I recently spoke at the inaugural gathering of what intends to be an annual event titled “Q.” Fellow plenary speakers included Rob Bell, Andy Stanley, Rick Warren, Jon Foreman from Switchfoot, along with many others you may not have heard about but who are on the cutting edge of infiltrating and shaping culture for Christ.
The goal of “Q” is to be a gathering for leaders in the church to become exposed and informed about future-culture. Why does this matter? We have gained more conversions in the United States over the last two-hundred years than any other faith, while steadily losing ground in terms of cultural influence.
The idea behind “Q” is critical, and one I have long embraced. In his classic book, Christ and Culture, Richard Niebuhr suggests that there are only a handful of postures to take toward culture. For example, we can emphasize the opposition between Christ and culture, what Niebuhr calls the Christ against culture position. This view sees the customs and advances of the day as inevitable affronts to Christ.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who feel that there is a fundamental agreement between Christ and culture, with Christ being equated with the pinnacle of human achievement. Niebuhr labeled this the Christ of culture group. Far from simply identifying Christ with culture, it is more the alignment of certain aspects of culture with Christ – such as Western civilization, or democratic institutions. With this position, Christ is recast in the guise of that culture’s predominant values. Rather than Christ standing over and against culture as judge and challenge, Christ is absorbed into the culture and appropriated for its ends. So you end up less with Christ than you do with culture.
But there is a third stance that can be taken, one that is neither a Christ of culture, or a Christ against culture, position. It’s a conversionist solution that sees the answer as Christ the transformer of culture. Yes, human nature is fallen, and culture not only reflects this perversion but transmits it. Thus the opposition between Christ and culture must be recognized. Yet rather than separation from culture, or endurance in light of a future hope, Christ becomes the converter of humanity. The goal is to work in and through culture, using its mediums and expressions, in order to confront it with the claims of Christ. In other words, to use culture as the context, the common ground, by which to express the Christian faith.
This, I believe, is the heart of the matter. In order to transform culture – to make it, create it, forge it – we must become agents of transformation ourselves. With the Great Commission comes a cultural commission; to work toward the kingdom taking hold on our planet; in governments and institutions, judicial systems and media, as we take up our vocational calls and pursue them to His glory.
When I spoke of such things at “Q”, I made a passing comment that in so doing, we must not forget the most critical cultural engagement of all remains personal evangelism. In fact, I quipped that in many of the more advanced conversations about cultural engagement, evangelism was conspicuous by its absence. Though I had to leave almost immediately after my address, those that stopped me on the way out to speak to me seemed to be most taken by that sentiment.
It seemed to be an important reminder.
I sense that among some, the goal is to “get” culture, and then participate with it in such a way as to be seen as hip. Those that are more missional understand that such cultural engagement needs to be pursued as a bridgehead into the culture – a means, not an end. But then what? Once we find ourselves in positions of cultural influence, do we simply work within that particular current from a sense of personal spiritual moorings, celebrating the small turnings of the tide we might be able to bring?
The most transformational of cultural revolutionaries did not merely understand the culture, or penetrate it – they transformed it. And the heart of the transformation, to their thinking, was always the state of the human soul. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed about the horror of the Stalinist concentration camps, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart…It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”
So do we pursue the Great Commission or the Cultural Commission? Do we actively seek to evangelize men and women, or do we penetrate the culture as artists and politicians, economists and teachers, in an effort to kick at the darkness until it bleeds light?
The answer, of course, must be “Yes.”
James Emery White
On “Q”, see www.fermiproject.com/q/.
Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago.