We hear a lot of discussion in the church about how we should be engaging culture. What are we talking about, when we talk about culture?
I think the best way to think about cultures is not just one set of things like the arts, or like all the things in the world that bother us. Sometimes people talk about “the culture” and what they’re really thinking of is movies that bother them, or music whose lyrics they don’t like. Culture is way more than that, and I think the best way to think of it is everything that human beings make of the world. That includes the arts—it includes movies, television and film. But it also includes buildings, and clothing and food. It’s all of human activity, trying to make something of the world—make stuff, but also makes sense of the world. It’s the human quest to make something of the world.
I think you could identify a few things. One: Whatever we would say about culture would have to be good. The gospel is good news, so we have to be able to say something good. What is the good news about culture? Frankly, too often when Christians talk about culture they tell you the bad news about culture, but they don’t tell you anything that would frame culture in a hopeful way. So is there something good here?
Secondly, is has to be news. So it has to be good, and it has to be news, and that means this has to arrive as something we couldn’t have figured out on our own, something we have to be told about in order to fully grasp. We couldn’t have just figured out from looking at the world around us. A messenger has to say: “You know what? There’s a new way to look at what you’ve already been doing.”
I think that leads to the third thing which is, for Christians the gospel means the ultimate story of the world is not about us. It’s not about our effort, it’s not about our achievement, our striving—it’s about another who has done something that has opened up life for us that we couldn’t have accessed on our own. And of course, when we think of culture, we usually think of what human beings do. So the question is, is there Another—capital A, Another—who is at work in the world, and in culture, in ways that bring good news to us?
And I think that leaves the fourth criterion for the Gospel. The Gospel is a story of sacrifice. It’s about God entering into the worst of human life, not just the best parts. So how does our story of culture lead us to the very heart of the brokenness of the world, and the self-giving of God for the world? If you can tell a story that’s good, that’s news, that’s about Another giving Himself for the world, then I think you have the Gospel, and I think you can tell a story in those terms.
What does that progression look like, when we think about culture and what it’s meant to do?
The great thing is from the very first verse of the first chapter of the Bible, you’re already getting good news about culture. So, that is to say, you’re getting good news about God first, and then God’s image bearers making something of the world. God doesn’t start with anything; God creates out of nothing, and after God creates and speaks, you get this refrain: God saw it was good. It’s also news; There’s a Creator. This world is not eternally existent, it didn’t come from nowhere, there’s actually a name for the Maker of this world. The culmination of Genesis 1 and that whole kind of liturgy of creation is the creation of human beings, male and female, in the image of God. And once they’re in the creation, God says it’s not just good—which he said six times, six days—but now at the end of the sixth day there’s this bonus round, and now the world is very good.So the first part of the story is from good to very good. And I would say, the reason human beings are in the world, from God’s point of view, is to unfold all the goodness of the world and actually make it “very good,” through culture.
We get to anticipate the remaking of the world. And again, it’s gospel, so it’s about Another. We are not just going to gradually make the world better and better until it’s beautiful. But we do get to participate in this culture making. Not just of goodness or very-goodness, but glory.
Can you give us some hopefulness for the Church in 2013? What do we look like as Imagebearers?
The good news is God has not left us to ourselves in idolatry and injustice. And in fact, the true image has been restored in the world. Most of all, first of all, in Jesus. Jesus is the true Imagebearer. Those of us who follow him lose our lives—our messed-up, idolatrous lives—we die to that, and we’re taken up by his life. So in as much as we now live his life, not just our own, then we can expect to happen what was originally supposed to happen as a result of the image-bearers. Which, in a word, is flourishing. So I think the test of image-bearing really is flourishing. You know the image is being borne in some way when other people, and indeed the whole created order flourish. What is flourishing? It’s abundance of life. It’s diversity, it’s teeming, it’s stuff you could never have predicted. Flourishing places have this sort of unpredictable wildness about them. When Imagebearers are really leading and serving in the way that they’re supposed to, you find there’s this unpredictable abundance. People create things they wouldn’t have created. They start businesses, they come up with recipes in a restaurant, they come up with new games to play out on the playground in an elementary school. That’s all flourishing, and that comes from image-bearing.
Do you see a trend of more engagement happening among Christians in cultural channels?
Let me put it this way: The 25 percent of the best news about what Christians are creating and cultivating and the way they’re doing it in partnership with neighbors who don’t share their faith is so encouraging. When I think about cities around the U.S. where churches are working in much more intricate and well-thought-out partnerships with civic leaders, with business—that is happening in a more robust way, certainly than in my lifetime, and I would argue in the last 100 years. Now there’s another side to this, which is, we’re in the middle of a great institutional decline in our culture. Not just Christian institutions, but institutions generally. Institutions are reservoirs and repositories of a certain kind of capacity. And those are ebbing away, including Christian institutions. And when they ebb away it gets a lot harder to act in broad, effective ways. So the bigger picture is more challenging, but the best of what I see is so amazing.
Follow Andy on Twitter at @ahc.