How Then Should We Live: Models of Christian Engagement of Culture

How should a Christian live his or her life in this world?

We rightly assume that our Christian faith is not merely abstract belief. Our faith means something. It has consequences. It weighs upon and informs our decisions, our relationships, and our values. Or at least it should. After we have found the answer to “What must I do to be saved?” it’s only natural for us to wonder “How then shall I live?”

We know that following Jesus, we refrain from vices and pursue virtues. We are people of faith, hope, and love; we are people bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Despite our many failures, we have an imperative to live a life worthy of our calling (Eph. 4:1). This question is about more than Christian ethics though. It’s about more than living righteously. It’s also a question about what is sometimes called “cultural engagement.” How do we live our lives as kingdom people in a world that very often either fails to recognize Jesus’ lordship or is downright hostile to his reign? How do we as individuals and as communities address our own cultural embeddedness? How do we love the world as Jesus loved the world (John 3:16) without succumbing to an idolatrous love of the world (1 John 2:15)? How exactly are we to be salt and light in this world? These are critically important questions, but they also have no clear answer. If you were to ask American Christians across the theological and political spectrum about cultural engagement, you would get no clear consensus. Asking global Christians introduces even more complexity.

The purpose of this post is to finally close the book on this topic by answering it once and for all. Actually, no. The purpose of this post is merely to offer my own perspective. There have been hundreds of books written on this topic in the English language, many of them in the last 75 years or so, and almost all of them written by people much more accomplished than myself. One of my personal favorites is a book by Andy Crouch called “Culture Making.”

In the book, Crouch draws a distinction between gestures and postures. A gesture is a contextualized approach to culture. Depending on the circumstance, we may adopt one gesture or another. He identifies four gestures that Christians typically adopt: condemnation, critique, copying, and consumption. Each of these gestures of appropriate at one time or another. The danger, however, is when one of these gestures becomes a posture. A posture is a default setting. A posture is an entrenched, inflexible position regardless of the circumstance. Crouch argues that the proper posture for Christians in the world is to both cultivate and create culture as people shaped by the gospel. Only once we have these postures will we be able to rightfully discern how and why to condemn, critique, copy, or consume.

I think Crouch makes some excellent observations. I like his gesture/posture distinction, but I identify slightly different categories summarized here:

A few observations:

  1. Notice how fundamentalism is not a characteristic unique to religious conservatives. A general posture of hostility is operative on the right and the left. Even though they may disagree about what they hate about culture, they are agreed that culture must be fought and changed.
  2. Both hostility and accommodation bring up the difficulty of identifying what we mean by “culture” or even what we mean by “the world.” Culture is not uniform, so neither is our posture uniform. What usually happens to Christians who live on the “in the world” axis is that they pick and choose which cultures they will accommodate and which cultures they will confront. It’s natural for us to accommodate those cultures in which we have grown accustomed while confronting those cultures that are alien or foreign to us. A good example is the rural/urban divide. Those who have become accustomed to an urban culture may find it very easy to confront aspects of culture that exist outside of city-centers while finding it equally easy to accommodate or at least explain away many aspects of urban culture. As a rule, it is easy to see the flaws in cultures that are foreign to your experience while being blind to the flaws in your own culture. It is also easy to misunderstand or mischaracterize the true nature of cultures that are foreign to your experience.
  3. The different quadrants recognize the fact that most of us adopt some sort of balance between being in the world and not of the world. An activist, for instance, might be a person who has adopted a posture of confrontation, but she confronts culture as a member of an alternative society. This would be many evangelicals. They confront culture as a distinct and separate community of believers. The activist brings truth to bear on culture. The evangelist also understands herself as being a part of an alternative community, but she will look for ways to translate the gospel into the cultures of the world. In other words, she will work with and not against culture.
  4. Anti-culture and counter-culture isolationism are not exactly opposites. They are just two different ways of practicing isolation. Some Christians have attempted to remove themselves from culture altogether while others have attempted to remove themselves from culture by setting up an outpost in the midst of the world. Counter-cultural Christians are noteworthy for the ways that they “plunder” elements of secular culture and create safe Christian alternatives to be consumed by the community.
  5. It is not reflected in the image above, but there is also a spiritual assumption/observation that informs our cultural posture. Those who isolate themselves from culture tend to see the workings of the Spirit as localized in the community of believers. Those who engage with the world either in accommodation or confrontation see the Spirit as very active in the world. The accommodationist, however, would say that the community of believers needs to pay attention to the positive ways that they Spirit may be moving in the world. Those who are hostile might say that what the accommodationist sees as the Spirit is really just the spirit of the age and must be resisted.
  6. This matrix explains why so many Christians disagree with each other on what is proper cultural engagement. Naturally, we each think that the position was occupy is correct. Therefore, other believers who don’t have the same posture as we do are wrong, maybe even dangerously wrong. Take the example of a Christian baker confronted with the request to bake a cake for a gay wedding. The accommodator might say that baking the cake is no big deal. In fact, it might be the best way to love the gay couple. The confronter might say that it is only appropriate for a committed Christian to fight, take a stand, and make a point. The isolationist, on the other hand, may choose quiet withdraw and disengagement. Each of these people could probably make a biblical case for their position against the position of the others.

Each one of the positions on this matrix is appropriate, and necessary, for a Christian as a gesture. It is necessary that we are hostile towards certain things in culture. For instance, would anyone say that a Christian shouldn’t be hostile towards the global sex trade? It is necessary that we are accommodating at times. Paul even said that he became all things to all people so that by any means he might win some to the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:19-23). It is necessary at times to even be isolated. What is Sunday worship if not a strategic, but temporary, isolation from the world? Isn’t it the case that healthy communities are a type of alternative to the culture of the world? But none of these is intended to become our posture. 1 Peter 2:11-12 challenges each one of these postures: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” To the “confronters” Peter reminds us to live “such good lives” that the pagans actually glorify God for our presence. That’s doesn’t sound like a posture of hostility. To the “isolationists” Peter reminds us that our good lives are lived “among the pagans.” Isolation as a posture isn’t righteous or even possible. To the “accommodationists” Peter reminds us that we are foreigners and exiles. Even if we tried to blend in, following Jesus will cause us to stick out and be distinct.

So what should be a Christian’s posture towards the world? Well, first of all it is going to require biblically informed discernment. Our posture is one of wisdom seeking to know when to adopt the various gestures. Second, a quick phrase used by Peter in the paragraph before the verses I quoted may help us to at least begin to think about our posture even if it doesn’t answer the question completely. In verse 9, he calls us (among other things) a “royal priesthood.” Each word is significant. That we are a royal priesthood says something about our ultimate allegiance. We are citizens of heaven and servants of the true Lord. More than that, we also carry the truth and even the authority of Jesus into the world. But we are also a priesthood meaning that we have a ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18) connecting people to God. To be a priest in this way requires that we are distinct (“holy” is a better word) and also that we are engaged and invested in this world. You can’t be a priest without a double connection between God and the world. The question I started with remains complex. There’s so much more than can be said, but adopting the posture of a royal priest is a good place to start with an answer.

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