June 8, 2007 / David Fitch

The Current State of Cultural Engagement: Why We Need Kevin Vanhoozer’s “EveryDay Theology”

I am going to review Kevin Vanhoozer’s et. al.’s Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Baker Academic) on my next post. But I need to say a few things first about the current state of cultural engagement in the evangelical church in order to tell you why I think it is a timely and important book. Here goes.
Most Christians approach culture in one of two ways. One way says all of culture is bad. All culture by definition is separated from God and therefore should be shunned. This is the way of many so-called fundamentalists. This way misses the point that every human being in that he or she speaks a language and goes to the bathroom is already deeply embedded in a culture. The other way says that all culture is good. This is the way of all those who can’t stand being a fundamentalist any more. For these people, “all truth is God’s truth.” And all we need to do is be thoughtful and reflective in understanding culture and we can find what is there that can correlate with God working and the truths we know through Christ. Influenced by Tillich and H. Richard Neibuhr, the truths of the gospel can somehow be found and applied to all cultural manifestations. Sometimes influenced by Reformed notions of Common Grace, these Christians look for the good in all of human cultural activity not recognizing that there are forces, powers, even orders of creation turned in rebellion against God which can no longer be redeemed or participated in (e.g. we cannot redeem a porn theatre for Christ). This of course is a way over-simplification of Tillich (for which I apologize). But you get the sense of how Tillich can be misappropriated by this quote from his Theology of Culture (1959) p.41:

If religion is the state of being grasped by ultimate concern, this state cannot be restricted to a special realm. The unconditional character of this concern implies that it refers to every moment of our life, to every space and to every realm. The universe is God’s sanctuary. Every work day is a day of the Lord, every supper a Lord’s Supper, every work the fulfilment of a divine task, every joy a joy in God. In all preliminary concerns, ultimate concern is present, consecrating them. Essentially the religious and the secular are not separated realms. Rather they are within each other.

There is a subtle truth in Tillich’s words. Yet people who go uncritically in this direction find God in everything. Every movie becomes a piece of revelation. And every cultural development is something to used for the gospel.

There is of course a third way. It is a much more nuanced way of looking at culture. For it says at once both that we cannot escape culture and yet we must discern it. Yet we cannot discern it being separated from it. The work of John Howard Yoder (Authentic Transformation), and more recently Craig Carter (Rethinking Christ and Culture) have pushed us in these directions asking Christians to be critical in the way we engage our culture: to discern the times, carefully engage what we are to make tactical alliances with, what we are to come alongside of and what we must outright reject. For these folk (good Anabaptists that they are), engaging culture requires being shaped positively by a Christian community as a culture for the purpose of engaging all of culture(s) as Christians.

Often, I find myself trying to be discerning about culture and automatically get pegged as being either fundamentalist or “liberal.” I particularly get irritated when I say something about a cultural phenomenon that doesn’t immediately hop on the “Tillich bandwagon” and it leads to someone suspecting me of being a fundamentalist. In this regard, here’s a list of things you might say that might get you labeled a fundamentalist.

1.) Goth, Hip Hop, Cyber, and Motorcycle gangs may not ALL be forms of another kind of church.

2.) Technology is not always a net positive when applied to the worship of God.

3.) Bigger is not always better. Efficiency may not be what we’re after in the being of church.

4.) Why would we have Bill Clinton (or former H-P CEO Carly Fiorina) come to teach us pastors about leadership?

and lastly,

5.) You say, we don’t need church. Instead let’s look for where God is already working, and merely join in with what God is already doing. How would we know where God is already working without church?

This last phrase is the one that gets me in trouble sometimes with some of my missional/emerging co-laborers. For I believe we need worship and a community in order to know where to join in with what God is already doing in the world. We need the church as a place that shapes us to see and discern where God is working in the world. I AGREE THAT WE MUST JOIN IN WITH GOD IS ALREADY DOING IN THE WORLD!! But how would we know what God is doing without the perspective and vision that comes from within Christian worship? On what other basis can we discern God’s work from false gods in the world? God’s justice from false justice? In fact, apart from worship, confession and prayer, how are we even shaped to be motivated to join in God’s mission in the world?

All of the above is to say this: For Christians to be engaged in the culture(s), we must be able to discern the signs of the times, what is and is not of God in the culture, and then how to either join in, relate to or resist the various cultural activities for the gospel. This requires neither knee-jerk fundamentalism nor over reactionary pop-Tillichianism (is that a word?). This is why I am excited about the new book out there edited by Kevin VanHoozer’s entitled Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends. We need a primer, a book that explains the fine cultural discernments necessary for Christians to navigate the new cultural waters we are in. For this reason I am glad this book has arrived. (uh a few months ago). I recommend it! And I’ll blog about it on my next post.


In the mean time … anyone out there suspicious I am a fundamentalist in relation to culture? Why? Why not? Anyone reading this been a fundamentalist suspect in the ways above? Have I overstated my critique of the missional matra in #5 above?