In 1951, Richard Niebuhr published Christ and Culture, a now-classic exposition of five ways Christians approach culture. The “Christ against culture” model sees no redemptive value in the secular world and advocates strict separation for believers. The “Christ of culture” approach, by contrast, tends to accommodate faith positions to prevailing norms.
The “Christ above culture” model offers little engagement between Sunday faith and Monday life. The “Christ and culture in paradox” approach utilizes cultural engagement to advance the church. Niebuhr recommends the “Christ transforming culture” model, whereby Christians seek to be change agents in their world for the sake of the Kingdom.
James Davison Hunter makes the same argument in his brilliant recent work, To Change the World. Dr. Hunter, a professor at the University of Virginia and Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, documents ways culture changes and ways it does not.
Culture doesn’t change by winning elections. It is important that Christians participate in the political process, of course. I’m convinced that God is calling more people into public service than are answering His call. But electing Christians to office is not enough to transform culture. For instance, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, divorce rates escalated. And gay marriage made significant inroads in American culture during the presidency of George W. Bush.
Culture does not change by evangelism and church attendance. More than 80% of Americans are identified with a faith community, yet our culture is intensely secularistic and materialistic. By contrast, the Jewish community has never comprised more than 3.5% of our population, yet its contributions to science, literature, art, music, film and architecture have been remarkable. At least 180 Jews have been awarded the Nobel Prize, constituting 36% of all American recipients.
Culture does not change through popular religion. While more evangelical books are being sold than ever before, they primarily target the faith community rather than the cultural mainstream. Few are ever reviewed by the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. People have heard of Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, but we cannot claim that our culture has been changed by their popularity.
How can Christians change their culture? By utilizing their influence for God’s glory. Dr. Hunter calls us to “manifest faithful presence” where we are, with those we influence, seeking to become change agents in the most strategic ways we can. In the same way, Jesus called us “the light of the world” and challenged us to live so that “they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16).
How do we manifest faithful presence in the arts?
First, by encouraging believers who have been gifted artistically to use their highest influence for God’s glory. Dr. Hunter describes an influence matrix which begins with visual arts and proceeds to theater and dance, museums, public television and literature, then to prime-time television, mass market movies and mass circulation publishing. When Christians strive for excellence in artistic expression, we earn the right to influence our culture. The donor who provided my college tuition challenged me after graduation with this assertion: “The Holy Spirit has a strange affinity for the trained mind.”
Second, by building relational bridges to the arts community. No medium is more influential in our culture today. The average American spends 154 hours a month watching television; we spent nearly $10.5 billion on movie tickets in 2010. When we earn the right to influence those who influence our culture, we multiply our light most effectively.
The apostle Paul manifested faithful presence throughout his ministry. He reached out to the Areopagus in Athens, the thought leaders of the day (Acts 17). He spent more than two years in Ephesus because it was Lumen Asiae, the “light of Asia” and one of the most influential cities in the world. His cultural engagement was strategic in mobilizing the largest spiritual movement in history.
When Christians strive for excellence in artistic expression and honor those who use their gifts creatively, we honor the One who is the greatest artist of all.
Written by James C. Denison, Ph.D. President of the Center for Informed Faith and Theologian-in-Residence for Texas Baptists.
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