Careful cultural engagement

Last year my husband and I joined our friends in a 200-seat theater to hear a relatively unknown band called The Civil Wars. This was before the Grammys and before their collaboration with Taylor Swift for the Hunger Games soundtrack. I hadn’t heard much about the duo before this show was scheduled, but all of our friends were over-the-top excited, so we joined in the date-night fun. That show turned us into big fans. Even our children now know the songs on Barton Hollow.

Perhaps six months later The Civil Wars returned to the city to play a sold-out show at a big theater. We weren’t able to go, but when I asked one of the formerly over-the-top excited friends if she was going, she made a face. “Nah. I mean, what have they done lately?”

It was less than a year since their first release and only a few months since we had seen them with so much fan excitement. Her response made me think about the current state of Christian cultural engagement.

A few years ago, Christians knowledgeable about the latest music, television, movies and books would have been seen as worldly. In a lot of churches now, it’s almost a requirement. To the extent that it brings us out of our self-imposed ghettos and back in touch with the mainstream human experience, engaging culture is both healthy and glorifying to God.

In a recent Think Christian piece, Josh Larsen argued that “clumsy cultural engagement by believers” is better than none at all. He’s right, because when we close ourselves off to culture as a whole, we begin to ignore the rest of the world, making it hard to truly show Jesus to anyone.

There’s an opposite danger, though, and one that the conversation with my friend about The Civil Wars brought to mind. What if we become too savvy, too well-versed in popular culture? What if we begin to look at the world first as 21st-century Americans, and only second as followers of Christ? When we become as consumer-minded (or, worse, more) as the non-believers among us, we actually risk losing the ability to see God in anything.

Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, argues that there are four ways in which we can engage culture. We can consume it, copy it, critique it and condemn it. Each approach is valid and appropriate at different times, though all have their dangers. Crouch’s example for healthy consumption is a loaf of bread and a cup of tea. We can’t critique the Christ-likeness of it, we can’t make it “more Christian” and only a fool would condemn tea and bread. We consume it. However, when we begin to talk about the more complex question of popular culture, consumption is not the best default.

In our honest efforts to “engage” the culture around us, seeking to change people’s lives by the power of Christ, we can quickly slide into merely consuming. After all, in this millennium, information and trends move so fast, the minute you conquer one, there’s a new one right behind it. We can spend our days keeping up with the latest fashions, bands and hip places to eat and drink. Before we know it, we’ve put all our time and efforts into keeping up with culture, and when someone asks us for the hope we have in us (which they won’t, unless they see it), we won’t have an answer.

This is not a blatant condemnation of popular culture, of course. Rather, we need to develop a lens through which to judge a given cultural artifact for ourselves and for our families. Perhaps Philippians is a good place to start:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

This is the beginning of healthy engagement. When we start here, we loosen culture’s grip a little and put ourselves, with the power of Holy Spirit, back in control.

What Do You Think?

  • How do you define healthy cultural engagement?
  • What guidelines can Christians keep in mind as they partake of mainstream culture?

 

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