Written by: Corey Latta
This is Part 2 of our series The Mandate of Christ and Culture. Click here to read Part 1.
I said in my previous post on the mandate Christians have to engage culture that the real aim of any interaction between Christian and cultural medium is to shine the light of Yahweh to the world. God is the light. His people, light bearers. This is exactly what God intended Israel to be, an expression of God’s nature as light. Likewise, all cultural engagement on the Christian’s part, whether it involves politics, music, film, cultural conversations about racism or controversies concerning sexuality, are expressions of God’s nature.
Paul, the exemplar of how Christians should operate in society, sees his ministry in exactly this way.
Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: ‘We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’Acts 13:46-47
Here, Paul describes his preaching as a shedding of light to the Gentiles. This is significant because of how God formed the nation of Israel. God fashioned a people to be a light to the nations, to be ambassadors of the one, true God to pagan cultures. Now, it’s important to note that Paul saw his ministry in line with Israel’s. He was doing what Israel was meant to do, bring the Good News to the Gentile world. He preached beyond Israel’s boundaries to the cultural periphery, those shaded places outside of the Mosaic Law’s prescriptions and protections.
Paul’s entire vocation as a missionary consisted of this cultural contact. And he is quick to remind his readers of his cultural mission. Every epistle testifies to the mandate God had placed on him to bring the blessings of the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles—“God treated me with kindness. His power worked in me, and it became my job to spread the good news. I am the least important of all God’s people. But God was kind and chose me to tell the Gentiles that because of Christ, there are blessings that cannot be measured.” Ephesians 3:7-8
Most relevant and pressing for us today is that Paul has given us such a precedent for cultural engagement. The gospel compelled the intentional contact between Christ and culture. Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17 models what so often comprised this contact. When Paul entered Athens, he couldn’t help but be dismayed by the city’s several shrines to pagan gods. Idol worship reigned through the Greco-Roman world, and Paul was now in an epicenter of false gods. Interestingly, Paul begins his dialogue not by avoiding secular, even sacrilegious, cultural shrines, but by calling attention to them.
For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. Acts 17:23
The Athenians were so superstitious in their religious thinking that they were afraid of offending any god they hadn’t been acquainted with. To avoid getting on the wrong side of this unfamiliar god, they erected a statue in his honor—whoever he or she was…
There is a lesson for contemporary Christians in Paul’s approach. While Paul, and all of Israel before him, wasn’t called to adopt cultural practices—quite the contrary, they were to abstain from the neighboring mores—it was necessary that he converse with them. We bear that same necessity. If we are to actually shine the light of Christ in the world, then we must know where those dark corners of culture hide. And we must, like Paul, see our luminosity in culture as the mandate of God.
Paul used the unknown god to make known the one true God. Likewise, our witness in the world relies on our ability to spot those misguided shrines of devotion, unaware to the culture that produces them, and use them to point those outside Christian community to God.
So conversant was Paul in this that his contact with pagan culture included an impressive knowledge of the literature written and read far beyond his Jewish tradition. Quoting a Greek poet to his Athenian audience, Paul absorbs the idea behind the poetry to make a theological point about the all-encompassing providence of God
For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring…’Acts 17:28
He, then, moves on to present the resurrection and final judgment. Paul’s apologetic attempt was not in vain. His use of cultural artifacts helped him achieve what we can only hope to, an interested audience open to hearing more about who God is and what He has done in the world.
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’Acts 17:32
That Paul operated on and outside the margins of the Christian community sets a precedent for how we ought to bear witness in an unbelieving world. His contact with culture also leaves us with the unmistakable mandate that every operation in which we involve ourselves, each point of contact with culture that presented to us, carries the responsibility of active, vocal and bold witness. From God’s command to Israel, to Paul’s vocation among the Gentiles, the expectation for God’s people is always redemptive.
I think there are least three helpful ways to think about how redemption might define the many intersections of Christ and culture in a believer’s life.
- If we are to bring culture to Christ, then we must bring Christ to culture. That’s the mandate. It requires that the Christian’s presence and purpose be mindful of lifestyle and message. What Israel was meant to do, what Paul did do, was live the remarkable rhythms of holiness and proclamation. If cultural witness isn’t comprised of deed and word, then it doesn’t quite fit the biblical model for how believers ought to live in the world. Simply put, the conversation of Christ and culture has to center how we ought to live for God and how we ought to speak about what He’s done for us through His Son.
- Keep your eyes open. One of the most important lines in Acts 17 comes in verse 22, when Paul starts his address with an observant, “I see.” Paul used part of his time in Athens taking note of Athenian culture. He got the lay of the land before setting out to present a defense of the faith. We have to be sober minded and alert to those social shrines and golden cultural calves around us.
- To bring cultural mediums to Christ, we first have to familiarize ourselves with culture. We can’t minister to that which we don’t know. This will be the topic of an upcoming blog post, but Christians should listen to secular (and I think we should drop this term from our Christian vocab) music (some of it), watch secular movies (some of them), enjoy art, be foodies, travel, know history, read literature (all of it). Paul’s witness at the Areopagus would have been severely weakened had he not known the poets the Athenians read and known the philosophies Epicureans and Stoics espoused. Know what it is you’re trying to redeem before you try to redeem it.