In these days, dominated by candidates and network news and poll numbers and sound bites, I find it helpful to escape it all and get my thoughts re-centered. The other night provided such an opportunity. I was part of a unique gathering, including a few area pastors, Murdock Trust people, a couple of leaders from Cru and Palau Ministries, as well as a PSU physics prof. We met to converse with Andy Crouch. Andy is the author of Culture Making, and is currently lecturing here at Western. We asked him to meet with us, talk about cultural engagement, and challenge our thinking. We were not disappointed.
It’s an important subject, for the reality is we seem to be losing the culture. NBC News reported this week that Protestants, for the first time in American history, make up less than 50% of the population. We have moved from “near hegemony to internal exile.” But, as we discussed, the far bigger concern is that we as evangelicals have so accommodated to culture that it is hard to tell the difference between believer and unbeliever. We seem to have lost our way when it comes to being Christian. And we have lost much of our influence.
There are lots of models of engagement with culture. Richard Niebuhr gave a series of lectures in the early 50’s, in which he sought to answer the question—“How should the church relate to culture? ” It turned into a very influential book, Christ and Culture. Niebuhr presented a series of models. On the one hand, we can withdraw from culture, creating an alternative society (think of the Amish). The other side of this is to become immersed in culture such that a believer is one with culture (at the extreme, think of Christendom at its height, when everything and everyone fit under this one model of faith).
One can also seek to take over culture, as some Christians, particularly on the left and the right, have sought to do. They believe that linking with power and politics and state is the answer. This is why some Christians become so immersed in the political process this time of year. But as history reveals, power carries unintended consequences. Gaining the levers of political control has not necessarily influenced culture for Christ. There are a couple of reasons: First, the problems that most people really care about (values, equity, and decency) do not necessarily have political solutions. When the church abdicates and the state is given the power to address these, it makes an even greater mess. Secondly, when evangelicals gain access to the levers of power (corporate, political, and educational), they tend to adopt rather than change the structures and values. We tend to compromise many core convictions in the process. Michael Lindsay, a sociologist, demonstrates this in his revealing book, Faith in the Halls of Power.
Our discussion focused on other models of engagement, for the ones mentioned have not gained much traction in changing the culture. More recently, James Hunter has made a major contribution with his book, To Change the World. In this, he develops a theology of “faithful presence”, something Paul seems to instruct in passages like I Thess 4:9-12. It is rooted in a desire—not so much to change the world—but to honor God and fulfill His command to be faithfully present to Him, to one another, and to our tasks.
As the title of his book, Culture Making, underscores, Andy’s conviction is that our best engagement is not to impact nor subvert culture. These efforts only invite push back. Rather than condemn or copy or consume or threaten culture, we must learn how to create culture. That is, we need to dare to think and do what has never been done before. It goes back to Adam, who was placed in the garden to cultivate and care and create. It goes back to being made in the image of God. We reflect our Creator by creating. This is where evangelicals should be investing their time, but I fear in this political season, we will place our focus (and our hopes) in lesser places.
Andy took us back to someone we can learn from. His name was Pope Leo XIII, who in 1892 had no secular power; it was only spiritual. And he wrestled with this question of how the church should be involved in society, how it can create culture. A defining question is this—“How can we be a counter culture for the common good?” This is a question that has driven Andy’s “Christian Vision Project”, in which he asked significant thinkers in various walks of life to come up with something that is a contrast to culture, but would strengthen the common good. One of my favorites is Lauren Winner, who wrote the article “Sleep Therapy”, in which she suggested that Christians can change the world by honoring sleep as God designed it. Pushing ourselves to go without sleep denies our fragile incarnation, our need to place our trust in God rather than our hard work, as well as our witness. To honor God’s rhythms is countercultural (especially in American culture), and to do so would be in the interest of everyone, and in the process we would be making culture.
Back to Leo. Andy pointed out that Leo XIII came to this conclusion—that when people flourish, from the most powerful to the most vulnerable, this is the common good. This is what the church should be about. Socialism defines “common good” as that which is the greatest good for the greatest number. But Leo argued against this. What the church must be about is answering the question—what could we do that leads to the flourishing of all people? Where is the common weakness, the people who cannot defend themselves (the unborn, the oppressed, and the abused)? For what really defines us in our culture making is what we do for the least. If the church is more about this, about being a contrast society that is making culture, serving culture, sharing Christ in culture, we just might change culture.