To be a good Christian is to be against today’s bad culture. At least, that seems to be the marching orders that an increasing number of Christians are embracing.
In 1951, H. Richard Niebuhr published a landmark book called Christ and Culture. The influential work presented five models for how Christians can approach culture: 1) “Christ Against Culture” 2) “Christ of Culture” 3) “Christ Above Culture” 4) “Christ and Culture in Paradox,” and 5) “Christ the Transformer of Culture.” Since the book’s publication, there has been much healthy debate about these approaches.
Not all Christians agree on the best approach, but there has typically been some consensus on which is the worst—Christ Against Culture. The posterchild of this approach might be an angry church member organizing bonfires for Harry Potter books and shaking her fist (but certainly not her “rawkfist”) at the evils of rock n’ roll, SpongeBob SquarePants, and anything else not available for purchase at the local Christian giftshop. It was the approach of the out-of-touch, Bible-thumping, cultural isolationists, and nobody wanted that.
Conversely, while there has been healthy debate surrounding the other four views, the overwhelming favorite has typically been “Christ as Transformer of Culture.” The appeal is obvious. It’s the most optimistic, idealistic view, one that emphasizes active contributions to culture rather than merely reactionary criticisms of it.
After all, if Jesus could transform a Roman cross from a violent instrument of execution to a beautiful symbol of new life, then surely spirit-filled Christians can confidently approach children’s cartoons and pop lyrics, right?
Much in our world today feels upside down, and the paradigm became inverted along the way. Idealism is out; cynicism is in. Transforming culture is a naive dream (or worse, an excuse to be a cultural sellout). The best Christians can do is protest culture. So buckle up, grab some ammo, and welcome to the culture war.
Secular Hollywood pundits and political progressives are frequently accused of being a bunch of joyless Debby Downers (“I know this beautifully filmed movie has a powerful feminist message and an unprecedented diverse cast, but why—in the year of our Lord 2023—is the LGBTQ community still underrepresented by 12% in the on-set catering services? SMH”). Yet, the other end of the spectrum is not always saturated with smiles and giggles.
Peruse the internet for Christian or conservative pop culture reviews or commentary and you will quickly find yourself neck deep in a tumultuous sea of click-bait thumbnails and red-faced rants. Anecdotally, as someone who works in said sea, if I’m not passionately condemning every mainstream Hollywood film as the apotheosis of sin and corruption, then I’m likely to receive a few comments questioning the assurance of my eternal salvation.
To say, “the latest Disney movie is surprisingly okay” is seemingly akin to declaring, “Jesus was a good teacher but not the son of God!” The implication is that the orthodox Christian approach to culture today is to oppose it vehemently.
Why Do We Hate Culture?
Why did this mindset become the default? Partially because there is no shortage of stuff in our culture to dislike. Politics is a perpetual train wreck that holds our gaze and Hollywood is a dwindling spectacle at best, and a propaganda machine for worldly values at worst. Simply put, Christians don’t like culture because there’s a lot not to like.
But the growing discontent is also a matter of perspective. The language of the so-called “culture war” is not only apparent in the conversation, but it has shaped the framework of the conversation itself.
As soon as culture becomes pinned as a “battlefield,” then it stops being something we enjoy. Such thinking has radically influenced the church’s orientation toward culture.
Even the trendy language of Christian “cultural engagement” has subtle war-like connotations. To “engage” is typically to position yourself against an opponent with the intention of “winning,” no matter the cost. We don’t “engage” our spouse in conversation at Starbucks, after all.
To adopt a warlike posture toward culture is to see everything through the lens of opposition and conflict—and the view from that vantage point is ugly to behold.
Liberation & Conquest
A “godless” culture is not a modern invention. The Christian movement was birthed from within such a world. Yet while Jesus was many things, a cultural warrior he was not. He never commissioned his followers to “win” the culture.
Instead, he sent them out to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28). The Christian church was a liberation movement more than it was a conquest. The early Christians saw the godless evil in their culture and sought to set people free from it with the transcendent hope of the Gospel.
Jesus confronted the rampant sin plaguing the culture, but he acted as an advocate, not an adversary. When a woman was caught in sexual promiscuity and sin, the religious leaders literally took up weapons to stamp it out. Thankfully, Jesus demonstrated another way (John 8).
To engage an enemy in a culture war is to say, “Power is might, so fall in line and submit to our authority.” To make a disciple is to say, “Come with me and I will show you something better.”
The reason the early Christian movement exploded in the first century was not the result of successful cultural warfare but a response to the irresistible invitation to experience something far better.
You can police actions, but you can’t cause a true heart change. You can punish sinful behavior, but only the Holy Spirit can illuminate the reality of a person’s sinful nature and need for a savior.
Tilling the Soil
Culture is never created through subtraction. The solution to an undesirable culture has always been creating a new, better culture. In a sense, it is humankind’s oldest responsibility. God put Adam and Eve in a garden to “work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).
Cultivation always includes rooting out weeds, but a gardener’s prime task is to grow something. A gardener who neglects to control the weeds will never elevate the garden to all it could have been. But a gardener who focuses solely on eradicating weeds and never plants seeds is no longer a gardener at all.
When describing authentic Christianity, Jesus declared, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). The sign of healthy Christians is evidence of goodness, truth, and beauty in their lives; an outward manifestation that blesses those around them. But many Christians today seem to have become more interested in spewing weed poison than tilling soil and growing nourishing and life-giving produce.
Christians are right to be troubled by modern culture. There is a lot of filth that should not be overlooked or ignored. But if the church is going to make any lasting influence in culture, it must strive to be more than “anti-culture” reactionaries.
The eternal solution to our human plight is not just a scorched-earth teardown of the old, but a beautiful offering of something new: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
God is in the business of making things new and offering a better way. As Christians seeking how to best approach our culture today, that’s not a bad place to start.