So here I’ll stay
My home, my people beside me
And when I think of tomorrow
There we are

A Mom to Prisoners: 72-Year-Old Makes a Difference in Texas Prisons

At 72 years old, Dorothy Henry has become a mother to hundreds. She travels to prisons around Texas as a Prison Fellowship® volunteer, sharing the Gospel through her testimony. Her nurturing heart and simple faith remind many of their mother or grandmother.

Dorothy has never been incarcerated, but she’s been in plenty of prisons. Her son, John, was incarcerated three times on drug-related offenses.

“John was a good kid,” she says. “He didn’t get mixed up with the wrong crowd—he just chose it himself.”

John spent 11 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. His second sentence started in 1996, and for the next 10 years, Dorothy spent many days and nights on her knees in prayer.

Read the rest of my article at Prison Fellowship’s blog

She Wanted a Better Life for Her Children, But Was Stealing Worth the Separation?

Pregnant, 15, and the oldest of six kids in a crowded Detroit home, Charnell Scott could feel the weight of the world pressing down on her shoulders. When her baby girl became the seventh child in the household, a sense of duty and pride kept Charnell going—but it also kept her from asking for assistance. When things got tight, she started stealing clothes and food to help her family survive.

It wasn’t long before she got caught. Charnell was 18 the first time she went to jail.

Read the rest of my article at Prison Fellowship’s blog.