How do culture and church relate to each other-
and which aspects does that include in daily life?
Some years ago , my Global University course required an essay on
IT WAS CALLED A TABU then and now.
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Every Square Inch
An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians
Bruce Riley Ashford
Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians
Copyright 2015 Bruce Riley Ashford
Lexham Press, 1313 Commercial St., Bellingham, WA 98225
All rights reserved. You may use brief quotations from this resource in presentations, articles, and books. For all other uses, please write Lexham Press for permission. Email us at email@example.com.
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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Lexham Editorial Team: David Bomar, Lynnea Fraser
Cover Design: Jim LePage
For my son, John Paul Kuyper Ashford.
“Children are a heritage from the LORD.”
(Psalm 127:3 ESV)
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Competing Views on Theology and Culture
Chapter 2: A Theology of Culture
Chapter 3: Culture and Calling
Chapter 4: Six Case Studies on Culture
Chapter 5: The Arts
Chapter 6: The Sciences
Chapter 7: Politics and the Public Square
Chapter 8: Economics and Wealth
Chapter 9: Scholarship and Education
Conclusion: The Christian Mission
Appendix: Recommended Reading Summary
I wish to thank Brannon Ellis at Lexham Press and Amy Whitfield at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary for their commitment to this project. I further wish to thank Greg Forster and his team at the Kern Family Foundation, whose encouragement and support enabled this project to become a reality. I also express gratitude to my friends Devin Maddox and Dennis Greeson, who helped me take ideas that were conceived as a professor at a graduate school and express them in a way that I hope will be helpful for a broader audience.
I am grateful also for friends with whom I’ve had many discussions about Christianity and culture, including Craig Bartholomew, Dennis Darville, James K. Dew, J. D. Greear, Ken Keathley, Ben Quinn, Heath Thomas, and Keith Whitfield. In addition, I wish to thank Greg Forster, Ken Keathley, Jay W. Richards, and Taylor Worley for providing expert feedback on portions of the manuscript.
Finally, I express love and appreciation for my wife, Lauren, and our three children, Riley Noelle, Anna Katherine, and John Paul Kuyper. Lauren is a constant encouragement in my writing projects—including this one, as she marked off one of our family’s two weeks of summer vacation so that I could write the manuscript for this little book. Riley, Anna, and Kuyper are a delight to me and Lauren, and we pray that they will be able to bring the entirety of their lives under submission to Christ’s lordship, as a matter of love and worship toward him and as a matter of love and witness toward the world.
In 1998, at the age of 24, I left the United States for the first time in order to become a university English instructor in Tatarstan, a predominantly Muslim republic in a Central Asian corner of Russia. I had never traveled farther west than San Antonio, farther north than the tip of Maine, farther east than Nags Head (North Carolina), or farther south than Miami. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of cultural wedgies the next two years were for me?
My first week in the country, for example, I was introduced to a special drink called “kuhmis,” which my buddies told me “will taste a lot like an American milkshake.” And truly, it was white and frothy just like a vanilla milkshake. But it turns out that it was white and frothy because it was fermented mare’s milk. At some point in history, an entrepreneur had decided to milk a horse, allow the milk to rot, and then bottle it as a delicacy. Later that week, I also was served fish gelatin for breakfast.
But before long—culinary oddities aside—I was immersed in a cultural context that was a mixture of Eastern European and Central Asian, and which had been shaped in various ways in the past by Sunni Islam and Soviet communism, and more recently by global capitalism and postmodernism. These religious and ideological influences shaped everything in the culture, including the arts, sciences, politics, economic, education, entertainment, family life, and even sports competitions. I found myself wondering what it would look like for me to live a faithfully Christian life in that particular context.
This small book that you are reading is written as a little introduction for Christians who wish to live faithfully in their cultural contexts. It shows how all of life matters to God, and how every Christian can serve powerfully as a representative of Christ, even if he or she is not an international missionary or a pastor. It is meant to show that God cares not only about the goings-on within the four walls of a church building but also about the goings-on in every corner of society and culture. He wants us to take seriously our interactions in the arts (music, literature, cinema, architecture, interior décor, culinary arts), the natural sciences (biology, physics, chemistry), the social sciences (psychology, sociology), the public square (journalism, politics, economics, law), the academy (schools, universities, seminaries), sports and competition, and homemaking. Every dimension of our lives relates in some way to Christ and can in some manner be directed toward him.
