This is the third post in a three part series exploring the issue of biblically engaging with culture. In our previous two posts we considered two narratives from the Old Testament, Noah and Daniel. This week I will offer some principles for biblically engaging with culture which arose from the previous posts.
Biblically engaging with culture is a bit like sitting down to your Christmas dinner.
For me there is some of my Christmas dinner I withdraw from, some I can take or leave and other parts which I welcome. For example, there is very little chance you are going to catch me eating brussel sprouts or cranberry sauce with my Christmas dinner. I am going to withdraw from them, pushing them to the other side of the plate. On the other hand, there are parts of my Christmas dinner I welcome with arms wide open – the meat. Turkey, ham and cocktail sausages; there isn’t much better than having three types of meat on your dinner. However, there are other bits of my meal that I can take or leave. The potatoes and vegetables are not as enticing as the meat, but they are more desirable than the sprouts and cranberry. So I’ll enjoy what I have, but I won’t fill myself with them because there is something better – Christmas pudding!
I think how I approach my Christmas dinner offers a helpful picture of how we should biblically engage with culture – some things we need to withdraw from, some things we need to welcome and some things we need to use wisely.
First, there are elements of our culture from which we need to withdraw.
We saw this with both Noah and Daniel, although we did focus on it in Noah’s narrative. Noah was completely surrounded by wickedness and the only option open to him was to withdraw from it or be judged with it. Withdrawal was the only real option for someone who was righteous, blameless in his generation and walking with God (Gen. 6:9).
There are elements of our culture which are not only tainted by sin, but are the express creation of the fall. There are elements of our culture that we cannot fix, or redeem. For that reason, there are elements of our culture from which we must withdraw.
Like what? Well, there isn’t enough space to work through every element we need to withdraw from. But allow me to suggest an example:
Gossip – There is no way to redeem gossip, back biting and slandering. This is an element of culture from which Christians must withdraw. Most Christians would agree that we must not spread gossip about people, or slander those we dislike. However, offering a listening ear is no different. It is not acceptable to be part of a conversation that is gossiping about, or slandering people and claim you were a Christian witness because we didn’t join in. We must withdraw from this, we must leave the conversation, we must refuse to offer a listening ear.
However, this is not an argument of withdrawing from all of culture. There is no biblical mandate for becoming a monk. The reason for this is that there are parts of our culture which must be welcomed.
Some elements in our culture need to be welcomed.
This came through most strongly with regard to Daniel’s narrative as he welcomed education, a new language, a high powered job and many privileges. However, it is also implicit in Noah’s narrative – where do we suppose he learned the skills to build an ark of considerable size?
There are elements in our culture which clearly express God’s goodness, love and grace to all humanity. These are elements of our culture which should be welcomed by Christians. There are elements of our culture which glorify God.
Education – One of the elements of western culture that we should welcome is education. This is a gift that many parts of the world do not enjoy. We should welcome this focus on and encouragement to learning in our culture. This ability to learn, read, write, study and grow in knowledge glorifies God. It glorifies God because the final creature to be created was a human. A human made in God’s image, and as we display our superiority over the other creatures of this world through education we bring glory to God.
However, this is not a licence to then welcome all things in culture. We must be wise, and so there are some elements of our culture we must approach with wisdom.
Because of the fall we are required to engage much of our culture wisely.
Again, this is a facet primarily of Daniel’s narrative. Consider Daniel’s access to the king; repeatedly he appears before the king, sometimes on request and sometimes on his own initiative. However, he does not appear before the king to get a promotion, or gain material reward, or lap up praise (Dan. 5:17). He wisely and winsomely used these appearances to bring Yahweh’s greatness to the king’s attention (Dan. 2:28).
Once again, there are elements of our culture which we must use wisely. There are some elements with which we must engage carefully, and with a clear, God-orientated goal in mind lest we indulge in something we should be withdrawing from.
Sex – One of these elements is sex. This is a gift from God, however our culture has high-jacked it. In the past couple of months I have heard of a company which organises ‘sex parties’ planning to come to Belfast, I have read of Christian photographers facing difficulties in work regarding the request of racy photography sessions, and watched as government after government legalise so called ‘same-sex marriage’. For some Christians this has resulted in withdrawal – we won’t talk about sex and behind the closed doors of marriage it should be used only for procreation. For other Christians this has brought about an unhealthy welcoming – voyeurism with regard to Christian leaders sex lives, unbiblical support of same-sex relationships and blurring of the lines regarding how far is too far. However, what this element of culture needs is for Christians to engage it wisely. Christians must use wisdom as they teach what the Bible says about sex, they must be careful about the type of relationships they endorse (whether homosexual or heterosexual) and they must not neglect this great gift of sex from God for married heterosexual couples.
Undoubtedly, our supreme example of how to engage culture is Jesus Christ. Without sinning he engaged with culture, withdrawing from some, welcoming other elements and wisely using all of it.
However, it is not his example which allows us to do the same, but his life, death, resurrection and ascension which allows us to do the same. Jesus was involved in the creation of this world (Col. 1:16), that is why we can welcome elements of our culture even after the fall. When Jesus returns again there will be a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1), that is why we can wisely use some of our culture because Jesus will redeem all of this world, making it all new for his people to enjoy for eternity with him. However, because Jesus has bought a people with his death in their place (1 Pet. 1:18-19), we must also withdraw from some elements of our culture because we are now ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (1 Pet. 2:9).
Perhaps these thoughts, when prayerfully considered, will aid us to more biblically engage with culture.