Below is the transcript of my notes from a recent workshop on how Christians can be redeeming cultural stories through the gospel.
We are enmeshed in a cultural story: all of the stories we create are projections of what we believe about the biggest questions of life:
Who are we? What were we made for? What is morally reprehensible, and what is morally praiseworthy? What is worth dying for? What happens after we die?
All of these questions necessarily connect to what we believe about God – whether we know it or not. The Bible tells us that God created everything with a specific design. He didn’t just create the material world, but the immaterial (Col. 1:16) – this means that God designed trees, but He also designed romance. All things have been created according to God’s specific design. And as the centerpiece of His creation, He creates mankind in His own image, with a moral conscience to adhere to this specific design.
However, sin came and broke us, bending the needle on our internal moral compass, leaving us with a nature that no longer perfectly aligns with the design. However, sin did not entirely erase our being made in God’s image – the needle is bent, not lost. We still naturally have a moral sense of “right” and “wrong”, and a general sense of what should and should not happen. Sin merely perverts and manipulates the direction that our compass points, so at times we call “good” what is really “bad”. But, being made in God’s image (even if we are broken by sin), we still have vestiges of God’s design woven into us. For example, almost every culture believes that being a traitor to your fellow countrymen is wrong, or being unfaithful to your spouse is bad – we believe that because we are made in God’s image, and He has declared those things to be wrong.
Now, what the needle of “right” and “wrong” and eternal truth point towards tends to vary depending on the shifting winds of culture. And these deeply held beliefs are present in every culture that has ever existed, including our own. And for us to be effective proclaimers of the gospel in our own culture, we must understand the direction those winds are blowing.
Tim Keller explains that every culture has what he calls “defeater beliefs” – they are beliefs that are so deeply held within a particular culture, and appear to be in direct contradiction with Christianity, that when someone hears something contradict their defeater belief, they immediately refuse to accept it. So, for example, our culture deeply believes in the “expressive individualism”, so anything that appears to hinder or inhibit your ability to express yourself however you see fit, must be wrong. So if someone who holds to that hears a gospel presentation, “Surrender your life to Jesus,” it will sound like a message of death to them – surrender my freedom? No way!
In our efforts to understand the particular nuances of our culture (Who are we? What is good?), we must be discerning what our particular culture’s “defeater beliefs” are so we can apply the gospel to that specific objection in a winsome way. We will be looking at Paul in Acts 17 for our model of this.
- Paul interacts with the culture. Paul spends time in the urban city of Athens, and takes in the overwhelming sight of the idol worship that took place, an obvious depiction of the rejection of God. This provokes Paul (Acts. 17:16), and he is motivated to act. Paul goes to the different cultural hubs in the city: the synagogue for the Jews, the marketplace for the common Greek, and the Areaopagus for the higher academic Greeks (Acts 17:17, 19).
- Paul applauds what is praiseworthy in the culture. Paul opens his address by acknowledging that the Athenians natural desire to worship is good (Acts 17:22). He also quotes respected authorities from their culture, acknowledging that they had some basis of truth; in Acts 17:28, Paul quotes two Greek (non-Christian) poets and philosophers. Paul is acknowledging that all human beings are made in the image of God, so even pagans have shreds of God’s truth in what they say, even if they still are misguided. Paul points at what the Athenians already believe to be true and says, “What you are going for here is actually a good thing.”
- Paul elevates the Gospel as a better basis/narrative for what they deem culturally praiseworthy. Paul opens with claiming he found an idol made out to the “unknown god”, and tells them that he has come to declare to them who this unknown God actually is (Acts 17:23). He then goes through and shows them how the gospel of Jesus Christ provides a fuller, stronger, and superior object for their desire to worship. Unlike the Greek gods who require continual sacrifices, and whose shrines require to be crafted by human hands, the real God requires nothing, and is not served by human hands – instead the real God creates and sustains all of us (Acts 17:24-27). And this real God calls all of us to repent and believe in Him. Paul, after applauding their good desire to worship, shows how their own worldview simply cannot support their own desire, and then elevates the Gospel as the sweeter, stronger, and brighter answer.
So, our pattern: Interact; Applaud; Elevate.
Interact: We need to be aware of what our culture prizes, and to do that we need to engage with our culture. Paul did this by attending the marketplace and synagogues, we can do this by looking at what kind of movies, stories, and music our culture creates. Watch the news and look at what stories they cover, and what ones they don’t. Watch who we give awards to and why. Watch what trends on social media; what do people in our community regularly talk, complain, or laugh about? We should also employ wisdom in this – we should never justify partaking in something sinful under the guise of trying to be “culturally relevant”. We are not to partake in shameful deeds, but rather expose them (Eph. 5:11). You don’t have to be watching every smutty movie that comes out to be interacting with culture.
Applaud: Satan cannot create; sin is therefore by its definition a perversion of something good. Like eggs being left out too long, sin is something that has gone rotten. So, within all of our sin, there is a pit of something good that has just been spoiled. When looking at our culture, we need to have lenses on that are always searching for that “pit” of goodness that aligns with God’s design. Very few people are just villains; the woman who is cheating on her husband may be doing so because she feels unloved – adultery is never something we applaud, but we do affirm her natural desire to receive love. Not only does applauding what is praiseworthy help us maintain an accurate biblical worldview, it also buys us credibility with someone who may strongly disagree with us. It also guards us from reducing people to dishonest caricatures whom we see nothing good in at all. Showing someone that we are not polar opposites is helpful when attempting to nudge them towards Christ, while guarding us from self-righteous superiority.
Elevate: After we have affirmed what is good, we then show that the gospel provides a superior framework for that goodness to flourish. For example, if someone rejects Christianity because it seems too exclude outsiders, we would affirm that the exclusion of someone just because they don’t fit a particular mold is indeed wrong. But, we would then show that by their own standards, they too would be exclusive. If they don’t agree, then just ask them when the last time they had a conservative, fundamentalist Christian over to their house for dinner. If you say, I hate Christians because they are so exclusive – then you just became guilty of being exclusive! In Christianity, on the other hand, we believe that we are sinners saved by grace, so we don’t think we are better or superior to anyone – even our enemies (Matt. 5:44). Unlike so many other traditional religions that are only available to specific people groups, Christianity is open to all types, genders, races and class of people who believe. Now certainly there are many Christians who do not represent this well, but the answer is not that we need less Biblical Christianity, but more! The goal of this last step is to get them, as Tim Keller says, to the point where they say of the gospel, “I wish that were true.”
What we are striving to achieve through this process is to gain a holistic, Biblical worldview. We want to see all things through the gospel lenses of “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation” – God created everything, sin ruined everything, through Christ we can be forgiven of everything, and one day God will heal and restore everything. When we do this, we will slowly erase the “secular” category from our minds and see all of life being lived in light of God’s great story, and invite others to do the same.
For further study of this, check out these resources from Keller:
Video: Christian Cultural Engagement