Theology and Culture
In the space of two years in Russia, I began to realize even more fully the deep and resonant effects of religion upon culture, and vice versa. I was living in a social and cultural context that had been almost entirely devoid of evangelical gospel influence for generations. Conversations with many of my students revealed a deep skepticism about whether God existed, whether life had any meaning, and whether there are any moral absolutes. The institutions of this country—including its government, businesses, marriages, and schools—reflected this deep sense of loss, this sense that its people could no longer believe in a God who endowed their lives with meaning and purpose or who gave a moral law by which all people and institutions should abide.
During this time, I began to read books by Christian thinkers such as Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, and C. S. Lewis. (On my journey to Russia, I carried one suitcase of clothes and four suitcases of books.) Kuyper lived in 19th-century Holland and served as prime minister of the Netherlands, founded a Christian university, started a newspaper, and wrote influential books on theology, art, science, and many other topics. His deepest convictions might be summed up in one sentence: Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and because of that fact, every aspect our lives should be affected by the fact that we are Christians. If Christ is Lord, he is Lord over our work and our leisure, our families and friendships, our goings-on inside the four walls of a church building and outside those walls. He is not just the Lord over certain “religious” things, but Lord over art, science, politics, economics, education, and homemaking. Kuyper gave me my first insight into the fact that Jesus Christ is relevant to every dimension of society and culture, and that for this reason we should allow our Christianity to shape absolutely everything we do.
Francis Schaeffer was an American who lived in Switzerland during the middle of the 20th century. He and his wife, Edith, were known for starting a retreat center—L’Abri—which ministered especially to skeptics and freethinkers, and to those who were hurting spiritually. Schaeffer was known for teaching that the Christian worldview—and it alone—could undergird the full range of human life. What a person believed about Jesus Christ affected that person spiritually, morally, rationally, aesthetically, and relationally. What a society believed about Jesus Christ affected that society in all of its doings—economic, political, ecological, and so forth. Francis and Edith’s ministry to seekers and skeptics took place in their own home (L’Abri was founded in their cottage) over dinnertime conversations, evening Q&A sessions, and walks in the Swiss Alps. From the Schaeffers’ ministry, I learned not only that Christ is Lord but that he is love. Their way of showing his lordship over all things involved showing his love to all people.
C. S. Lewis was a British professor and writer who taught at Oxford and Cambridge during the middle part of the 20th century. In the scholarly world, he was known for his expertise in medieval literature. In the more popular realm, he was known as the professor who gave radio talks about Christianity during World War II and who wrote popular science fiction, children’s fiction, and Christian apologetics. In the years after his death in 1963, he would gain the stature of being one of the most influential Christians of the modern world. His writings remain on the bestseller lists and continue in their own way to shape the world in which we live. From Lewis’ life, I learned the powerful effect of Christians shaping their vocations in light of Christ’s lordship. Lewis was not a pastor or a missionary. He had a “secular” vocation as a literature professor, and it was precisely in that vocation that that he was able to speak about Christ and allow his Christian belief to shape his life and work.
As I read books written by and about these three men, I began to find the answers to questions I had been asking for most of my life. Does my Christian belief “hold water” in the real world? Does it make sense out there in the real world of art and science, of politics and economics? Does my Christianity have any impact on my life other than church attendance, personal devotions, and sexual ethics? How does my Christianity matter to my work and my leisure, to my community and political involvement? From Kuyper, Schaeffer, and Lewis, I began to learn just how it is that Christ is Lord over everything, how Christianity matters for every aspect of life. I began to see how Christianity is relevant to every dimension of culture (arts, sciences, public square, the academy, etc.) and to all of our human vocations (not only family and church, but also workplace and community). As Christians, God wants us to live every aspect of our lives in a way that is shaped by our belief that Christ is Lord.
Aside from my conversion, that was probably the most profound spiritual awakening I have ever had, even to this day. In the years since then, I have slowly but steadily built upon the conviction that the Christian mission includes the outworking of the gospel in every dimension of a given culture, in every human vocation, and across the fabric of human existence. Though I’ve read it or heard it quoted hundreds of times, I am still struck by Kuyper’s claim: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ ” In Pro Rege, Kuyper writes, “The Son [of God] is not to be excluded from anything. You cannot point to any natural realm or star or comet or even descend into the depth of the earth, but it is related to Christ, not in some unimportant tangential way, but directly.” God calls us to obey him and witness to him with the totality of our lives.
