Evanglelicals Too Concerned With Culture?

Carl Trueman, Departmental Chair of Church History at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, recently wrote a substantive yet spicy blog post critiquing the evangelical church’s seeming fascination with all things cultural. Since one of our core ministry values at The Crossing is “Cultural Engagement,” and part of my responsibilities at The Crossing specifically involve the same, you can imagine it piqued my interest. Some excerpts:

One of the modern shibboleths of the evangelical church, particularly the evangelical church in the West, is that of culture. One must be interested in culture, or one is simply irrelevant. Books and organizations abound on Christian approaches to various aspects of modern culture; there are magazines and e-zines dedicated to the topic; and numerous conferences are held, some local, some national, some international, which address cultural issues in terms of the categories and so-called world-and-life-view of Christianity. Now, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater: sure, we need to understand the language and idioms of our culture to the extent that we need to communicate the gospel in such a context in a meaningful, comprehensible way; but I do believe that fascination with culture is now way out of hand in Christian circles and has come to eclipse more important, more central things.
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I am convinced that much culture talk is driven by the need to hyper-spiritualise everything. Of course, I believe everything should be done to the glory of God; but that doesn’t mean I believe we need a Christian theory of movies any more than we need a Christian theory of cake baking, homebrewing, or street sweeping. When I arrive home at night, I sometimes just want to sit down, have a drink, and relax while listening to a piece of music or watching a movie or reading a good book. Pascal was right when he saw that such entertainment was perfectly legitimate in and of itself, when it helped one recover from the drudge and dreariness of the daily grind; when such things become an obsession, an idol, then, of course, they become a problem; but there was no need to specifically Christianise them at a theoretical or epistemological level.
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You yourself can test this appetite for trivia easily. Today, more people in church are less familiar with the basics of the Bible and Christian theology than ever before; so you should ask your pastor to arrange some parallel seminars on a Saturday with one on, say, the elements of the Apostles’ Creed, and one on a Christian approach to movies or sex. I guarantee you that the second will be far better attended than the first. Peripheral trivia trumps central truth every time, even within the ranks of the orthodox consumers in our churches.
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Alternatively, I could try to move out of my own little world, start thinking less in cultural and more in biblical terms. I could become less obsessed with particularities and more concerned with universals. I could engage less with the accidents of culture and more with the substance of nature. I might even spend less time training people who don’t know the Apostles’ Creed to watch movies that would have made grandma blush and more time teaching them the basic elements of scripture and doctrine. Horribly modernist, I know; in fact, boringly passé. But it might, just might, prove more relevant in the long run than being able to understand the sacramental significance of Sharon Stone or playing `Spot the Redeemer Figure’ in the latest Jim Carrey movie.

A few thoughts:

1. Though I don’t completely agree with everything Trueman lays out in the post, I found it richly thought provoking and well worth the read.

2. Trueman is dead on, I believe, in pointing out the widespread biblical illiteracy and theological ignorance of evangelicals. This is a huge problem for any number of reasons. Most importantly, without the guidance of the Bible—God’s gracious revelation to us—we simply cannot know and worship God as he requires, i.e., in ways that lead to his glory and our good. (This, by the way, is why our very first ministry value at The Crossing is “The Transforming Power of Scripture.”) For this reason, Trueman’s call for evangelicals to make reading and reflecting on the Scriptures a much higher priority is surely correct.

3. However, despite the qualification he makes in the first quote listed above, I wonder if Trueman comes (unintentionally) close to encouraging a false dichotomy: we must choose to pay attention either to culture or the Bible and theology. But a mature understanding of biblical truth—the very thing Trueman is arguing for—should inevitably leads to a robust, yet discerning engagement with culture. As Trueman himself notes, this will give us the ability to proclaim and defend the gospel more effectively. But such engagement will also encourage us to appreciate and foster the often astonishing amount of goodness and beauty that is persists even in our fallen world, something that has remained our biblical calling since the opening chapter of the Bible. His present rhetorical intentions aside, my hunch is that Trueman would largely agree with this.

4. That being said, the crux of the problem in my mind is not that Christians necessarily pay too much attention to culture, but that they are generally ill equipped theologically for the task. Still, I would enthusiastically agree with Trueman in the sense that there is a real danger in putting the cart before the horse. Greater theological maturity is needed to curb many of the abuses and errors he mentions.

5. One point I will take further issue with, however, is found in the second quote listed above dealing with “hyperspiritualization” and apparently pointless Christian “theories” regarding various aspects of our lives. While I recognize that one can certainly major on the minors, it’s my experience that evangelicals on the whole need to think far more about how the sweep of the biblical story informs each area of our lives, including the rather mundane ones like cake baking, homebrewing, and street sweeping. We don’t need theories regarding these things so much as we need good theologies. To support that claim, I would point no further than to the vast numbers of Christians who would consider these and other activities to be more or less irrelevant to our lives and faithfulness before God, or worse, somehow “unspiritual.”

Perhaps that should be the subject of another blog post….

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