Q. Definitions of culture vary. How do you define culture in this book?
Often, Christians reduce culture to all the bad stuff “out there.” It’s the debauched music teens listen to, it’s godless Hollywood, it’s the secular forces intent on destroying religion, it’s the abortion-rights lobby. The list goes on and on. Certainly, these things are part of culture. However, on such a reductionistic view, the church’s posture will constantly be against anything and everything we call “culture.”
This view fails to recognize that you find culture wherever you find human beings. It’s not just the bad stuff “out there.” Culture is what humans make of the world, good and bad. It includes all our ideas, institutions, habits, and the structures we embrace to live life together.
Q. Most Christians probably don’t think any more about culture than fish do about water. Why is culture important? What is it about culture that makes it so powerful?
Culture is for us what water is for fish: the environment in which we live and move and have our being. We can’t help but live in culture, and therefore, we must think carefully about culture. It shapes us, whether we’re conscious of its influence or not. That’s why it’s so powerful. If we don’t examine and engage the surrounding culture, it won’t occur to us that the world should be any different.
However, unlike fish, we make our own environments, our own culture. We are part of building the world that we inhabit. That provides Christians with an extraordinary opportunity. We can make the world around us. We shouldn’t be passive observers (or absorbers); we should be active creators. God’s Story is unfolding all around us, and we are the chief actors. Through our culture-building, we can bring about great good for the glory of God.
Q. You note that, like the ocean, culture has both seen and unseen elements. Could you unpack this distinction with some examples?
I’m a Southern California surfer. When I go out for a surf at my local break, I must navigate the pounding waves that I can clearly see in front of me. Waves aren’t subtle. When you get hit by a wave, you know it. However, I must also be aware of what I cannot see underneath the surface of the water, like the powerful rip currents pulling out to sea. The undercurrents are not as easily detectable, and sometimes you’re entirely unaware of them until it’s too late and you find yourself in trouble.
In the book, we distinguish between the cultural waves and the cultural currents. The waves are the more obvious issues pounding away at the Christian worldview, such as gender identity, LGBTQ issues, substance abuse, casual sex, consumerism, pornography, and racial tension. But we must identify and address the undercurrents as well, because they too come against the Christian story of reality. As C. S. Lewis said, “The most dangerous ideas in a society are not the ones that are being argued, but the ones that are assumed.” The four powerful undercurrents we address in the book are: 1) the information age, 2) human identity after Christianity, 3) technology, and 4) perpetual adolescence.
Q. Some would claim that we have lost our Christian culture. Others would claim we never had it. What’s your take on this?
The claim that we have lost the culture assumes there was a time when we had the culture. However, one of the key insights of the Christian story is the fallenness of man. Sin infects all people and all cultures. So there has never been a thoroughly Christian culture. Of course, some cultures are morally better than others, and some cultures align more closely than others with the tenets of the Christian worldview. But Christianity’s insights into fallen human nature should prevent us from whitewashing any culture. And certainly, humanity’s sinfulness will ensure that cultural challenges and battles will be with us to the end of the age.
Q. We hear a lot about our culture “wars.” Is this just hyperbole? If not, what’s at stake?
Scripture uses warfare language, so I’m OK with it. Indeed, the apostle Paul tells us that we are in a war: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses” (2 Cor. 10:3–4). Warfare language helps believers understand the serious nature of our earthly struggles.
However, I think we need to be careful in using warfare language exclusively to describe our relationship to culture. Scriptures describes our engagement with the world in other ways, as well. God’s initial cultural mandate to Adam and Eve was to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). This means building culture, tending to it, and harnessing the natural world for good. In short, we are to care for and steward God’s world. These additional biblical insights balance out our approach to culture.
Q. Do you feel that Christians can meaningfully change culture? If so, how?
Absolutely! If not, why would God issue us the cultural mandate? The history of God’s people includes not only its failings to change the culture but also its successes.
The first step in cultural renewal is individual renewal. That’s why the central mission of the New Testament church is to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:19–20). As we engage culture, we must never lose sight of our primary purpose as agents of reconciliation between God and fallen man (2 Cor. 5:18–21). First and foremost, God has tasked us with the ministry of reconciliation. That alone will have tremendous impact on the culture, as individuals become “new creatures” in Christ (v. 17).
Second, we need to be cultural creators. As God’s image-bearers, we are to create culture, build it, tend to it, and thus shape the world around us for good. We are to bring God’s truth to bear on every sphere of life. Christians should be on the forefront of all cultural activity. Our cultural creations should be true, good, and beautiful. Therefore, Christians should be on the forefront of the arts, academics, business, medicine, law, politics, justice, and beyond.
People changed by the gospel should, in turn, change the world. The Great Commission and the cultural mandate go hand-in-hand.
Q. On the assumption that not all cultural factors are created equally, which ones would you say are the most important ones to seek to change?
Let me highlight two in particular: ideas and institutions. First, Christians should be all about ideas, true ideas. The apostle Paul tells us that we are to destroy “speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Indeed, the “renewing of our minds” with God’s truth is a primary means of spiritual transformation (Rom. 12:2). Therefore, we must engage the culture on the level of ideas. What is true? What is the good life? What does it mean to be human? What is the meaning of all this? How should we live? These are the enduring questions humanity has always asked and continues to ask. We must always be prepared to give reasons for the hope we have in Christ to answer life’s most profound questions, intelligently and graciously (1 Pet. 3:15). Make no mistake, ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have victims.