The Aim of This Book
I write as an American, to other Americans, in our increasingly post-Christian democratic republic. I aim to equip Christians to think holistically about how the gospel informs everything we do in the world. It is my sincere hope that the barrier we have erected in our hearts between “sacred” and “secular” will be removed, so that we will awaken—perhaps for the first time—to the reality that Jesus is Lord over all of creation—not only the things we consider sacred, but also the things we consider secular.
To that end, first, we will examine theological frameworks for understanding culture; second, we will establish a biblical, theological account of culture; third, we will develop a theology of vocation; fourth, we will survey several relevant Christian leaders from history who have made significant contributions to a proper understanding of Christianity and culture; finally, we will discuss various spheres of culture from a Christian perspective.
You’ll notice that, in the first part of the book, we lay a foundation for the type of Christianity that seeks to be both in and for culture. We do so, first of all, by distinguishing our view from other views, which understand Christianity as being primarily against culture or primarily an agent of culture. Next, we show the way in which the Bible’s overarching storyline leads us to hold this sort of view. After this, we discuss some Christians throughout church history whose lives, writings, and cultural products provide us with lessons about how to be in and for our given cultural contexts. Finally, we discuss the various God-given callings that serve as the major media through which we engage our culture. To summarize the message of the first part of the book, we want to live our lives firmly in the midst of our cultural contexts, living in such a way that we shape our words and actions in light of the Christian gospel and direct others to look at the Lord whom we admire. We want to speak of him with our lips and reflect him with our lives so that tapestry of the Christian community’s (cultural) life is seamlessly and beautifully woven with compellingly Christian words and deeds.
One of the questions that immediately arises, however, is how to do that in the diverse arenas of culture in which we find ourselves. How do we apply our view of cultural engagement when we find ourselves in particular situations? Where do we even begin to think through what it means to please God in the realms of art, science, or politics? What does it mean to be a “Christian” teacher, scholar, or economist? The chapters in the last half of this book are designed to give brief but enlightening starting points for Christians who want to begin answering these sorts of questions.
Because these questions are so profound and the answers to them so interesting and so expansive, each of the topics in the last half of the book could easily demand that an entire book be written just to introduce each of them. For that reason, I will not be able to provide a comprehensive introduction to each topic. Instead, I will pick an aspect of each topic that I think will be interesting to a broad audience, and then I will provide a very brief and hopefully helpful discussion about that aspect of the topic.
To aid in our discussion, I have added recommended reading and discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Though this book is suitable for individual use, it is also appropriately read in community with others. Because the Christian life is social in nature, the discussion questions about culture in this book are best discussed with others who are reading it. Furthermore, I hope this isn’t the final book you read on theology and culture. Each chapter is filled with relevant material to guide you to read more deeply on a variety of topics.
To close, I am reminded of a quote by Father John Richard Neuhaus, founder of First Things magazine. Neuhaus said, “Barrels of ink have been spilt in trying to define what is meant by culture, and I do not presume to have the final word on the subject.”
Like Neuhaus, I do not claim to have cornered the market on “culture.” But I do aim to serve you well as you developing your own theological framework for seeing all of life under the lordship of Christ.
Chapter 1: Competing Views on Theology and Culture
My second week in the former Soviet Union, I was introduced to the banya. My buddies told me that it “will be a lot like an American sauna.” And sure enough, it was a square room with a lot of heat. But there were a few differences. One difference lay in the fact that steam was generated by pouring vodka onto a barrel full of hot coals. (I wanted to join in, but as a Baptist I didn’t have any vodka and couldn’t find my bottle of Nyquil.) Another difference lay in the fact that many of these “saunas” have bundles of birch branches in the corner, with which the men whip one another on the back, starting at the heels and working methodically and consistently up to the shoulders. Afterward, they go outside the banya and roll around in the snow. I’m not kidding. I’ve never prayed so hard for the Second Coming.
Aside from a few odd moments, such as the one I just described, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being immersed in a very complex culture, one that was a multilayered synthesis of Soviet-era atheism, Central Asian Islam, global capitalism, and postmodernism. On Friday evenings, I could pay a dollar to attend world-class symphonies and piano concerts at the performing arts center one mile from my apartment. On weekday mornings, I took language lessons in Russian and Tatar, discovering how human languages provide unique categories for thinking and unique advantages and disadvantages for mediating the gospel. On weekday afternoons, I taught at three universities that were cultural legacies of years past. In the evenings, I drank hot tea (the manly drink of choice in Central Asia, best imbibed with a spot of milk and a spoon of sugar) and watched snow fall on a mosque and an Eastern Orthodox cathedral that stood just outside my apartment window. Often, I had a huddle of undergrad or grad students in my apartment, asking me questions about why I believe in God (atheists) or how in the world I could believe that a man was God (Muslims).
