On transforming culture and why I dislike the question

Are Christians called to transform culture? Whenever this question comes up, I’ve typically been struck by those who declare we are not. Now I get that transforming culture is loaded with complexity. What do we mean by this? The simplistic answer is influencing culture such that it is compatible with Christianity. But in a fallen world, that lofty goal is myopic at best.

Another issue is what do we mean by culture? Andy Crouch states it simply, “it is what human beings make of the world.”[1]  Of course, it’s a bit more complex than this in the ways an ethos is formed from the various components that make up a particular culture. Example, a workplace culture is one defined by the priority of values and examples of living that out. So, if we consider the nature of culture, we have to conclude that there is not just one culture but many operating in different spheres of society and overlapping with each other. Even when we consider our prevailing ethos, it is an amalgamation of various cultures forming a compatibility that infects the whole. This is one reason I dislike the question about transforming culture. Which culture do you mean?

But there’s another problem I have when the question gets dismissed with an emphatic no. I’ve been reading through Theology in Three Dimensions by John Frame. He provides a basic layout for his theory of triperspectivalism, which deals with the multi-dimensional aspect of how we come to know and accept truth. Room does not permit an exhaustive description and I don’t want to deviate from the point of the post. For the sake of brevity, he speaks of that which is normative, situational, existential and the ways in which each perspective overlaps with each other. In his chapter entitled, “Perspectives in All of Life,” he starts off by saying that we bring our relationship with Christ into every sphere we enter proclaiming “the gospel changes all of life . . .it creates new people, as new creations of God (2 Cor. 5:17).

New historical realities emerge. Renewed people bring about advances in worship and liturgy but also in business, the arts, government, entertainment, care for the sick and the poor, and all the academic disciplines. As for the academic disciplines in particular, my colleague Vern Poythress has published a series of books about “redeeming” different spheres of human life, such as science, sociology, mathematics, and philosophy. The point of these titles is not that redemption extends to these disciplines in just the same way it extends to individual believers. Rather, redeemed people take their faith to the academy and find in God’s revelation new and cogent ways of understanding his creation. This new understanding can lead to beneficial cultural change. [2]

While he hones in on academic disciplines, the point cannot be missed for its broader application to whatever culture Christians find themselves in. As ambassadors of Christ, we do more than just carry a message of good news but we have lives that should be impacted by it. Furthermore, our eyes have been opened to accept God’s revelation in Scripture that should impact how we see his interaction with his world. This new eyesight that is now aligned with God’s vision for his world than when we didn’t have eyes to see. In short, that means when we bring his goodness to bear in our different spheres of life, we can have some kind of influence and impact.

This is why I find the question of transforming culture a bit misleading. We may not be able to change society as a whole but we certainly can have impact on various facets of life for God’s glory because he has created good works for us to walk in (Eph. 2:10). To say that we are not called to have some of transformative effect negates the idea that our salvation means actually living as people who have been redeemed by the Father through the work of the Son. We are, after all, called to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13). As my ESV study Bible notes, this means “disciples of Jesus who influence the world for good.” Even though we operate under a different ethos at work in the world, we should actually look for opportunities where we can make a difference for the glory of God in it. Frame notes;

As Poythress indicates, when we bring our faith to the workplace and the academy, it is important for us to learn how to see the creation as God’s Word presents it, not as we in our sinful autonomy would like it to be. The Bible is not a textbook of science, or mathematics, or politics, but what it says about these disciplines is true because it is God’s word. And whatever we discover as Christian laborers and academics will necessarily agree with what the Bible says. I am not saying that there is a distinctively biblical way to hammer a nail. But when we hammer nails into wood, we should do it to advance projects that will bring glory to God. [3]

So when this question comes up regarding transforming culture, before we jump too quickly to say no, perhaps it might be better to ask in what parts of my little world can my gospel oriented lens see where a difference can be made and give a nudge towards the kingdom.

[1] Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, 23

[2] John Frame, Theology in Three Dimensions: a Guide to Triperspectivalism and its Significance, 44

[3] Ibid

One thought on “On transforming culture and why I dislike the question

  1. foedusgratiae February 15, 2020 / 1:26 pm

    Lisa,

    This is good. Thank you. I tried to view it as how may we bring about change in our little corner of the world. Localized change. As a father, I can bring about change to my family. As a pastor, I can bring about change to my church. As a community member, I can have a small impact in my neighborhood and neighbors. All by the hopeful power of the Spirit of God who hopefully is bringing about change in my own heart.

    I appreciate a balance between an arrogant “yes, we can and will change culture” and a mopey “no, we cannot change culture.” A chastened humility with a full recognition of the resurrection power of our God.

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