Critiquing Culture Only Gets You So Far

In his excellent book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (InterVarsity Press, 2008), Andy Crouch helpfully identifies the historical “postures” that evangelicals have had toward artistic popular culture:

(1) Condemning Culture, (2) Critiquing Culture, (3) Copying Culture, and (4) Consuming Culture.

On Friday, I looked at how we have “condemned” culture as our way to interact with popular art. This week, I will look closely at the rest of these postures.

Crouch’s second historical “posture” was found in the neo-evangelicals of the mid-twentieth century. Francis Schaeffer and others encouraged Christians to engage the culture, critiquing philosophy, art, music, and cinema.

This engagement of culture is still alive and well in many Christian ministries, including the one I am a part of, the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO). CCO ministries are often centered on “worldview formation” for Christian college students, encouraging them into a lifestyle of deep analysis of culture.
Crouch writes,
“To ‘engage’ the culture became, and is still today, a near-synonym for thinking about the culture. It was assumed…that action would follow from reflection, and transformation would follow from information.”
Crouch does not pull his punch on his critique of ministries such as ours:
“It is perhaps not unfair to say that to this day, evangelicalism, so deeply influenced by the Schaeffers and their protégés, still produce better art critiques than artists.” (Culture Making, p, 87)
This is a fair assessment. I have seen that we can indeed produce mere observers and critics if we are not intentional in moving students into the next step of actively engaging in the creative process of making cultural artifacts (art, music, movies, poetry, websites, etc) as God’s image-bearers.

While a truly neo-Calvinist understanding of “worldview” (from which the CCO’s ministry operates) is more nuanced and holistic than this, it is far too easy to fall into the rut of Enlightenment Anthropology, which sees humanity as primarily a thinking species, succumbing to what Descartes reduced humanity to: thinking beings contained in superfluous bodies.

Ironically, in our zeal to teach people that platonic dualism is wrong, we have unwittingly acted like platonic dualists! James K. A. Smith helps us understand this:
“Such construals of worldview belie an understanding of Christian faith that is dualistic and reductionistic: It reduces Christian faith primarily to a set of ideas, principles, claims, and propositions that are known and believed. The goal is ‘correct’ thinking…But what if our bodies are essential to our identities? Weren’t we created as embodied creatures? What if the core of our identity is located more in the body than the mind?” (Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, p. 32)
Smith argues that what shapes disciples of Christ is less in the realm of the mind and more in the realm of the heart:
“Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly—who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love.” (p. 32-33)
Smith’s book is an excellent primer on how to re-orient Christian education so that it shapes what we love rather than merely what we think. What we love is seen in bodily action, what Smith calls “liturgies” that shape our hearts.

In other words, true discipleship is not to just be hearers of the word, but also doers of the word. We are transformed into the image of God’s Son not merely by thinking with a biblical worldview, but by loving what God loves and enjoying a life of doing what he wants done in the world–a life that actually intentionally participates with God in the shaping of culture.
Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey are often the go-to worldview shaping authors in evangelicalism. In Pearcey’s book Total Truth, she writes several chapters on the importance of forming a cognitive Christian worldview. Andy Crouch, however, makes a stunning point:
“For Pearcey, ‘worldview’ and ‘worldview thinking’ are all but synonymous, ‘the heart of worldview thinking lies in its practical and personal application,’ she writes, but the section of her book on that subject, titled ‘What Next? Living it Out,’ takes up 21 pages out of the book’s 480.
On the very last page we find the language of embodiment, in a quote from theologian Lesslie Newbigin: ‘The gospel is not meant to be a disembodied message,’ Newbigin writes, ‘It is meant to be fleshed out in a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.’” (Culture Making, p. 62)
For Pearcey and for many of us, true discipleship of embodied engagement in the culture is just an afterthought, an endnote to all our worldview thinking. Let it not be so.

When Christians are encouraged to merely think critically of the culture, they are often rendered incapable of “looking closer” and appreciating that God is actually very often already present and active in the culture that they are critiquing.

And when they simplistically see the prevailing culture as the enemy, they are less likely to be a gospel witness within that culture, further marginalizing the gospel message that God wants to reconcile all things back to himself (Colossians 1:15-20).

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