Cultural (dis) engagement

Last October’s Agora event at W83rd with Michael Gerson brought to the fore the question of how Christians engage in the public square in our cultural moment. The question kept coming up: isn’t there a fast-growing hostility to religion in general and orthodox Christian faith in particular? Many Christians seek to integrate their faith with their work and be “faithfully present” (to use James D. Hunter’s term) in every sphere of public culture. But isn’t the welcome mat being withdrawn? Over the last 2-3 years we have seen a series of high profile candidates for jobs (e.g. U.S. circuit judge, company CEO) embattled or rejected for their religious views. One candidate for a job was assailed by a U.S. Senator for his belief that faith in Jesus Christ was the only way of salvation.

In the past these kinds of views, while certainly always unpopular, were not considered political positions that made one unfit for public office. But today they are, in the minds of a growing number of people. This is happening in hundreds of thousand other, less visible arenas. Is it not, then, time to stop talking about Christian cultural engagement?

Christians must ‘know the times and seasons’ (1 Chronicles 12:32). Cultures and societies can be more or less resistant to Christian faith. “Winter” time describes a society that is hostile, perhaps even violently so. “Spring” is a situation in which the church is seen by many as dangerous, but faith is nonetheless getting traction with growing numbers of people. “Summer” is a society in which the culture has largely embraced the Christian faith and believers feel quite at home in society. “Autumn” is a society that is losing patience with Christianity, where it is increasingly seen as problematic, and so it becomes marginalized from the centers of culture. We might add that there are such things as “early Fall” and “late Spring” where Christianity is not seen as dangerous but as merely odd. (See Center Church, pp.237-238).

This means that we must not think that there is any one approach to culture that is always the right one. In Center Church, we talk about several historic models of cultural engagement or disengagement.

The Transformationist envisions Christians heavily involved in the arts, business, the media, politics, and the academy, all working from a Christian world-view, and therefore reshaping culture.

The Relevance model calls Christians not so much to change society but to serve it and to make it a place of justice and peace.

The Two Kingdoms approach denies that Christians should try to change culture, but rather they should build up the church through the Word and Sacrament and do their daily work well.

The Counter-culturalist approach emphatically discourages Christians from trying to engage culture, but to create a Christian alternative community — a counter-culture.

So which one is the biblically right one? Actually, the proponents of each have good Scriptural warrant. But none of them, in my view, can do justice to all the biblical material. Why has one not been able, historically, to become the consensus position? One reason is that each of them has its own dangers. Another reason is that each one is more appropriate in a one cultural “season” more than another. For example, the Counter-culturalist is obviously best in times of Winter, and the Transformationist in Summer time. Yet each of these approaches has both strengths and weaknesses, even in their most appropriate cultural season, as I argue in Center Church, pp.194-234.

What this means is that we must never be too rigidly committed to one of these models so that we can’t respond to changing circumstances. And regardless of which (or which combination) of these we employ, we should keep the wise insights of every one the models ever before us. The Counter-culturalist worries rightly that some other models will lead Christian leaders to try to take their cues from secular elites in order to gain acceptance and blend in. The Transformationist worries rightly that some models are just too pessimistic about the power of the faith to change minds and lives. Some groups worry about over-adaptation and compromise. Some others worry about rigidity and pride. All the worries are valid.

So where are we now? What season is it, for Christianity, in our country? Well, as long as I have been here, New York City has always been late fall or early winter. But in the culture at large, things are certainly growing ‘colder.’ Yet we should also keep in mind that, just as both summer and winter weather conditions in the U.S. vary widely by region, so in any society there will be “colder” and “warmer” places.

Some vocational fields (think of business and the arts) will differ from one another, and so will geographical regions. Also, while a post-Christian culture may be in some ways more hostile than a pre-Christian one, in other ways Christianity will still resonate more deeply with many people, because of its influence on the deep sources of the people’s thinking. So we should be prepared for the strongest rebuff, yet we do not know how deep the winter will get, or when a thaw might come.

Every February you start to think that Winter is endless. But it never is.

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Articles in this Issue

How public faith brought me to Christ
Susan Nacorda
Important news from the Center for Faith & Work
Authentic neighbor: The gospel power of proximity
Peter Ong
How Don’t Walk By will change your view of NYC
Hope for New York
Short-Term Mission Sundays 2018
Research at Redeemer Counseling Services
Taking God’s Mercy and Love into the New Year
Jenny Chang
Hope for all in Hong Kong
Susan Thorson
Short-Term Mission to Madagascar
Christina Stanton
Editor’s correction