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.

Developing Wisdom for the Digital Age

Complexity requires wisdom. Since the beginning, life has continued to increase in complexity at a more rapid pace. Each societal, cultural, or technological change requires wisdom for how to navigate the new, more complex world.

We used to have decades, or even centuries, to develop a base of wisdom through living and thinking deeply. But that world no longer exists.

The pace of wisdom and technology

Remarking on this in the preface to his book The Tech-Wise Family, Andy Crouch writes, “…the pace of technological change has surpassed anyone’s capacity to develop enough wisdom to handle it.” I think his point is that technological change is coming much faster than we’re able to develop wisdom about how to react to it. And he’s right.

As I write this, it’s 2017 and both Google and Apple have already held their annual developer’s conferences. The central themes of both were artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). The iPhone was introduced a mere ten years ago in 2007 (along with Facebook and Twitter), kicking off the smartphone explosion which revolutionized the way humans interact with the world. But we’ve had little time to reflect on all that’s changed.

Think of how this has worked with something like social media. It used to feel like every 6 months a new platform would come out you’d have to be on. While you were still trying to learn Facebook all your friends were getting on Twitter. While you were learning Twitter you heard about this photo sharing app called Instagram everyone was loving. Then it was Snapchat. Next it’ll be some VR or AR platform. Each of these requires unique wisdom and discernment to use, but we’ve had next to no time to develop that wisdom – much less pass it along to the next generation.

That’s not to say there’s no wisdom for navigating these spheres, but there is significantly less wisdom for using Twitter than, say, driving a car. Both require some amount of skill and competency, and both can be quite dangerous, though in different ways.

Becoming desensitized to the promises of technology

Perhaps more dangerous than the speed of technological change is that we’ve become used to the pace and no longer wait to evaluate whether or not a new development actually delivered on its promises. Crouch writes, “We are stuffing our lives with technology’s new promises, with no clear sense of whether technology will help us keep the promises we’ve already made.” Facebook ballooned to the social behemoth it is today before we could think through the ramifications of consolidating so much of the world’s attention on one company’s view of what’s most important.

Now, maybe more than ever, the church needs people who will think deeply about the world around it. That world is changing faster than ever before, and if we’re not careful it’ll be like finding ourselves in a hole of our own digging. We’ll climb out, eventually. But it would have been much easier to stop digging the hole so deep to begin with.

A call for wisdom (and courage)

So this is a call for wisdom, which is really a call for courage. The world has changed quicker than anyone expected. But we can’t continue to idly accept the latest Silicon Valley offering without thinking deeply about it. We need the courage to be different, to ask tough questions, to be late adopters, or even to opt out entirely of certain forms of technology. But we can’t get there unless we cultivate technological wisdom rooted in theology.

I’ll be sharing more on this subject here in the days ahead, including more writing on the subject and sharing more resources that are helpful in developing a deeper understanding of the digital tech landscape.

The Three Callings of a Christian

If you’re a Christian, you don’t have “a calling.” You have three. Two of the three are fundamental and universal—that is, they aren’t optional and they aren’t individual, but they are by far the most important callings in your life. The good news (and hard news, actually) is they each come with a community who can help you fulfill them—in fact, without that community you won’t fulfill them at all.

I’ve been trying to write my own version of this, but haven’t been able to say it better. Read the rest on Andy Crouch’s site.