On Approaching Culture

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. – Jesus in the Gospel of John 17.15-18 (ESV)

With these words from the Upper Room Discourse of John’s Gospel, Jesus (probably intentionally) set the stage for how His followers should interact with the world. Often characterized as a call for Christians to “be in the world, but not of the world,” these words (along with various New Testament statements by Paul and James) have been used as the basis for Christian cultural engagement.  That is to say, Scripture sets the parameters for how Christians should live in, participate in, and relate to the world in which we live.

Unsurprisingly, exactly what this engagement looks like has varied even among faithful followers of Jesus. In fact, over the years, various Christians have crafted and lived different interpretations of what Scripture communicates about the appropriate relationship with the world. Today, there are five basic approaches that Christians take:

Five Approaches to Culture

First is what we might call the Antagonistic Approach. In this view, the expectation is that followers of Jesus should generally oppose the world and its culture, norms, and practices. Think of the Amish or ultra-conservative Christians who eschew many modern practices and technology. For the sake of comparing all five views, I want to use the Harry Potter books. If for no other reason that the clarity of the example, since their release, Christians have had very clear reactions to these books (and the movies). So they make a solid test cast. For the antagonistic approach, since the Harry Potter books are not explicitly Christian, they are something in culture that should be personally avoided and perhaps even widely opposed.

A second option is the Accommodating Approach, where the expectation is that followers of Jesus should accept and welcome the world and its culture, norms, and practices. This is a more prevalent and often “Christian-lite” approach, although ancient Christians such as John Chrysostom reveal that there is nothing particularly new about this approach. The perspective on the Harry Potter books here is that they’re all good, something to be enjoyed and accepted and adopted without any thought to the contrary.

A third option is the Countercultural Approach, where followers of Jesus should forge alternative, Christ-centered options for cultural expression and practice. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is largely the approach taken by Christian bookstores and the Contemporary Christian Music movement. Here, rather than reading the Harry Potter books, you should instead read some Christian fantasy, perhaps The Lord of the Rings (for the fifteenth time) or the Chronicles of Narnia or something similar.

The fourth option is the Two Worlds Approach. Here, followers of Jesus live between two worlds (sometimes called Two Kingdoms), where sometimes we prioritize the culture of Christ and other times we prioritize the culture of this world. This is the historic view of the Reformation, as this approach was fostered by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and their theological descendants. To continue our example, the first question for this view would be which world do the Harry Potter books belong to? If you’re going to use them for mere entertainment, they’re probably safe, since they belong to that world. But if the books are going to form your worldview, they have overstepped the boundaries of their world and should thus be returned to their proper place.

And finally, there is the Redemptive Approach. In this view, followers of Jesus should seek to redeem the world and reorient its culture, norms, and practices toward Christ and His Kingdom. Not everything is redeemable, of course. But many things are. In this approach, Harry Potter gets recast in various ways. Perhaps the books get celebrated for encouraging literacy or maybe parts of the story are mined for lessons about the battle between good and evil. In this view, culture is engaged for the purpose of finding and drawing out what is true and good and beautiful.

Which Approach?

Now, there are faithful Christians who attempt each of these approaches. And in my experience, there’s typically some overlap in approaches by individuals, families, and communities. (Here I should also not that the accommodating approach seems likely to be the kind of thinking that Jesus and James push back against in Scripture, so it’s probably best to not default to that approach.)

But personally, I lean toward attempting a redemptive approach to our world. A redemptive view takes seriously the reality that culture tends toward sinful brokenness and thus we should not be easy friends with the world. But it also focuses on the fact that our world consists of people made in the image of God who need redemption and whose cultural output is often worthy of redemption too. A redemptive approach understands that not everything is beneficial for the follower of Jesus, but that our world must be engaged and redeemed, nonetheless. This is why, for example, the church as pastor at often uses video clips to open messages. It’s why we spoof culture to make points. It’s why we have message series that use pop songs from the 90s as ways to think about the book of James.

There is much about culture that is not great and should be cautiously engaged by Christians, yes. But there’s also a lot that can be redeemed for the Kingdom of God, not ignored or feared or cast aside.


What about you: what are your thoughts on approaching culture? What boundaries or indicators to do you use?

Book Review: The Reason for My Hope (Graham)

The Reason for My Hope (Graham)Few people have shaped contemporary Christianity more than Billy Graham. Though not as active, popular, or visible as he once was, Graham’s decades of evangelism, writing, and preaching continue to influence Christians around the world. Even in retirement, Graham continues to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world. It was thus with eagerness that this reviewer engaged one of his latest books, The Reason for My Hope: Salvation (Thomas Nelson: 2013). Continue reading

Book Review: God’s Problem (Ehrman)

God' ProblemIn the book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Questions—Why We Suffer (New York: Harper One, 2008), Bart D. Ehrman examines the various explanations for suffering presented in the text of the Christian Bible. Ehrman, a New Testament textual critic and James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has written a number of books concerning the text of the Christian Bible, and here presents an exegetical treatment of a contemporary question for the general public. God’s Problem is a New York Times Best Seller, indicating Ehrman’s popularity and the ever-increasing interest that the general public has in answers for life’s questions. In this book, Ehrman gives consideration to various Biblical perspectives and presents the positions in sections dealing with the Classical view of suffering, the Consequential view of suffering, the answer of Redemptive suffering, the Question of Questionable and Meaningless suffering, and the Apocalyptic view of suffering. This review will examine Ehrman’s general perspective on these various positions and additionally his position as presented as the book as a whole. Continue reading