As an evangelical, Protestant American living in a part of Russia populated mostly by Central Asian Muslims, I was forced to live in a cultural context that was different in many ways from the one in which I had grown up. There were some aspects of this culture that I preferred to my home context, and some that I did not. There were things that I embraced easily, and things that I did not. The question that kept surfacing, however, was: “How should I, as an evangelical Christian, approach ‘culture’?” In other words, is culture something good or bad? On the one hand, is it something I should try to escape or avoid, or against which I should fight? On the other hand, is it something I should embrace? Or is there some third and better alternative?
When it comes to interacting with culture, Christians face a choice between several options. One option is to live a life that can be characterized as “Christianity against culture,” which views culture as something that a person tries to escape from or fight against. Another option could be called “Christianity of culture,” which views culture uncritically as something that can be accepted wholesale into a person’s life and church. A final option can be called “Christianity in and for culture,” in which a believer seeks to live Christianly within his or her cultural context and for the betterment of that context, while not rejecting it wholesale, on the one hand, or accepting it wholesale, on the other. The remainder of this chapter, and in fact the whole book, will attempt to articulate what it might look like for American Christians to live out their faith in the midst of their particular cultural contexts.
What Is Culture?
Before going any further, however, we should take a moment to discuss what we mean when we talk about “culture.” When some people talk about culture, what they really mean is “high culture,” because they have in mind sophisticated cultural products such as Beethoven’s music or Rembrandt’s paintings. When other people talk about culture, what they really mean is “popular culture,” because they have in mind everyday cultural products such as television shows, movies, or Top 40 songs. Still others use the word “culture” to refer to anything that is against what they believe as a Christian.
Unlike these three senses of the word “culture,” the meaning I have in mind is all-encompassing. “Culture” is anything that humans produce when they interact with each other and with God’s creation. When we interact with each other and with God’s creation, we cultivate the ground (grain, vegetables, livestock), produce artifacts (clothes, housing, cars), build institutions (governments, businesses, schools), form worldviews (theism, pantheism, atheism), and participate in religions (Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Atheism). We produce culture, and at the same time our cultural context shapes us, affecting who we are, what we think and do, and how we feel.
So the concept of culture is very broad, encompassing in one way or another the totality of our life in this world. For this reason, we don’t want to “get it wrong” in figuring out a Christian’s relationship to culture. If we get the relationship right, it will positively transform our lives and the world around us, but if we get it wrong, it will deform our lives and the world around us.
Now that we have a basic grasp of what culture is, we are prepared to outline three models for relating Christianity and culture. As I am describing these models, you will probably be able to place yourself and other Christians you know in one of the categories.
Christianity against Culture
Some proponents of “Christianity against culture” tend to view the Church primarily as a bomb shelter. This is especially a temptation for Americans who realize that their country is becoming increasingly post-Christian—and, in some ways, even anti-Christian. They realize that their beliefs on certain theological and moral issues will increasingly be rejected and mocked by the political and cultural elite and by many of their fellow citizens.
Under such an ideological assault, Christians sometimes have a collective anxiety attack. Their dominant mood tends to be protective, conceiving the Church as a bomb shelter trying to protect believers from aerial assault, or perhaps a monastery where people can withdraw from the contingencies of contemporary existence—or even better, a perpetual yoga retreat where we can empty our minds of certain harsh realities.
Believers with this mentality have good intentions. They want to preserve the church’s purity, recognizing that the church is under attack and that therefore we should hold fast to the faith (Rev 3:11). They know that there is a great battle being waged (Eph 6), a battle that plays out both invisibly in the heavenly realm, and visibly in the cultural realm.
However, this mentality is misguided, arising from a timid fear of humanity; it is spurred more by secular wisdom than by biblical faith, more by faithless fear than by Christian courage and vitality. It views the church as a walled city rather than a living being, as a safe-deposit box rather than a conduit of spiritual power. It externalizes godlessness and treats it as something that can be kept out by man-made walls, rather than understanding that godlessness is a disease of the soul that can never be walled out. This mindset tends toward legalism and tries to restrict Christians’ interactions with society and culture. While it rightly recognizes that the Christian life involves war against the powers of darkness, it wrongly tries to wage that war by escaping from the world. This obeys only one half of Jesus’ admonition to be in the world, but not of it (John 17:14–16).
