How Should Christians Engage in Important Cultural Moments?

Culture, Art, & Music
Saturday, January 21, thousands of people all over the world banded together to celebrate human rights. For many, it was specifically a celebration of women’s rights. Many stood with signs, banners, flags, and slogans that touted the importance of validating a human being’s right to protection, safety, and dignity. I experienced this first hand and somewhat surprisingly. I woke up Saturday morning and went to the downtown square with my wife, per our usual weekend routine, to find hundreds of protestors and advocates of women’s rights on the square. It was an amazing and shocking thing to see. Denton banded in unity for a (seemingly) singular cause.

Struggling to Respond

But, what I found myself wrestling with most was the question, “How do I think about this as a Christian?”. The reality is, I believe in the sanctity of human life before birth and am opposed to any form of abortion, and a lot of the people protesting across the country that morning were there precisely to stand for the opposite reason – to fight for the reproductive rights of women everywhere. (As an aside, when I say I am against abortion, I prefer to frame it as being for adoption. I think too often Christians value the sanctity of life for 9 months but aren’t willing to put their money where their mouth is and adopt children.) However, it was more than just the issue of abortion for me. As someone who believes in the exclusive person-dignifying, value-restoring, life-giving power of Jesus, I am often at odds with solutions that put the owe-ness of human flourishing in the hands of other people, causes, or campaigns –  whether that be things like feminism, nationalism, secularism, humanism, legalism, conservatism, liberalism, etc. However, the tension still remained in my mind. How should I be thinking about the complex protestation I was witnessing? I obviously agree that women and all human beings should be conferred equal dignity, respect, rights, and value. I would never disagree with that. But I couldn’t wrap my mind around reconciling the tension between what I was witnessing and what I believed to be a more full deliverance of those goals (value, dignity, respect, etc) in Christ. Should I condemn the protest outright? Should I put the particulars aside and stand with my brothers and sisters fighting for something roughly similar to what I wanted? Should I just ignore it? The questions plagued me all day.

The Error of Over-Accommodation

Often, Christians err in extremity when it comes to the question of engaging culture. One of the most common errors is 0ver-accommodation of the gospel. Somewhere in our hearts we believe in the power of the gospel to change lives, but we’ve grown uncomfortable with “drawing lines in the sand” about what the gospel says and doesn’t say. We somehow believe that if we make a definitive statement about a person’s personal experience that runs counter to their conception of it, we have committed the unforgivable sin of being intolerant. We can’t reconcile in our minds a Jesus who would ever ask people to change something about themselves or forfeit their idols (we don’t even believe in a Jesus who has the gaul to call something an “idol”). We believe the gospel is really good at welcoming people but oversteps its bounds when it tries to speak into their lives with authority. In an effort to make the gospel palatable, we’ve made the gospel obsolete. We begin to dignify culture’s fruitless endeavors to fabricate hope from the world designed to point us to our greatest hope in Christ. Chiefly, we ignore that sin is insidious, sneaky, and cunning. It can cloak itself in attractive attire that resembles something dangerously close to a Christ-less gospel. The error of over-accommodating the gospel is that the gospel in turn loses its ability to affect any real heart-level change. Because of our fear of the gospel’s exclusivity, we exclude people from accessing the peace that surpasses all understanding.

The Error of the Fortress Mentality

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there exists an equally ugly tendency among Christians. Many fall prey to the mentality that the church is “in here” and the culture is “out there”. We insulate ourselves inside the fortress of perceived safety and imagined holiness away from that “nasty” culture. We place the burden of finding Jesus on the culture, rather than being ourselves the “bringers of good news”. We perpetuate a lie that says, “clean yourself up and then you can come to Christ”. In turn, we extend a firm stiff-arm to anyone who finds themselves impossibly hopeless at cleaning themselves up. The infamous “us vs. them” sits uncomfortably close to our vision of the gospel. The absurdity of this tendency is that it ignores the organism of culture. There is no such thing as a culture-less Christian. We are all culture-creators and culture-consumers. What tends to happen is that fortress-mentality Christians create sub-cultures of legalism. They preach a Jesus that no one wants and, in reality, no one needs. Their Jesus is an abusive, impatient, unforgiving autocrat that only “helps those who help themselves”. In turn, the true picture of the gospel is twisted and distorted and, like the error of over-accommodation, becomes obsolete. You see, you don’t need Jesus if He is simply waiting for you to figure out a solution to your own sin. You don’t need a Comforter if He just wants you to suck it up and quit whining about all of your problems. You don’t need a Great Physician if your wounds are your own problem, not anyone else’s. The gospel of the fortress mentality doesn’t want a Jesus who meets us where we are, but  a Jesus who scoffs at those who are hurting. This, my friends, is no gospel at all.
Jesus doesn’t shame people in their sin, he dies for them. Jesus doesn’t abuse the ungodly, he dies for them. Jesus doesn’t mock his enemies or gloat in their demise, he dies for them. Jesus doesn’t spit on the needy or tell them to get off their asses and work harder, he dies for them. And he dies for them so that they may cling to Him and know true freedom by being united with Him in his death and resurrection. THIS is the Jesus of the true gospel. 

The Power of Standing With, Without Standing For

As it is with most situations, the true gospel exists as the paradoxical third alternative. Because we live in between the already inaugurated and not yet consummated kingdom of Christ, most solutions will exist in the tension. As Christians, we are called to engage culture, period. However, to engage culture means there must exist some sense of discontinuity between our goals and the goals of the culture. Our hope rests on a fundamentally different foundation than the culture. If not, we are left in our sins and have not known the risen Christ. In contrast, though, our hope does not rest on our ability to live counter-culturally, lest we fall into the trap of the fortress mentality. Abraham Kuyper was a Dutch theologian, statesman, and educator who lived in the late 19th, early 2oth century. Kuyper, aside from being one of the Netherlands’ finest Prime Ministers, was incredibly influential in developing whats known as neo-calvinism (not to mention, he is easily one of my favorite theologians). Contributions aside, Kuyper spoke and wrote often on cultural engagement for the Christian. Kuyper’s concept of social anti-thesis speaks directly into the questions we’ve been exploring. Kuyper argues that proper engagement of culture for Christians must be done redemptively. Meaning that, if we are to engage culture we must submit to the systems of structure, organization, and hierarchy the particular cultural group has developed, but we must do it as those who see God’s sovereign rule extending out into those systems. Put simply, the gospel gives Christians the unique duty of standing with cultural groups (whether they be marginalized, needy, overshadowed, de-valued) in solidarity with their cause and the concerns they have, but it also gives Christians the task of not standing for those groups’ alternatives to the gospel. As it probably sounds, this isn’t easy.
We are called to mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep, but we are called to do it in a way that points to the true source of comfort: Jesus. We are called to fight for the dignity of women and the value of all human beings, but in a way that points to the Giver of value and dignity: Jesus. We are called to feed the hungry and clothe the needy, but in a way that points to the Bread of Life who clothes us in His righteousness: Jesus. This is never as cut and dry as many say. Sometimes it looks like simply mourning or simply feeding. However, we must not pretend that the power of the gospel is somehow dis-armed by its exclusivity or claims of authority. It is precisely within the sphere of exclusive authority that the Comforter, Counselor, Redeemer, Father, and Justice-Bringer is able to look upon all of creation and proclaim, “Mine”! The purest form of protest to de-humanizing power is humility. If you need an example, look at the Cross of Christ.


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