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:

    1. marriage and family, a social institution:
    2. work and slavery, cultural norms and ills
    3. social, economic, and ethnic prejudice and barriers
    4. 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!