Other proponents of “Christianity against culture” view the Church primarily as an Ultimate Fighter. The Ultimate-Fighter mentality shares much in common with the bomb-shelter mentality, but it deals with its anxiety in a different manner. It tends to see Christians exclusively and comprehensively as fighters, whose weapons are beliefs, feelings, and values wielded in spiritual warfare. Unlike those hiding in the bomb shelter, the fighters venture forth into the surrounding culture, seeking greater awareness of it so that they might assault it with lethal force.
Believers with this mentality are clinging to the biblical principle of waging war against what is evil. They rightly recognize that we must put on the whole armor of God (Eph 6:11), fight the good fight of faith (1 Tim 6:12), resist the devil (Jas 4:7), and cast down anything that exalts itself against God (2 Cor 10:4–5).
However, this mentality is misguided to the extent that it wrongly applies the principles above. The fault of the Ultimate-Fighter Church (UFC) is not that it wants to fight, but that it suggests that the entirety of the Christian life is nothing but war. Our social and cultural contexts are full of unbelievers—but those unbelievers are not only enemies of God, but also drowning people in need of a lifeboat. The church is not only a base for soldiers, but also a hospital for the sick. The Christian life is surely a battle, but it is no less a journey, a joy, an adventure, and a trust. In other words, Christians must indeed fight, but that is not the only thing they do; their battling is done from within the broader context of the entire Christian life.
Christianity of Culture
Those with a “Christianity of culture” perspective tend to build churches that are mirrors of the culture. Christians with this mindset tend to view their cultural context in very high esteem—perhaps disagreeing with aspects of it here and there, but for the most part finding it to be an ally rather than a threat. They tend to interact easily and uncritically with the dominant philosophical, political, and cultural trends of the day. Unlike those who seek to escape from culture or to fight it with lethal force, they seek to incorporate the dominant culture seamlessly into their lives and churches.
Believers with this mentality rightly recognize that God ordered the world in such a way that humans would make culture, and they rightly recognize that their culture exhibits real aspects of truth, goodness, and beauty. However, this mentality is misguided because it fails to sufficiently see the way in which every culture, and every aspect of culture, is corrupted and distorted because of human sin. When Christians adopt a “Christianity of culture” mindset, they take away Christianity’s ability to be a prophetic voice and usually end up sacrificing doctrines and moral beliefs that run contrary to the cultural consensus. This mindset comes at too high of a cost, as it ends up subverting the historical Christian faith.
Christianity in and for Culture
We live in and for our cultural context. A third and better mindset is one that views human beings as representatives of Christ who live their lives in the midst of and for the good of their cultural context, and whose cultural lives are characterized by obedience and witness.
Every culture possesses some inherent goodness. God ordered the world in such a way that people spontaneously make culture, and the very existence of music, art, food, housing, and education represent a fundamental human good. Furthermore, God has enabled all people—Christian or not—to make good and valuable contributions in the cultural realm. But under this view, the Christian also recognizes that every culture is corrupted and misdirected. Since the time of the first couples’ sin, all human beings sin, and our sin corrupts our cultural efforts. We are idolaters—people who worship things that ought not to be worshiped, such as sex, money, and power—and the cultural realities we produce tend to be directed toward those idols rather than toward Christ. So God structured the world so that it would be a cultural world, but we humans have misdirected our cultural realities. Every cultural context is structurally good, but directionally corrupt. For this reason, we must live firmly in the midst of our cultural contexts (structurally), all the while seeking to steer our cultural realities toward Christ rather than toward idols (directionally).
In order to help us think clearly about the cultural aspect of our mission, let me explain more precisely what I mean by “structure” and “direction.” When God created the world, it was a “good” world both structurally and directionally. The way God designed the world (its structures) was good, and the way humanity used his world was good (it honored God and was directed toward him).
After the fall, the world remained structurally good but became directionally bad. The world is still good in its design (structure), but human beings use the world in ways that are oriented toward self-worship and the worship of things rather than God (direction). We live in a fallen world. Our tendency as humans is to worship things like sex, money, and power, rather than worshiping God. And when we worship idols like this, it affects our social and cultural activities. Our activities are misdirected, being aimed toward idols rather than toward God. As Christians, we want to speak out against this misdirection of God’s world. But in speaking out against the world, we are doing the best possible thing for the world. We are being against the world for the sake of the world.
Because of Christ’s redemption, we are new creatures. God has transformed us so that we live in an entirely different manner than we did before. That transformation affects all of the things we do, including our cultural activities. For this reason, our mission as Christians includes identifying the ways in which our cultures are corrupted and misdirected by sin, and then doing everything in our power to help bring healing and redirection to them. When we do this, we are obeying Christ and being a witness.
