Cultural Commission

By Eric Rauch | Published:October 28, 2010

In my own experience, I have found that many Christians donot understand the “hows” and the “whys” of cultural engagement, even to thepoint of wondering why Christians should be concerned in the first place.Cultural critic Ken Myers states the issue well when he writes: “It might seeman extreme assertion at first, but I believe that the challenge of living withpopular culture may well be as serious for modern Christians as persecution andplagues were for the saints of earlier centuries…Enemies that come loudly andvisibly are usually much easier to fight than those that are undetectable…theerosion of character, the spoiling of innocent pleasures, and the cheapening oflife itself that often accompany modern popular culture can occur so subtlythat we believe nothing has happened.”[1] IfMyers’ assertion is correct, and I believe it is, should it serve as an alarmto retreat, or as a call to advance?

The modern Christian’s response to culture is usually oneof either passive consumption, or the exact opposite one of active condemnation. Both extremes are flawed intheir approach and misunderstand popular culture. In one sense, the condemnerrealizes the power of pop culture on the individual, which is why he chooses toavoid it. He has made a decision that he believes is right for his own personalsanctification, yet he becomes little more than an earth-bound vapor to theculture around him. In other words, in the name of not becoming “of the world,”the condemner of pop culture also ceases being “in the world.”

Conversely, the indiscriminate partaker fails to criticallyanalyze the effect that pop culture is having on him and soon becomes so “ofthe world,” that he must compartmentalize his thinking into “church” things and“non-church” things. That is, he becomes convinced that a split exists between the“secular” and the “sacred.” Forgetting that God created everything in thisworld, the partaker eventually comes to believe that Christianity onlytouches on certain things—going to church, praying before eating, readingthe Bible daily (or…almost daily), etc. But regardless if they are condemnersor partakers, Christianity for these individuals becomes nothing more than areligion of legalism—a man-made system of dos and don’ts—than theall-encompassing worldview that it actually is. The Gospel redeems the wholeman, not just a portion. “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the oldthings passed away; behold new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Modern Christians are quick to forget just how muchChristianity has influenced Western civilization. We take our freedoms and way oflife for granted mostly because we have come to view them as “givens.” But inreality, “Christianity gave birth to the idea of humanity as we know it. Neverbefore the 2,000-year-old religion were slave and free, man and woman, rich andpoor, Jew and Gentile welcomed in equal measure and with immeasurable love…itis the life and death of Jesus Christ that has transcended the ages: forChristians, faith is not merely a cultural logic but a cosmic truth.”[2]The idea of “cosmic truth” has mostly been lost during the last fifty years.The Christianity being offered up by the modern church has been accuratelydescribed as “privately engaging, but socially irrelevant.” Christianitycannot shape the culture if individual Christians do not get involved in theculture, bringing the “cosmic truth”—the salt and light—of Jesus Christ to bearon everyday life and living.

But it is this very idea of bringing the Gospel to bear oneveryday activities that introduces a large amount of confusion. Very often,this confusion is perpetuated by church leaders themselves. For example, in hisbook, Dual Citizens, PCA minister Jason Stellman makes the followingobservation:

Our sacred activity, such as hearing God’s Word andreceiving the Lord’s Supper, therefore, is about as unique and counterculturalas we can get, while our secular activity is just the opposite—it is thoroughlycommon. It is primarily on Sunday, therefore, rather than on Monday throughSaturday, that believers display their peculiarity and distinctiveness from theworld.[3]

On the surface, Stellman’s quotation sounds good, until webegin to realize that he is simply reinforcing the unbiblical notion of asecular/sacred split. Stellman is correct in affirming that the church is atthe peak of its countercultural activity when it is worshiping the risenSavior, but he also misses the obvious point that even Christian worship uses“common” elements like music, speech, bread, and wine (i.e.grape juice).And this is the very point of the Gospel: the common becomes uncommon. Godmanifests His truth both in the world and in the Word. Would Stellman arguethat there are “common” things in heaven, or that there are some things inheaven that do not manifest the glory of God? I suspect not, so I find it a bitconfusing as to why he would believe it about this world, where we are taughtto pray that God’s will be done, as it is in heaven. Jesus taught thateven the stones would cry out in praise to Him if His followers were silent.It’s difficult to imagine something more common than stones.

