One of the main themes of the early days of First Things’ Evangel blog was evangelicals’ complex relationship to culture.
I recently came across Evangel contributor Russell Moore’s astute analysis on the question from 2007 in the pages of Touchstone, the other ecumenical magazine of record.
Dr. Moore’s piece really needs to be read in its entirety, as he manages to thoughtfully engage the question without degenerating into overreaction or hyperbole. He is in favor of evangelical engagement with culture, but cognizant of its limitations.
But what struck me was this bit near the end:
Often at the root of so much Christian “engagement” with pop culture lies an embarrassment about the oddity of the gospel. Even Christians feel that other people won’t resonate with this strange biblical world of talking snakes, parting seas, floating axe-heads, virgin conceptions, and emptied graves. It is easier to meet them “where they’re at,” by putting in a Gospel According to Andy Griffith DVD (for the less hip among us) or by growing a soul-patch and quoting Coldplay at the fair-trade coffeehouse (for the more hip among us).
Knowing Andy Griffith episodes or Coldplay lyrics might be important avenues for talking about kingdom matters, but let’s not kid ourselves. We connect with sinners in the same way Christians always have: by telling an awfully freakish-sounding story about a man who was dead, and isn’t anymore, but whom we’ll all meet face-to-face in judgment.
This is a crucial point, and similar to one I made while speaking to a group of homeschoolers. I argued that their unique experience as homeschoolers—a sometimes derided and disenfranchised population—would better prepare them for being comfortable in the discomfort that can come with believing and proclaiming the remarkable and surprising fact of the Gospel.
But for those of us who work in the church, Christian universities, or Christian non-profits, we tend to lose sight not only of the “freakishly bizarre” nature of the gospel, but also the weird nature of the lives that bear witness to it.
I will never forget my first job as a mature believer in a secular environment, which was the first dominantly secular environment I had been in for a sustained amount of time since high school. There was simply no avoiding the reality: I felt, and was, odd. I didn’t live with my wife prior to marriage, I took religious holidays with the utmost seriousness, I was engaged in prayer and attempting to cultivate a meditative, thoughtful life—none of which fit well in my overwhelmingly unChristian environment. While not the gospel per se, these behaviors are an outgrowth of it, and fit no better into most people’s framework than the reality that grounds them.
But attempting to build bridges also fell woefully short. Conversations about movies, music, and other cultural artifacts rarely proceed for most people beyond judgments of taste and emotional responses. They don’t lead to the sort of conversation that Paul had with a bunch of trained philosophers on Mars Hill.
But we are not without hope. The most meaningful tools we have to build bridges are not the shared experiences of, music, or the news, but rather questions about family, frustrations, and the various dynamic that make up those aspects of our lives that extend beyond our entertainment choices. They are a listening ear, and a keen attention to discern the deeper dynamics of the heart that are always bubbling to the surface. We build bridges by cultivating a heart that listens to the movements of the Spirit in our own lives, and the lives of others.
And, as Dr. Moore points out, we build bridges most of all by talking honestly and candidly about the content of our faith, a faith which still has the power to command attention and inspire curiosity.