Don’t Worry, Make Culture

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Jesus warned us about the evil of anxiety. I think one of the most important things we need to do when it comes to Christians acting within the culture is get over our fears – two of them, to be specific. A couple of blog posts published on the same day earlier this week demonstrate this need.

As Jordan Ballor has pointed out, the gospel is supposed to be both a leaven that leavens all of life and the pearl of great price. If it is a leaven that leavens all of life, we must live it out as the undergirding taken for granted in all our cultural activities. But if it is the pearl of great price, then it must be held at some distance from all cultural activities. Jesus says it must be both; therefore it can be and will be both.

The main difficulty we seem to have in discussing Christian cultural activity is the strain between two anxieties. These anxieties create unnecessary divisions between brothers, because those who are more worried about making sure the gospel is leaven view those who are more worried about making sure the gospel is pearl as people who are leading the church astray, and vice versa. We treat people as opponents when we could be treating them as allies, if we could just get over our fears.

On the one side is the fear that the gospel will not be pearl - the church will sell out, that the mission of the church will be reduced to simply serving the “common good.” Christian culture makers had better be constantly straining to stand out and make their cultural products visibly, dramatically different from those of their unbelieving neighbors. Otherwise they’re cowards and traitors to the gospel.

Jeff Haanen’s post at TGC on Monday manifests this tendency. He accuses Gabe Lyons and Andy Crouch of abandoning “what makes Christians unique” in their efforts to serve the common good. He condemns Lyons’ and Crouch’s work on these grounds.

Running throughout the post is an underlying assumption – never stated and therefore never examined – that Christian cultural activity betrays the gospel unless it stands out dramatically as something “unique” when compared to the cultural activity of others. “Serving the common good isn’t enough,” he keeps insisting.

Haanen is right that the gospel must be the pearl of great price; we should be Spirit-transformed people, and the church would be selling out if it ever really did think that serving the common good was “enough.” But neither Lyons nor Crouch says any such thing. Quite the contrary! If you bother to read what they write, it’s clear that neither of them simply identifies the gospel with cultural activity.

So why is Haanen so quick to take on this unjustified accusatory tone with his brothers? Because the cultural products and activities that Lyons and Crouch are producing don’t stand out as different – or at least, don’t stand out dramatically enough to reassure Haanen that the gospel isn’t being sold out.

But the burden of proof is not on Lyons and Crouch to prove that they’re not selling out, simply because they engage in cultural activity. Kyle’s post this Monday here on HT explains why: the institutions of human culture (family, government, business, etc.) are God-ordained. Cultural activity within them is therefore God-honoring and God-glorifying, except in cases when it involves active participation in sin. If I’m engaged in cultural activity within the institutions and purposes God ordained, the burden of proof is on you to show that what I’m doing is sinful; otherwise it’s presumptively good.

The reason Haanen illegitimately reverses the burden of proof is clear from what he writes. He’s scared that the gospel won’t be the pearl of great price. He demands to be shown some tangible evidence that Christian cultural activity stands out because, to him, if it doesn’t stand out it’s presumptively denying the gospel.

This fearful attitude (let’s call it the Haanen Test - “show me how your work stands out as dramatically different or I will condemn it!”) makes it extremely difficult for the gospel to be the leaven that leavens all of life. All of human life, everything we do without exception, is a cultural activity in some respect – even if only because our thoughts are shaped by language and images, which are cultural products. It’s unreasonable to demand that all – or even most! – of the activities we engage in every day will be visibly, dramatically different from those of unbelievers.

Let’s consider the case of a line worker. (Too much of this “culture” conversation is aimed at the kind of comfortable white-collar people who read blogs.) I’m a gospel-driven, Spirit-transformed Christian, and my job is to spend the whole day moving back and forth between two machines. I take a manufactured good that’s being constructed – a fuel injector, say – off of one machine and put it onto the other. Back and forth, all day, picking up a part and putting it down. This is not something I made up; it’s an actual job that many people do.

