Practicing the Craft of the Cultural Apologist

Christians are in a house holding off an incursion of gatecrashers: nudity, sex, profanity, and violence.  Shotguns blast away through open windows, a couch is pushed up against the front door, defenders stand in opposition to attackers coming up the drive.  While we are focused intently on the crassness of a vulgar society capturing our attention street-side, the back door screen is flapping in the breeze.  With little attention or ballyhoo, individualism, materialism, pragmatism, and naturalism assault our unprotected flank.  The home invasion metaphor stands as a general portrait of Christian response to culture today.  Obsessed by obvious lasciviousness, any focus on the insidious, clandestine plan of our adversary attracts little notice.  Why?

We like to categorize problems but do not understand what it means to consider categories of thought.  Seeing life as a series of issues is easy.  The fight against gambling is clear, for instance.  We know what gaming is and, if we do our homework, what casinos may do to a population of people.  Fronting a spokesperson, fundraising, formulating an action plan are all employed to defeat any proposition that allows games of chance in our area. We know the effects upon money and morals in our community and we do not want any part of them.  Poker addictions and casino lifestyles are objective: I can point to a deck of cards or the latest gaming show on ESPN.

Categories of thought, on the other hand, are not often found on our radar screens.  The spirits of our age are nothing new.  Since the flashing sword barred the path to Eden, we have encountered all the mindsets present today.  From where and at what time, as a case in point, did our insatiable thirst for individualism arise?  What ideas fostered the “no one tells me what to do” mentality?  How are the schemes of self-centered thinking represented in our culture?  Why should we respond Christianly to the “go-it-alone” philosophy?  Answers to questions such as these, demand more than the work of organizing a boycott.  We must be committed to reading history and philosophy while critiquing the framework of individualism from a biblical worldview perspective.

Addressing cultural concerns as they show themselves through popular culture is also necessary.  “Have it your way” or “no rules, just right” are advertising slogans which feed beliefs embedded in our behavior.  Perhaps most onerous is the realization that our attitudes and actions must change as we face up to individualism within ourselves.  Confronted by the words of prophets and apostles in Holy Writ and the niggling of The Spirit on our conscience, we Christians must first be transformed individuals against individualism before any letters to the editor may be written.

Why is it that we believers are dedicated to closing the local adult bookstore yet ignorant of the debilitating effects of pragmatism as seen through the latest illegal download of our favorite song artist’s CD?  I suggest that we are averse to playing the long game of cultural apologetics.  Thoughtful engagement takes time.  A lawn sign takes one minute to erect.  Digestion of ideas may take months…or years.  Pickets and protests—which take little time or thought—might be set aside in pursuit of practicing Christian persuasion.  In The Church as a whole and Christian schools—kindergarten through graduate—in particular, we must further the hard work of preparation for an enemy which uses more covert than overt tactics.  While battles against what we know to be wrong are important at times, a visionary strategy to engage the battle for the Christian mind must be drawn.

A plan to create discerning Christians is important.  I might suggest a preliminary five-fold outline which could summarize this competency from a Christian worldview perspective: (1) identification of erroneous powers, premises, and practices; (2) interpretation of pagan belief from a Christian perspective; (3) inductive study of Scripture as a basis for assessment; (4) interaction with current issues and icons; (5) investment in necessary tools for students to make cultural apologetics a lifelong practice.

Becoming a cultural apologist is a pursuit which others have developed in detail.  Denis Haack has been critiquing culture with a Christian lens for over two decades.  Ransom Fellowship interacts with books, magazines, and movies from a Christian point of view. Denis has focused a keen eye on popular culture through discussion questions that make people think about their beliefs.  Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio addresses more of what some would call “high culture.”  Interviews with artists, poets, professors, and authors examine how our world has come to think as it does.  Direct questions for each guest interview help the listener to formulate a perspective on how and why our civilization has developed.  Both Denis and Ken set examples for the process of cultural apologetics.

Understanding that visual images are often the first attack on 21st century minds it is fitting to acknowledge a film every Christian must see to appreciate a Christian approach to the new millennium.  From the opening scene, Crash tells the tale of a seeming random intersection of lives.  Relationships are crucial to understanding.  Consequences of our actions do happen.  Rather than a fortuitous accident, life is us.  How we act toward others does matter.  What we think and believe is worn on our shirt sleeve.  Humans bear responsibility for their dealings with others.  We do what is “good” and “bad.”  Most importantly, Crash more than any other recent movie suggests our rapport with each other matters.  Racial profiling is simply a slice of our humanity.  Crash insists we look at ourselves in the mirror of humankind, seeing ourselves in the characters, stepping onto the stage of life.

Herein is cultural apologetics.  We listen to others who speak in our time and place of history.  We hear what they intend for us to hear.  We obey the internal compulsion to honestly interact with their ideas and the precepts of the God who made us both.  May we not be offended before we understand our own offense.  May we not renounce another’s point of view before we announce our own.  May we not walk out on a movie before we walk with another who behaves as those on the screen.  May we not center only on disapproval before we discover where we can approve another’s perspective.  May we not simply assert our position before we assent to what others have said.  May we reject not the person but the roots of their belief, in love.  And may many believers be found who will defend The Faith not just against the obvious front door attacks of Satan, but bolt the back door infiltration of mindsets that corrupt Christian thought.

Mark has been setting his defenses at the back door for some time.  He is Professor of Leadership, Education & Discipleship at Capital Seminary & Graduate School and President of The Comenius Institute.  This article first appeared as the forward to a book by Eric Bumpus, a former student, entitled Cease Fire! in 2005.

5 comments

  1. Mark, most Christians and most Christian traditions are simply not good at cultural apologetics. We are real good at complaining and being offended by popular culture, media, secular educational establishments, etc., but not good at penetrating the organs of cultural influence. We’ve created our own sub-culture that has practically no impact on the ideas, images, and arguments of our wider culture. The ideas you talk about have been percolating among the elites of Western culture for two hundred years, and they’ve captured the commanding heights. Now they are the practical and un-analyzed assumptions that move our society.

    As James Davison Hunter argues in “To Change the World,” and I would agree, that culture changes from the top down not the bottom up. Elites and the institutions they run are far more influential to a culture’s direction than what the average person thinks. Secularists run public education, where over 50 million of our children are indoctrinated every day. Secularists run Hollywood and dominate entertainment and popular culture. Secularists dominate journalism and media companies, control the publishing industry. So we shouldn’t wonder, for instance, why a song like “F*** You” could possibly win a Grammy as record of the year, as I write in a post at The American Culture (http://stkarnick.com/culture/2010/12/17/vulgarity-cultural-influence-and-the-left/).

    Your call for real cultural engagement is something the Church, both Catholic and Protestant, those who might be called conservatives, needs to heed. Or we will leave our children and grandchildren a society more ugly and less free than the one we inherited.

    1. Hi Mike. Though I responded via personal email, I wanted to thank you here for your good insights representative of your good work at The Culture Alliance.

  2. Theological Media Observation: Week 1
    Media-Television: within the last year, immigration has become forefront in our everyday lives, not only in America but worldwide. This issue has created demonstrations from airports to City Halls and State Capitals throughout our country and abroad. The effect of this matter has caused many Americans and Americans immigrants an upheaval. Many are extremely agitated concerning immigrants today, especially illegal- immigrants. Our Southern-most boarder is of special concern. The building of a wall is being debated, what it will cost, and who will pay for this expensive project. Will our Southern-most neighbor bare this cost or the tax-payers of America?

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