Written by: Corey Latta
The phrase “Christ and culture” often refers to the way the Christian faith can and/or should relate to cultural ideas and mediums. Speaking of Christ and culture usually carries tones of Christian imperative, a sense of mission evoking questions of whether Christians should engage cultural mediums, and if so, to what extent.
In determining how believers in Christ should live among contemporary cultural artifacts and ideologies, the modern Christian has to first inquire of scripture what kinds of prescriptions for cultural contact might exist. Then, from the texts’ evidence, ask—and this is the real crux of it—how the Word of God meant for the people of God should take on the flesh of obedience. After all, the pressing point in engaging culture as Christians is the same as any other facet of the Christian life: submitting the total human experience to the Lordship of Christ.
Now when we take up the first task of searching scripture, we find that God is in fact very interested in his people’s involvement with their immediate culture. Beginning with God’s call of and promise to Abram in Genesis 12, we see a God who desired to invite the world into relationship. God’s promise to Abram wasn’t only for Abram’s benefit: “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3). God would form a people—Israel—from Abraham and the entire world would experience the favor—or disfavor, should they reject Israel’s God—of God through that people. This promise of potential blessing assumes that God’s people would actually engage the people around them.
This engagement was the idea behind God’s choosing a specific people all along. God chose and fashioned a nation partly for the purpose of reaching the other nations of the world. Isaiah—whose ministry took place in a pagan, hostile, exilic cultural milieu—spoke to the mandate for cultural commission: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (49:6). Here Israel is reminded why God elected them to begin with, to bring about the restoration of their lost intimacy with God and to invite the other people groups of the world into that same relationship.
For the light of Yahweh to shine into the dark places of the world, Israel had to connect with their pagan neighbors. I must add that God placed certain parameters around Israel’s cultural engagement. Despite their being on relational mission to surrounding nations, Israel was to remain holy in all their ways before God. Leviticus 20:26 is one of many reminders of that crucial charge—“You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” Holiness was so central to the identity of God’s people that Peter brings Leviticus into his own letter to exiled Christians—“For it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:16).
Some might be tempted to hold Israel’s purpose to be a light to the nations and their identity as a holy people in tension. In fact, Israel struggled and ultimately failed to hold their purpose and their identity together. It was ultimately their adopting the pagan philosophies and practices of their neighbors that brought God’s judgment. But it seems to me, when we consider what it means to be “light,” that the two ideas aren’t actually in tension at all. Biblically, the metaphor of light carries two prominent ideas: luminosity and purity. Israel’s purpose was to shine the good news of the Creator God to planet earth. They were to be heralds to the one true God and King. To light the way to God’s very presence. That’s luminosity. It’s what stands behind texts like Genesis 12 and Isaiah 49.
However, the light with which Israel was meant to shine to the Gentiles was the very light of God. Constantly, the Old Testament authors depict God with imagery of brilliant, pure light. These are just a few, there are many more, examples of God being a God of light:
For by their own sword they did not possess the land, And their own arm did not save them, But Your right hand and Your arm and the light of Your presence, For You favored them. (Psalm 44:3)
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth. (Psalm 50:2)
As the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the surrounding radiance Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD And when I saw it, I fell on my face and heard a voice speaking. (Ezekiel 1:28)
Then the glory of the LORD went up from the cherub to the threshold of the temple, and the temple was filled with the cloud and the court was filled with the brightness of the glory of the LORD. (Ezekiel 10:4)
His radiance is like the sunlight; He has rays flashing from His hand … (Habakkuk 3:4)
Herein lies the answer as to whether believers in God should engage the world around them—if you’re still wondering, you should. These metaphors and similes of light aren’t meant merely to evoke sensory experience. The biblical authors don’t just mean that things lit up when God hung around. Light in these verses speaks to God’s very metaphysical being. His substance. His character. God’s essence. He is a pure, radiant, brilliantly blinding God. In Him, there is no darkness or imperfection. Far from being in tension, this sense of light as purity is precisely the lens through which we should see light as luminosity. Israel’s mission to the Gentiles wasn’t just a matter of God’s will, but His nature as well. In purposing Israel to illuminate their surrounding world, God was issuing a decree that something of His very being and character be made known. In commissioning Israel to act as the light of Yahweh to the nations, God created a cultural mandate be active in the world.
That mandate applies, and I think intensifies, for God’s people today. Because God is light, because he is radiantly pure, he must be reflected in the lives of His people known by His name and nature. Believers are to bring the light of God’s very nature to those pockets of culture in which they live. The text is clear on that. But what exactly does shining that light look like and how do we place submission to the Lordship of Christ at the center of cultural engagement? Stay tuned.