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How can we better engage (and disengage) culture in 2009? Much has been written about the extreme Christian postures towards culture–fundamentalist judgmentalism (Christ Against Culture) and emergent syncretism (Christ of Culture)—but is redeeming the culture the biblical middle? D. A. Carson doesn’t seem to think so.
Carson on Culture
D. A. Carson recently cautioned against using “redemption” language when engaging culture. He wrote: “Redemption terminology in the NT is so bound up with Christ’s work for and in the church that to extend it to whatever good we do in the broader world risks a shift in focus.” I love Carson’s commitment to the Bible, and he is correct that redemption terminology is often bound up with Christ’s work for and in the church. However, redemption is also bound up with creation and culture in the New Testament. Apparently, Tim Keller has been affected by Carson’s caution. His comment during a Q&A session at the Dwell Conference revealed sympathy for Carson’s position. Is redeeming culture wrong-headed? Let’s consider this question from Colossians:
Colossians on Culture
- “and through him (Jesus) to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Col 1:20
The emphasis of this verse is upon the reconciling work of Christ, a subset of redemption, accompished through Jesus death on the cross. It accomplishes peace, shalom, restoration. The scope of the redemptive, reconciling, shalom promoting effects of the cross are universal. When it comes to people, they are reconciled by faith or by force. When it comes to all other things they are reconciled in fact. That fact is breaking into the present through the Church. All things then, including creation and culture, are affected by the already-not-fully redemptive work of Jesus on the cross. The church is the embodiment of the redemptive gospel to and in the world, which is made plain by the rest of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The implications of this culture redeeming posture are spelled out in Paul’s ethical exhortations regarding society and vocation. He tells the church to produce counter-cultural, redeemed forms of:
- marriage and family, a social institution:
- work and slavery, cultural norms and ills
- social, economic, and ethnic prejudice and barriers
- how we spend our time, a rather sweeping category that applies to everything!
- “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of (literally “redeeming”) the time.” Colossians 4:; cf. Eph 5:14
Redemptively Engaging Culture
This sweeping command to redeem the time, explicitly through conversations, but implicitly through everything we do warrants redemptive engagement with culture. Perhaps there is something wrong with Carson’s definition of “culture” or maybe we need to clarify what we mean by “redeeming”? Provisionally, I am thinking of gospel-motivated critique and change of cultural forms and content. Nevertheless, the gospel compels us to redemptively engage both peoples and cultures. How? To redeem places—where you gather as a church, where you live in a neighborhood or condo or apartment complex. To redeem cultural products—films you watch, music you listen to, art and advertisement you take in, games you play. To redeem bad political practices—voting for certain propositions, supporting certain policies. To redeem domains like education—to raise the quality of education offered, to promote theological perspectives alongside secular perspectives, to advocate better salaries for teachers.
These are a few ways (here’s more on that) we can redemptively engage culture, which are warranted by Christ on the cross, by Paul from prison, by the Bible as a whole, a document that is, itself, redemptive literature that has affected the writing of novels, short stories, journalism, history, and so on. Should we redeem culture? I think so, but we must be careful not to call the creation of Christian sub-culture redemption of culture; that, of course, is often just bad culture creation and Andy Crouch recently has helped us out with that. I say, redeem, but redeem wisely!
Two of the most popular articles at the Times this week addressed matters of faith. Ben Ratliff covers a story “Plugging in to Make a Joyful Noise to the Lord.“Stanley Fish addresses “Suffering, Evil and the Existence of God” in his regular column. Before addressing the content of these articles, a word on their relvance for church planting.
The first article reveals a music-focused growth strategy for churches. Niche bands are created for each generation from kids to grandparents. While this is not entirely new, the explicit statements made by the pastor give me pause. Should we plant churches based on music style? Does this not lead to the worship of worship? The second article touches on a universal theme–suffering. This is always relevant to church planting. Just ask a planter! Perhaps more insightful are the host of comments on why many NYTs readers agree with the anti-biblical assertions made by Fish and Ehrman. These perceptions of the Christian faith, while often untrue, are nevertheless obstacles to people embracing the true Christ and having true faith. We do well to read consider some of them if we want to connect the gospel to the intellectual and emotional issues of fellow citizens.
Ratliff’s piece focuses on High Desert Church in Ca, examining their praise rock and musical philosophy. Though there is not much new in this article, there are a few quotables: “Tom Mercer, 52, the senior pastor, ‘you don’t decide who you’re going to reach and then pick a music style. You pick a music style, and that determines who’s going to come.’” At High Desert there is a band for every age group from kids (punkpraise) older adults (Classical). Is this a case of musicolatry, savvy church growth, consumeristic worship, or reasonable contextualization? Does exponential growth based on musical preference pay too high a price for mono-generational community?
The theodicy (justification for evil) article by Fish is intriguing more because of the 300 plus comments (which church planters would do well to read) than the actual article itself. This article does summarize two forthcoming books on the subject, one by Ehrman titled “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer” and other by renowned former atheist Anthony Flew “There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. How, he asks, do merely physical and mechanical forces – forces without mind, without consciousness – give rise to the world of purposes, thoughts and moral projects? Flew identifies conscious purpose in this world. He then posits that a conscious God must be responsible. What God is not a matter he has tackled. Where Flew’s work is steely in logic, Ehrman’s approach is stirring in compassion. Instead of taking the typical philosophical approach, his concerns rise from angst of over suffering he has witnessed. Christians would do well to heed his compassion and look to Christ to emulate it.
Nothing much new in Fish’s questions and assertions regarding the nature of God and the problem of evil. Several things he fails to acknowledge:
- God is sovereign and purposeful in the evil that exists (simply points to the absurdity of Adam and Eve story). Man is culpable. This is not antimony; it is compatability. God sovereignly works in concert with human reponsibility to redeem our lives or condemn them. We are responsible and he is sovereign.
- Although human culpability for Adam’s Fall may seem like a virus, the fact is that Adam was our best man, with the best set of circumstances, to best represent humanity. If Tom Brady can’t get it done, then I certainly cant.
- If an all-powerful God is good, it does not follow that he will not permit evil or suffering. As a not-so-all-powerful parent, I not only permit but mercifully inflict pain upon my son when he reaches for the stove. Pain can be redemptive and redirect self-destructive behaviors.
- If God is god, then his sovereign freedom is not a threat to our happiness. If God is the most important person in the universe, and our greatest satisfaction comes from knowing and delighting in him. If he is sovereign and free over evil and all things, then he must use his freedom to harness all things towards showing his god-ness. If indeed he is God and we are not, should we not be in happy and holy awe when he makes his god-ness shine brighter for our enjoyment and his praise, against the dark backdrop of suffering? The theater of his glory includes tragedy in service of eternal glory and human happiness?
- God sacrificed himself in order to put death to death and to slay suffering and evil. Christ is the ultimate answer to any theodicy. God is all powerful, all good, and will end all suffering, death and evil for those who hope in him. The promise of a new creation minus any tears is the bright future of God’s good and broken world. The death of his historical, miracle-working, compassionate, transfigured and resurrected Son is the downpayment of his full pledge to redeem and renew all things.