That person’s cultural activity in his daily work is never going to satisfy the Haanen Test. But does his job glorify God? Absolutely! It’s a beautiful thing that he does for God and his neighbor. And if we say otherwise, we’re not only in rebellion against the clear teaching of the Bible, we’re also condemning that Christian to live in a meaningless universe where what he does all day has nothing to do with God. (Not to mention the fact that we’re creating poverty and undermining our community, and also destroying religious freedom.)

However, I have to say that I think Kyle’s post falls into the opposite anxiety – a fear that the gospel won’t be the leaven that leavens all of life. Kyle does a wonderful job of magnifying the theme of the cultural mandate throughout scripture and showing that, as he puts it, the cultural mandate is about the gospel just as much as the great commission. However, I think he errs when he separates the cultural mandate from the great commission as though they were not connected.

Kyle writes that if my neighbor across the street is being attacked, I call the police becasue of the cultural mandate (“the calling upon my life to order culture to the glory of God and the working of the Gospel in my own life”) not the great commission. I agree that calling the police is obeying the cultural mandate, but I disagree that it isn’t about the great commission. And I think this matters a lot.

It’s true, as Kyle says, that I don’t call the police in order to convert my neighbor. But the great commission does not command us to make “converts.” It commands us to make “disciples.” And what is the difference between a superficial convert and a gospel-changed disciple? The transformation of everyday life by the Spirit. And “everyday life” means cultural activity, such as calling the police. Learning how to carry out the cultural mandate rightly, and helping other Christians to do so, is part of how I carry out the great commission to “make disciples.”

Why does this matter? The importance comes through when Kyle writes:

This is not to say that an artist or musician would paint better or sing better if she were a Christian, but she would have a deeper understanding and grasp of her high calling from God and a proper thinking and perspective about her place in creation and the value of what she is doing for culture.

But an artist who had a deeper understanding of her calling and its place in creation would become a better artist! Or at least she should become a better artist. She had better, if she’s going to be a doer of the word and not a hearer only. Ask Christian artists who are thinking about this (like Mako Fujimura, pictured above) and they’ll tell you a Christian perspective on the vocation of art is transformative for the content and performance of art.

The artificial separation of the cultural mandate from the great commission, erected out of fear that the gospel will not be allowed to be leaven, makes it difficult for the gospel to be a pearl of great price. It becomes an excuse for going with the flow, being a hearer but not a doer, failing to pursue spiritual transformation in all of life. “As long as I’m doing the job that’s assigned to me, I’m carrying out my calling.” No, not necessarily. Your calling is to glorify God, and that involves more than taking marching orders from those who assign you cultural tasks.

Let’s come back to the line worker. I insisted above that the line worker is never going to stand out in a way that satisfies the Haanen Test. But does that mean the line worker would never stand out at all? God forbid! He should radiate the gospel in both objective and subjective ways. Objectively, he should not only be a highly virtuous worker, he should go above and beyond the predominant ethical expectations that prevail on his factory floor. Perhaps he will take on more tasks or be a peacemaker when coworkers are in conflict. He may need to constructively challenge unethical practices. Subjectively, his bearing, spirit and demenaor should radiate the gospel. His company should taste different to those around him.

I don’t want to create an artificial equivalence between Kyle and Haanen, because Haanen is unjustly condemning the good works of his brothers and Kyle isn’t. On the other hand, I have heard other people, leaning in Kyle’s direction, condemn their brothers in a way that’s closely parallel to what Haanen is doing. I think the key is to draw people back from both fears rather than try to figure out which side is more likely to misbehave.

If we all got over our fears and trusted that the Holy Spirit is working in the church, we could integrate these imperatives and focus on helping make the gospel both leaven and pearl, rather than setting up those imperatives in opposition. And I trust that the Spirit will move us to do so! I pray he will do so quickly, because the longer we wait the more time we waste, while our culture is dying.

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5 thoughts on “Don’t Worry, Make Culture

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