Reflections on Vatican II

Vatican II (Calnewman.org)The Second Vatican Council (1962-5) stands apart as one of the single most important events of modern Church history, not only because of the number of Christians that the Church at Rome influences, but also because of the magnitude and depth of the canons of the council. While a thorough examination remains outside the parameters of our course, here we examine three of the most interesting and impactful sections of the Vatican II documents, those decrees on Indulgences, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Non-Christian Religions. Through our examination of these sections we will note the interesting connection of the Vatican II statements to the history of the Catholic Church. Continue reading

Endo’s Silence

Silence, EndoInsights from historical fiction are often intended to make readers pause for careful consideration, especially so with Shasaka Endo’s Silence, the account of a Christians amidst the persecutions of 16th century Japan. Central to this narrative is Endo’s portrayal of the conflict between Eastern and Western civilizations, especially as that conflict impacted Christianity. The narrative traces the journey of Portuguese Jesuit Sebastian Rodrigues to Macao and then Japan, his interactions with Japanese Christians, his confrontation with the apostate Christovao Ferreira, and his eventual capitulation to the tactics of the magistrate Inoue, developing a number of theological concerns along the way. In this essay, we examine several of these, including Rodrigues’ relationship with Kichijiro, Endo’s use of the term “silence,” the co-opting of the Biblical narrative, and the conflict between East and West as demonstrated through the “swamp of Japan.” Through engagement with these considerations, I argue that central to Endo’s perspective is the centrality of a Christian love that seeks to transcend the cultural boundaries of East and West. Continue reading

Book Review: The Skeletons in God’s Closet (Butler)

Can God really be good? Will God really judge all non-Christians? How can you believe in a God who commanded genocide?

The Skeletons in God's ClosetThese are questions which many people—many Christians—struggle to honestly answer, queries which have caused people to walk away from the Christian faith, problems that have eroded many hearts and minds. And, lest we be seen as overly dismissive, these are significant and important questions, questions which need understanding and (when possible) answers. To help us think through such questions, Joshua Ryan Butler has written The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War (Nashville: Thomas Nelson: 2014). Continue reading

ECA: Shepherd of Hermas

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Early Christian Authority.

Shepherd of HermasEven after nearly 2000 years, the Shepherd of Hermas remains an intriguing set of apocalyptic writings from the early Church. The central concern of Hermas revolves around post-baptismal sin: What can Christians do if they have fallen into sin after their baptism? In answering this question, Hermas writes down five visions, twelve commandments, and ten parables, many of which he recounts in terms of divine visions and conversations with an angelic figure called the Shepherd (hence the title of the book). The Shepherd remains the longest extant text of early Christianity, much longer than a number of New Testament books, and was included in many early canonical lists and codices, including Codex Sinaiticus and some contemporaries of Eusebius and Athanasius. Ultimately, the Shepherd was rejected as canonical, due at least in part to its not being written by an apostle (as argued in the Muratorian Canon). Hermas may have been the brother of Pius, Bishop of Rome from around 140 to 154, and Origen argues that he was the Hermas mentioned in Romans 16.14. Additionally, Hermas mentions someone named Clement in V8.2, which may be a reference to Clement of Rome. Most scholars agree that the Shepherd was likely written between 110-140 CE, perhaps over a period of time. Such as early date fits the writings widespread use in both East and West, as well as the claims to usefulness by the Church Fathers despite its ultimate non-canonical status. Continue reading

Reflections on Suffering (Part I)

This article originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

BubblesWhy do we suffer? This is a question which, unfortunately, we all must ask at some point in our lives. The 2011-2012 academic year was a year in which this question took on a special relevance in my own life, first in a theology class devoted to wrestling with this question and then in my own life with the illness and death of my Grandfather. Life is painful when the lessons of the classroom become the lessons of reality.

Over the next two weeks, I want to offer some reflections on suffering and then propose a potential “answer” (the scare quotes are very intentional here) to the question of suffering. Today, I offer some basic insights into some of the proposed answers to the theological problem of evil and suffering. Proposed answers to this most hideous and painful of all questions have been labeled such things as the “retributive justice” or Classical view, the Consequences view, Meaningless suffering, the Apocalyptic perspective, and the Free Will argument for suffering. Continue reading

Sit, Walk, Stand

Sit, Walk, Stand, NeeWatchman Nee was one of the most influential leaders and thinkers in the history of Chinese Christianity. It has been said that Nee’s writings and example, more than any other factor, have shaped the contemporary Chinese church. In his highly popular book, Sit, Walk, Stand, Nee offered an exegesis of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that outlines the Christian’s position in Christ, life in the world, and attitude toward the enemy (10). In this book, Nee argues that Paul advocated that the Ephesian church interact with the cosmos in three distinct ways: sitting, walking, and standing. For Nee these concepts not only appear to provide an exegetical model for understanding Ephesians, but also seem to function as one of the primary lenses through which he views the Christian life. Continue reading

The Catholic Reformation of the Individual

St. Peters Basilica

St. Peters Basilica

The sixteenth century was for Western Europe a time of much socio-theological consternation and change. Numerous theological reformations occurred (or sought to occur) in a variety of social contexts, for a plethora of reasons, and employing numerous methodologies. One such reformation was that of the institutional Catholic Church under the auspices of such leaders as Girolamo Savonarola and Ignatius of Loyola. These two theologians, whilst occasionally interacting with the theologies of other contemporary reformation attempts apart from the Catholic church, crafted reformation theologies within the institution of the Catholic Church. In this essay we examine some of the reforming perspectives of these men, noting that central to their conception of reformation within the Catholic Church was the reformation of the individual Christian. Continue reading