Later in the same chapter, Stellman approvingly quotes D.G.Hart as saying:

For some Protestants, the goal of applying the faith toall areas of life misconstrues the essence of the Christian message, which has farmore to do with eternal rather than temporal realities. The application ofChristianity to social and personal problems can hurt religion by leadingbelievers to forget what makes their faith holy or sacred…In sum, theapplication of religion to practical affairs sacralizes things that are common(e.g., exercise, eating, politics) and trivializes things that are sacred(e.g., creed, sacraments, and pastoral ministry).[4]

Aside from the fact that the Bible never once says thatcreeds are sacred or that eating is common (in fact, the opposite should betrue: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do allto the glory of God,” 1 Cor. 10:31), Stellman and Hart seem to miss that theGospel is comprehensive in its scope of redemption. John 3:16 says that“God so loved the world“—His entire created order—not just certain“sacred” aspects of His creation. Robert Webber is precise on this importantpoint:

The historic understanding of the incarnation as theassumption of the entire created order has been replaced by a view that in theincarnation God stepped into history to save souls. The focus is no longeron the cosmic work of God in history but on personal salvation. Thelanguage often used to describe salvation through Christ expresses this shift.We speak of God “saving souls.” We focus then not so much on God who redeemsthe world but on Christ who saved me…The current misunderstanding of theincarnation logically results in a split between the sacred and secular becauseif Christ only redeems souls, the stuff of this world is unredeemableCreationseparated from redemption will always result in the secularization of life.[5]

Webber makes it evident that the biblical teaching is oneof totality. Just as the Church is made whole by its individual members, so isGod’s comprehensive redemption of His creation made whole by the Church takingdominion and doing everything to the glory of God; including mundane thingslike eating and drinking. Worship, like prayer, is something that shouldcharacterize Christians every moment, not just when we are gathered corporatelyon Sunday. “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks;for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18). Itis only when we come to see that everything is ordained for God’s glory thateven our daily, “common” activities become an opportunity to worship ourFather.

If more Christians began to see their daily activities asan extension of worship, we would also begin to see a cultural shift. Stellman seems to be more thanwilling to hand the world over to contemporary culture because, “as pilgrims,we will always be outsiders in this passing evil age…After all, we are not thenucleus of a Christian society whose aim is to conquer, but an alien colonywhose aim is to ‘endure to the end’ (Matt. 10:22).”[6] Ifthis is what is being taught to Christians on Sunday—the day when their“peculiarity and distinctiveness” should be most evident—is it really any wonderthat we are making little to no impact on the culture the other six days of theweek? Stellman seems to be content to wait for the world to come to us onSunday to see how radical and countercultural we are, but Jesus had a differentconcept in mind. His final command to His disciples was not one of enduring,but of conquering: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and onearth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizingthem in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching themto observe all that I commanded you…” (Matt. 28:18-20). There is little in theGreat Commission to indicate that Jesus had anything less than victory on Hismind—and neither should we. The Gospel of Jesus redeems souls, lives, andcultures. And it does this because all authority and power has been given toHim.

Endnotes:

1. Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton, IL:Crossway, 1989), xii-xiii []

2. Kate Kirkpatrick, “Reframing Human History,” ChristianityToday (Sept. 2009), 81-82. []

3. Jason J. Stellman, Dual Citizens: Worship and Lifebetween the Already and the Not Yet (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2009),22-23. []

4. D.G. Hart, as quoted in Stellman, Dual Citizens, 26.(Emphasis added by Stellman.) []

5. Robert E. Webber, Who Gets to Narrate the World? (DownersGrove, IL: IVP, 2008), 76-77. (Emphasis in original.) []

6. Stellman, Dual Citizens, 27. []