We do this as a matter of obedience. If Christ is the creator of everything, then we must realize that his lordship is as wide as creation. Nothing in this universe escapes his lordship. And if his lordship is as wide as creation, then our obedience to his lordship must be as wide as culture. The call to be disciples of Christ is the call to bring absolutely every square inch of the fabric of our lives under his lordship.
We do this also as a matter of witness. Every aspect of human life and culture is ripe for Christian witness. Every dimension of culture, whether it is art, science, or politics, is an arena in which we can speak about Christ with our lips and reflect him with our lives. We thank God for the existence of culture and recognize whatever is good in it, while at the same time seeking to redirect whatever is not good toward Christ.
We realize that we will never “win” by transforming our culture in such a way that it glorifies Christ comprehensively or enduringly. God never promises victory until Christ returns and secures the victory for himself. But he does command us to obey him and bear witness to him by doing everything within our powers to direct our cultural activities toward Christ.
A Preview of the Kingdom
When Christ returns, he will return as the victorious King. Until that time, the Christian community should live its life as a seamless tapestry of word and deed. When we witness and obey in this manner, we benefit the world by serving as a preview of God’s coming kingdom. We proclaim Christ and the gospel with our lips (word), and we promote Christ and the gospel with our lives (deed). In so doing, we offer to the world a preview of that future era when Christ rules the new heavens and earth—the era in which all social and cultural realities will be directed toward Christ. In that era, we will have right relationship with God, each other, and the created order, and our social and cultural activities will be perfect and resplendent reflections of Christ.
Absolutely everything in life matters to God. He cares not only about the goings-on within the four walls of a congregational gathering, but also about the goings-on in other corners of society and culture. We must live Christianly not only as the Church gathered on Sunday morning for worship, but also as the Church scattered into the world in our work, leisure, and community life. We must take seriously our interactions in the arts, the sciences, the public square, and the academy.
When we as the Church live our lives in such a way that everything we do and say points to God, our combined witness serves as an attractive preview of God’s coming kingdom. In that kingdom, there will be no more pain or tears, no more sin or the consequences of sin. In that kingdom, we will be in right relationship with God, with each other, and with all of creation. There is no greater calling in life than to live as a preview of that kingdom.
While I was living abroad in Russia, it would have been easy to fall in love with my new culture (Christianity of culture). Admittedly, part of the draw of living overseas is the opportunity to experience new cultural realities. But it would have been equally tempting, particularly during seasons of loneliness and isolation or when encountering some aspect of the culture that was hostile to my Christian faith, to despise the culture as a whole (Christianity against culture). My goal—and I hope you share the same goal—was neither to idolize nor to despise the culture I was on a mission to serve. My goal was to reflect the transformative power of God in and for the culture, to the glory of God.
• Many of us live “compartmentalized lives,” having areas that we feel Jesus cares about, and other areas that we feel he ignores. What are some areas of your life that you have never considered as pertaining to Jesus and his lordship. Why?
• As I mentioned earlier, the Christian life is often a battle, and yet it is also to be characterized by care for the “sick and wounded.” What are some things you see in your cultural context that Christians are called to fight against? Are there times when it is better not to fight? How do you tell the difference?
• As Christians living in a fallen world, we often face the temptation to be Christians “against culture” who view the church as a bomb shelter or an Ultimate Fighter, or to be Christians “of culture” who capitulate by conforming ourselves to the culture. Can you think of contemporary examples of these two flawed approaches?
Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008. An engaging and persuasive treatise on the Christian community’s calling to “make culture” rather than merely “engage the culture.”
Forster, Greg. Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. A well-written and easy-to-read book arguing that the key to cultural transformation is Spirit-induced joy in God and the gospel.
Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. A sociologist argues that Christians should aim to be a “faithful presence” in their culture.
Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism. 1898. Reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1943. In this small book, Kuyper argues that our Christianity should affect every sphere of human life and culture.
Mouw, Richard J. Called to Holy Worldliness. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980. A small book showing how ordinary Christians can honor God in their culture-making and cultural engagement.
Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: HarperCollins, 1956. This text has become the modern benchmark for discussing Christianity and culture. It has flaws—serious ones—but is worth reading.
Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009. A more advanced book which argues that secular “liturgies” compete with Christian liturgies in order to shape who we are and form our deepest identities and views of the world.
Ashford, B. R. (2015). Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians (S. iii–23). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.