Second, institutions play a crucial role in maintaining and perpetuating culture. Family, church and government are the primary cultural institutions, but others contribute to culture as well. Media, education, and entertainment are prominent as well. Culture shapes these institutions and thus has powerful influence to enforce certain ways of life. For example, at the heart of the current debate over same-sex marriage is very nature of the institution of family. Can we make families whatever we want them to be? Are two moms no different than a father and mother in the raising and care of children? At this point, government seems to think so and is attempting to reshape the institutions of marriage and family. But when social institutions change, so does culture. As the church influences and shapes these institutions, we shape culture.
Q. You address the issue of “worldview” in the book. What exactly isa worldview, and how does this relate to culture?
A worldview is simply your picture of reality. It’s your stock of beliefs about the nature of reality, which in turn forms the conceptual framework through which you see and interpret all the stuff of life. Ultimately, those ideas will play themselves out in your everyday actions. So, it’s your view of the world, on which you build your life for the world. As a result, our worldview drives and directs our culture-building. Therefore, worldview is critical to culture.
If cultures are, in a large part, built on our worldviews, then shaping those views about the nature of reality is vital. In a world of false ideas, we need true ideas. And the Christian worldview is the true view of reality. Christianity is the True Story of reality and thus supplies us with knowledge of reality. The Christian worldview must inform our culture-building and engagement.
Q. Some would suggest that one of our biggest problems is that most Christians don’t genuinely have a Christian worldview but rather a “baptized” pagan worldview. What would you say are the distinctives of a genuinely Christian worldview?
In the book, we distinguish between four categories of the Christian worldview: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. First, all worldviews have a creation story. Ours starts with “In the beginning, God,” as opposed to a secular view that says, “In the beginning were the particles.” A worldview’s origin story has tremendous implications for all of life. The Christian worldview begins with a personal and powerful Creator of the universe, who brought purposefully brings everything into existence for His glory.
Second, all worldviews recognize something has gone terribly wrong. This world is not as it should be. Why? If it is merely the result of humanity’s ignorance, the solution is knowledge and education. Is the problem with our environments, such that the answer lies in creating new and better cultures to solve the problem? No. Christianity correctly locates our fundamental problem in the fall of our first parents. Through Adam and Eve, sin and death enter the world, and, as a result, the world has gone awry.
And the solution to this problem? Redemption. Thankfully, the biblical story does not end after Genesis 2. God solves the problem of human sin by offering redemption through the person and work of Jesus Christ. In Christ, death is defeated — not only for us as individuals but also on a cosmic level.
Finally, Christ Himself summarizes the final chapter of the Christian worldview: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Christ sets the world right and brings ultimate restoration to the universe, in the new heaven and earth (Rev. 21).
Q. You speak to the issue of technology in the book and how technology shapes us. What impact do you see technology having on culture and particularly on a younger generation that has never known anything but the nonstop avalanche of media messages made possible by new communications technologies?
The typical eight- to eighteen-year-old spends on average more than seven and half hours per day in front of some screen. From the television screen to the smart phone screen, from computers and tablets to social media platforms, technology is omnipresent in the lives of our kids. And there are tremendous consequences when much of our lives are lived in front of glowing rectangles.
First, we lose touch with the world. Rather than enjoying the moments spent in God’s good world or reflecting on important life lessons learned and memories made, our young people are primarily concerned with posting their latest selfie to a social media platform to see how many “likes” they can garner.
Second, we lose touch with one another. How often have you seen groups of students, or adults for that matter, at a restaurant gathered around a table, only to be staring at their smart phones? No conversation, no meaningful interaction is taking place. Instead, we substitute a relationship with other people for one with our technology. In the process, we inadvertently withdraw from one another’s lives, missing out on the richness and beauty of real and meaningful relationships, and replacing them with virtual “followers” and “friends.”
And that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the detrimental effects of technology. To be sure, technology is not in and of itself harmful or immoral. However, it is also not neutral. It has the potential to shape our kids and us in powerful ways. We must reframe technology for our kids with the two Great Commandments and ask, “How does can I use technology in such a way that it helps me to love God and my neighbor better?”
Q. You speak throughout the book to the issue of “cultural lies.” What are some of the most dangerous lies that you think Christians have embraced uncritically?
There are so many “cultural lies” that it’s difficult to know where to start! But I think one of the biggest, if not the biggest, cultural lie is that our identity can be found in something other than the image of God. Simply put, our culture has lost what it means to be human.
We see this in the current conversation about sexuality. We now have a generation of people who think it’s entirely appropriate (and good) to locate one’s identity in sexual desires and proclivities. In education, we have no vision of what someone should become by the time they graduate. Modern education does not help us to answer who we are, what our purpose is, and why are we here in the first place. Sadly, many in the church seem just as lost when it comes to the question of identity. We certainly haven’t done a good job passing this knowledge on to our kids. When speaking to groups of Christian kids, I am no longer surprised by the blank stares and silence I get in response to the questions, “What does it mean to be human?” and “From where do we derive human value?”
We are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26), and therefore, we can only know ourselves if we know God. Without God, we no longer know who we are.
Q. If you were sharing words of wisdom with Christians regarding culture and its relevance to our walk and witness as Christ followers, what would those be?
I would point to the words of Jesus: “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Too many Christians focus solely on the bad things of culture. Certainly, there is much to bothered by and upset about. However, despair is really bad strategy. It’s not an option for the follower of Jesus. There is no cultural challenge that will ever put Jesus back in the grave. And we know how this Grand Story ends: with the restoration of all things. Our hope is in nothing less than the risen Jesus, and therefore, the Christian living in any culture should always be marked by faith, hope, and love.