Faithfully Engaging Culture

Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.
- The Apostle Paul (Acts 17:22)

How can seeing a blockbuster movie be a Gospel-driven experience? In what ways can listening to the latest chart-topping song be a Christ-centered endeavor? Are we accommodating culture when we constantly consume? Do we show more hatred than love when we consistently critique? What is a beneficial posture as Christ followers toward culture at large?

These questions are worth the wrestle.

Interacting with culture is a challenge for and creates tension within many Christ followers. How do we keep our feet firmly established on the foundation of the Gospel while also maintaining points of tangency with the culture around us? Jesus’ prayer is that his church would not be taken out of the world, but operate within the world as those not of the world. In what ways does/can Jesus’ prayer breathe through us today?

It is important for us to consider our posture in relation to culture. There are two postures that I would argue many Christ followers feel unwittingly lumped into–the consumer or the critic. Paul’s posture in Athens (and many other biblical examples) provide for us the fodder for a third option that contains a greater amount of cultural clarity than the consumer and stands even more firmly in the truth of the Gospel than the critic. Before diving headlong into this posture, let’s take a moment to address the first two more thoroughly.

This is perhaps the default position for many of us as we live our lives. We consume more of our culture than we will ever realize. It is the work of sanctification to cull out those aspects of our living, our thinking, our loving that aligns with a narrative different than the grand narrative of redemption. Since this is the case for most of us, should we resign ourselves to simply consume aspects of our culture that are actually pushing our loves away from their rightful center in Jesus?

There are obviously many tension points for the Christ follower in taking on the posture of consumer. One may look at the Christ follower who is simply a consumer and pose the question to them, “How are you different than the world?”, “How do you offer any transcendent hope if your hope draws from largely the same pool as those who do not hope in Christ?” These questions should pierce us deeply as Christ followers living in a society where we can be immensely comfortable while maintaining the label of “Christian”. This posture has some glaring problems.

In response to this, many have steered away from the ditch but directly into the median. The church sometimes over-corrects to equally defeating positions. Seemingly, the only other viable option other than consumer would seem to be one of a critic, whose job is to render an unfavorable opinion concerning cultural goods in general. The more critical our viewpoint concerning mainstream culture, the more holy (separate from) we may feel and the more righteous we may seem. There is a large “however” with the disposition and posture of a critic that cannot be quickly overlooked.

The tension point for the critic is that to render an unfavorable view of all of culture is disingenuous to the good, the true and the beautiful that is found woven into every cultural expression. Another tension point is that it shows the disposition of a Christ follower as one who hates, judges and scorns that which is sometimes simply different and foreign. One may look at the Christ follower who is the constant critic and ask (as many do), “Why do Christians seem to hate everything?”, “Is a judgmental attitude one that Christ followers should be known for?” This seems to be less than helpful toward the cause of encouraging dialogue, gaining trust and ultimately sharing truth. This posture leaves much to be desired.

Paul had open eyes in Athens and saw the narrative of that city. It was with this clarity that the Gospel could be more deeply addressed. I’ve been to Athens several times and stood on the large rock that is Mars Hill, which is where many scholars contend Paul shared these words with the “Men of Athens”. It is a bit breathtaking to consider the ubiquity of the philosophy and governmental structure of the Greeks and the task that Paul (“this babbler”) had that day before the Areopagus to speak truth. Yet, Paul spoke with clarity concerning their context and also conviction concerning the truth of this God “who made the world and everything in it.” We ought to be people of cultural clarity and biblical conviction. Both are not only possible, but mutually helpful.

A helpful posture for us may be one of curator. Walk through any museum and you will quickly, although perhaps not consciously, be thankful for a curator. The curator’s job is to know the art form and draw the audience along to see and experience the art pieces within a desired context. A curator has a different set of lenses than a consumer because it is their job to help explain and show. The curator is also different than the critic because they have skin in the game. They are advocates for the intention of the art and desire to show threads of meaning, form and inspiration that will enhance and enlighten someone’s experience, enabling them to see a more grand story.

We become curators as Christ followers when we view going to a movie as a moment to listen to our culture. We become curators when we read a novel, engage in a sporting event, eat at a restaurant, listen to the radio–all the while looking for expressions of transcendence and noticing redemptive threads that can show a more grand, more compelling story. Where the consumer operates out of license, the curator remains faithfully intact with the greater narrative. Where the critic lashes out in fear, the curator responds in love allowing the light of the Gospel to shine through the cracks of a broken culture.

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Be on the Lookout for follow-up posts from Josh that provide practical examples of "cultural listening" that will help us live into the answers to these good questions. 

Josh Harp is pastor of teaching, mission, and communication at Via Church in Mesa, Arizona. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live with their family in Gilbert.