There’s a lot of talk these days about “cultural engagement” and how it’s important for Christians to be culture-makers, culture-watchers and culture-advocates. Umpteen books, blogs and conferences have been developed around these themes. And rightfully so. This is an area in which evangelical Christianity has been notoriously apathetic for far too long.
But what does it actually look like to be a “cultured Christian”? And by “cultured,” I don’t mean fashionable, well-heeled aristocrats who frequent the opera and attend gallery openings. I simply mean people who take culture seriously and love it enough to approach it with nuance, intentionality and an open mind. What does it look like to do this Christianly?
It’s my belief that Christians, of all people, should be the best connoisseurs, appreciators, advocates and patrons of culture. Why? Because for Christians, culture—what human beings make of the world—is far more than just an end unto itself. It’s far more than just something that brings glory to man. It’s a means by which we understand, reflect and glorify the Creator God.
To be a “cultured” Christian, then, is not to inordinately elevate or idolize the makings or thinkings of man; it’s rather to see God more clearly and humbly worship him more dearly through the goodness, truth and beauty all around us, in both the natural and cultural world.
What else does it mean to be a “cultured Christian”? Here are nine attributes I’d like to suggest define the Christian approach to culture:
- Cultured Christians are willing to explore all sorts of things in the realm of art and culture, even if they ultimately don’t accept all of it. They’re brave enough to try new things, but wise enough to know not everything is valuable or edifying.
- Cultured Christians recognize how complex, ambiguous and personal words like edifying and discernment are, and they accept there is no easy formula or checklist for Christians wondering whether something is or isn’t appropriate. Nevertheless, they recognize the question is important, and they accept the challenge.
- Cultured Christians don’t treat culture as a mercenary, using it only to improve their own status in the world (by wearing fashionable clothes, name-dropping esoteric indie bands, etc.) or to satiate some sort of desire, lust or addiction. They love culture for its goodness, truth and beauty. Not for what it can do for them. Culture is about maximizing their passion for God and minimizing their obsession with self.
- Cultured Christians don’t care about “the scene.” They don’t choose a bar or restaurant because it’s a hotspot, but because it’s quality. They aren’t ashamed to like Coldplay, college basketball, superhero movies or any number of other cultural items just because they have mass appeal. (They don’t subscribe to the notion that mass appeal necessarily means cheap or shoddy.) They embrace an item of culture because they find it to be valuable, regardless of what the “in crowd” says.
- Cultured Christians don’t rush to judgment. They don’t look at something fancy on a menu and say, “No thanks. I’ll go with what I know!” They don’t walk out of a difficult, complex film saying, “I didn’t get it. What a waste of my time.” They understand that good things in culture rarely lend themselves to immediate and easy understanding. It takes time, effort, the development of taste and a patient sensibility to get the most out of culture.
- Cultured Christians recognize the global impact of healthy, thoughtful consumption. They consider factors like sustainability, fair trade and the socio-economic origins of the products they consume. Beyond trendiness, they take time to learn what “grass-fed” actually means and why “locally grown” may be a good thing.
- Cultured Christians don’t separate the realm of culture from the realm of faith. They don’t pit their Christianity in opposition to culture or understand their faith as being uninformed or uninfluenced by culture. They avoid looking at things in terms of sacred/secular dichotomies, recognizing common grace lends dignity to all manner of cultural activity — even while they recognize common grace isn’t the same as saving grace.
- Cultured Christians recognize there are good things within culture that, when recklessly consumed or abused, can become evil; but that in moderation, these things can still be good. For cultured Christians, moderation is key — not in the sense of compromise or lukewarm tepidness, but in the sense of knowing the best of things often come in small doses.
- Cultured Christians are not pendulum people. They aren’t always reacting against some bad iteration of the faith by going too far in the other direction. They embrace the stasis of the middle — the pendulum at rest — because it is in that nonreactive space where a true, deep, rewarding appreciation of culture can occur.