What does it mean when we call Christians to engage the culture? Is cultural engagement even necessary to the Christian life?
We must understand that "culture" refers to the world of ideas, beliefs, and habits that dominate a given society. These then shape society's views about truth, beauty, and ethics, which are actualized within key institutions or cultural spheres including religion, education, commerce, science, the arts, and government or politics. However, Richard John Neuhaus points out that "at the heart of culture is morality; and at the heart of morality are the commanding truths usually associated with religion."
If the "commanding truths of religion" are so central to shaping the moral character and culture of a given people then it stands to reason that Christians most assuredly should take the engagement of culture very seriously. Furthermore, the apostle Paul wrote that we are to "destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ." (2 Corinthians 10:5) Biblical commentator, Simon J. Kistemaker brings additional clarity when he writes, "Paul describes the conflict in terms of spiritual warfare that is not against people, as such, but against thought patterns, philosophies, theories, views, and tactics." The objective as described by the Apostle Paul is to subdue not people but the ideas, beliefs, and philosophies that oppose God's truth at any point. This conflict most clearly occurs in the context of culture where competing views of truth and reality vie for supremacy. Therefore, I would submit that Christians are actually duty-bound to God to engage the culture.
But precisely how do we engage culture on these terms? There are a number of ways, all of which are necessary. We effectively engage culture when we educate our children from a Christ-centered understanding of vocation, science, the arts, morality and ethics. In other words, we train them in a comprehensive biblical worldview. We engage culture when we participate in politics to promote policies that reflect the biblical approach to social and moral issues or when we apply biblical principles to economic, business and management practices, just to name a few. However, perhaps the most direct and effective method of cultural engagement takes place through relationships, one person at a time, when we propose and demonstrate "a more excellent way" in all things.
This "more excellent way" is revealed to us in Scripture both directly and indirectly and as such it requires the hard discipline of understanding and applying these truths in a culturally relevant context. This is where a biblical life and worldview becomes essential to offering a serious interpretation of every aspect of life as opposed to superficial religious platitudes that have little relevance to the average person.
Let me offer an example. Our culture today has embraced a view of sexuality and marriage that differs radically from God's design. The world would have us believe and actively promotes the idea that sex is NOT intrinsic to marriage, that sex is a matter of personal choice which is not governed by any overarching or universal moral standard. If one wants to be promiscuous or practice deviant forms of sex then they should be allowed to do so. Everything except limitation or restraint is permissible in this new sexual order.
Recent events in Portland, Maine, underscore this fact where school officials are discussing the idea of offering contraception to middle school children as young as 11 years old. The school clinic was already offering condoms to students, and now they want to expand the menu to include prescription contraceptives, all without telling the parents. While parents must sign up for clinic services for their children to be eligible, the clinic is not required to tell parents which services are offered to their children.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed into law SB777, which prohibits any "instruction" (including textbooks) or school-sponsored "activity" perceived to "promote a discriminatory bias" against "gender." Under the law, "gender" includes transgender, transsexual, and so-called sexual-orientation. Essentially, teachers and students who oppose same-sex marriage or suggest that homosexual behavior is unnatural, unhealthy or immoral could be disciplined as "harassers." Unbelievably, the law even allows students to use the restrooms and locker rooms of the opposite sex if they identify with that gender. Again, everything is permissible except constraint.
These are just the latest attempts to shatter any and all moral constraints against non-marital or deviant sexual behavior.
The effects? In the decades following the sexual revolution, America has achieved the highest teen pregnancy and divorce rates in the world, the highest rates of STD in the industrialized world (which has spawned an epidemic of infertility), and the highest rape rates. America is now the largest producer and consumer of pornography and it is estimated that three out of four girls will be sexually assaulted before they reach 18. In 2004, the latest year for which data are available, 36 percent of US births are out-of-wedlock and 53 percent of all births to women in their early 20s were outside the protective bonds of marriage. In all, the societal effects of sex without limits have been devastating, both individually and economically.
Is there a "more excellent way" in regard to sex and human relationships? In light of the overwhelming risks and harm that has resulted from four decades of encouraging unrestrained sexual behavior—clearly! Is anyone even interested in today's sexualized culture? Apparently so. According to a Zogby survey, 93 percent of high schools seniors said they wished the culture would send them stronger messages pertaining to abstinence and according to a national study, two-thirds of all sexually active teens wished they had waited. This reveals, in my mind, a desperate plea for moral leadership!
This is just one area of opportunity to express and demonstrate the more excellent way of following Christ. You want to change the culture for the glory and honor of Christ? Simply start by sharing a more excellent way to live. Of course, the process I am describing can only take place in the context of relationship and trust. However, this is what it means to "go out and make disciples." (Another reason for being immersed in culture!) Let us resolve to learn the more excellent way in all things and walk in it and then intentionally seek relationships with those who so desperately need the more excellent way of Christ.
There are a host of resources offering empirical data supporting the biblical view of sex and marriage on my website here: battlefortruth.org.
S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture, a ministry of discipleship and Church renewal that works to equip Christians with an intelligent, thoroughly Christian and missional approach to culture. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, additional resources, and other works by S. Michael Craven visit: www.battlefortruth.org