by Eric Tonjes
“We follow an incarnate Savior who ate with sinners and dialoged with intellectuals. The apostle Paul quotes Greek philosophers, Jude references non-canonical texts, and Proverbs gladly borrows wisdom from the Egyptians. As Augustine put it, “A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found.” What’s more, the broader culture is not just a sphere from which to distill truths, but also a stage on which the gospel can be performed. We enter into the world as witnesses to Christ, taking every thought captive for his glory. We disciple nations and cultures; we stand before Caesar and witness for Christ.
I say all of this up front because I still very much believe in this calling. We are not only concerned with souls or individuals’ internal lives. Christianity heralds a kingdom that right now presses against the gates of this world and will one day topple them. However, I can’t help feeling like the shifting waters that carried me out of Christian isolationism have—for too many of the people who joined me in this exodus—overflowed the other bank.
For example, I occasionally read “missional” publications, and for all their insistence on dialoging with culture, what I see mostly applauds it. I hear lectures about finding God inSex and the City, horror movies, and mass-market hip-hop, but after having found God there no one seems to notice the sexual scars, splatter porn, and glorified thuggery. I try to have conversations about art or music or best-selling novels and discover that many Christian friends still cannot wrestle with them in a cruciform way. Put simply, we have lost our sense of cultural critique.
I understand that many of us are reacting to being told something that was once wrong is now okay. Teetotalers sometimes turn into drunks once they’re allowed to have a pint or two. Many of us seem to have an angry little fundamentalist minister on our shoulders still chastising us for worldly pursuits, and we’re doing everything possible to avoid considering he might be just a little bit right. The problem is, while a call for cultural engagement set us free from a moralistic avoidance mentality, cultural engagement has too easily been replaced by acculturation.
Put another way, Christians ought to be engaged with culture so we can challenge it, remake it, and—at times—bear prophetic witness against it. We, like our Savior, walk in the world as witnesses to a greater world to come. To be in it, but not of it. Instead, what started as putting on our suits to get in the door has turned into an attempt to blend into the crowd. We are all dressed up with nothing to say.
How to Enter the Cultural Conversation
A few particular points might clarify my concerns. First, we’ve misunderstood the nature of entering the cultural conversation. We’ve argued, rightly, that a conversation requires us to listen to and understand what the culture is saying. However, we must then talk back. We need to know the language and stories of this world, but then we must tell our own story back and show that it is greater than this world has ever imagined. We need to affirm those truths that belong to God, but we also need to challenge the errors. Finding God in the world is a first step in helping the world find God.
Take, for example, the way we engage with art. If we stand in the gallery sipping our wine and nod appreciatively before returning home, we have only finished the first half of our calling—and a calling half done isn’t really done at all. Only when we bring Christ to bear have we lived out the in-but-not-of life of the kingdom. Until we have said “That is truth, and look where it points!” or “Yes I see, but what about . . . ?” or “I don’t think that’s quite right,” we have not engaged culture; we have only capitulated to it.
Second, we’ve gone off the rails in confusing cultural engagement with consumerism and entertainment. I remember reading an interview with a group of Christians, many former adult entertainers themselves, who felt called to conduct outreach to members of the pornography industry. The interviewer asked these missionaries whether they struggled with sexual temptation in this setting. A member of the group replied that it occasionally happened, “but mostly Jesus doesn’t let me look at them that way.” Those brothers and sisters recognized that Christians must refuse to consume culture on its own terms. You can’t evangelize porn stars while still treating them like porn stars; you cannot engage culture while making your primary aim to be entertained by it.
Entertaining Ourselves To Death
This, I think, often explains why so many Christians bristle at attempts to seriously critique the world. We have not yet moved toward the culture missionally, hoping to change it; instead we have raced towards it hungrily, eager to stuff our faces with its desserts. We have moved from an unconditional “no” to an unconditional “yes.” To get uncomfortably specific, if you read The Hunger Games or 50 Shades of Gray or The Unbearable Lightness of Being in order to understand and critique them, or communicate more clearly with those who have read them, more power to you. If you read them for the excitement of kids killing each other, quasi-BDSM experimentation, or continuous adultery, you have a problem. We can biblically justify seeking to be culturally aware and engaged; we cannot justify such entertainment.
Christians have long believed and taught that we are “aliens” and “sojourners” in the sinful system of culture and power that Scripture calls “the world.” Following Christ, we are called to be a part of the world around us. Indeed, like Christ, we long for its resurrection. I will gladly oppose those who seek to partition off the Savior’s kingdom, to only give him hearts and souls and not also offer him bodies and communities and cultures.
But we cannot forsake the fundamentally alien nature of our engagement. We are not called to live—we cannot live—as natives. We cannot forget that right now our King sits in heaven, and that this world will not be our home until he brings heaven down to earth. Until that day, we stand as prophetic heralds, embracing God’s truth and opposing and critiquing all that would set up against it.”