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Engaging with culture

An explanation by Tony Watkins

Have you ever stopped to think about what you experience in the course of a normal working day? There is a wealth of obvious things like breakfast, buildings, chairs, rain and people. But what about the deluge of television programmes, music, websites, films, advertising hoardings, radio stations, magazines and podcasts? Much of the time, in fact, we probably focus more on the spectacle of images and sounds that constantly clamour for our attention than on anything else. That’s the kind of media-saturated world we live in. American cultural commentator Douglas Rushkoff says we live in a ‘mediascape’ more than in a landscape.

Can’t turn off culture

So it is more vital than ever for Christians to be aware of what is going on around them, and know how to respond. All of us are profoundly affected by the media, whether we like it or not. We may be able to turn our televisions off, but we cannot turn off our entire culture.

It’s tempting to try, of course, as we’re all too aware of how ungodly much of our culture is. But disconnecting from culture is a dangerous trap; one that Christians have often fallen into. There is an opposite trap, however: identifying with our culture so closely that we become submerged in it. Neither way is biblical, and neither way will enable us to engage meaningfully with a lost world. We need to walk a tightrope between these two traps of escapism and conformism. Jesus’ great prayer in John 17 recognises that we are in the world and need to stay there, but that we are not of the world, and must be distinct from it. We must maintain our holiness and distinctiveness as Christians, but we are to be thoroughly engaged with a world that desperately needs to know Jesus Christ.

What does that mean in practice? We need to reflect on the opening chapters of Genesis which show us that, as God’s image-bearers, we are culture-makers, but also that, as rebels against God, we are culture-corrupters. We need to consider what it meant for Daniel to be so embedded in the pagan culture of Babylon, yet without compromising himself. We need to work through the implications of the Lord Jesus Christ’s incarnation: giving up the glory of heaven to live as one of us, fully immersed in human culture yet challenging it and ultimately redeeming it through his redemption of those who are to be the Bride of the Lamb.

Paul is a key model

A key model for engaging with culture is found in Paul’s example in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) where he engaged with the popular ideas (and the media – the writers, playwrights and thinkers) of his day in ways that connected with his pagan audience and enabled some of them to respond. Like him, we need to take a good, hard look around us, carefully observing (v.23) what people are giving their lives to, what they are committed to, what shapes their beliefs and values. And then we must work at communicating the good news in ways that are genuinely relevant to the people we’re trying to reach. Three aspects of his communication need to become an integral part of ours.

First, we need to recognise that all truth is God’s truth, whether or not it comes from the pen of someone who is a Christian. We can affirm the truth that these rebellious image-bearers have caught on to; we can celebrate some of their insights; we can recognise when they ask the right questions. There are points of connection and elements of continuity; we can find common ground, not least in our common humanity.

Second, we need to be clear and uncompromising about the areas of tension and discontinuity so that we can challenge those beliefs, values and attitudes which are inconsistent with historical biblical Christianity. The way we do this challenging is critical, though. All too often Christians react aggressively – even violently – against people whose ideas they disagree with. They speak and act in ways that bring shame on the church. Instead, we are to be like Jesus Christ who ‘came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Ranting and raving at the godlessness or blasphemy of a film achieves nothing in terms of changing how people think, and it almost always closes off any future discussion. On the other hand, Paul’s approach of first finding things to be positive about, and then graciously, but firmly, challenging the areas of disagreement can still lead to people rejecting what we have to say, but it also earns enough respect to open up potential for further dialogue.

Third, as we highlight the positives and negatives, the ultimate goal is for the truth claims of the Christian faith to be clearly heard and understood. We must help people to see the extraordinary relevance of these claims to the issues, hopes, fears and hurts of the world around us. The good news of Jesus Christ is always relevant, but the tragedy is that, in our media-saturated world, many people (sometimes Christians themselves) do not realise how.

Films start dialogue

Film is an extremely potent art form, so movies are a great way of opening up this kind of dialogue. People love films and love talking about them. Because they are for entertainment, movies are not threatening to people in the way that a church service might be. The same applies to every form of storytelling, every art form, every strand of the media – that spectacle of images and sounds clamouring for our attention; they can all can be bridges for communicating the good news of Jesus Christ. Why? Because films and other media touch on big questions, examining issues of identity, morality, power, religion or sexuality, or exploring the nature of happiness, freedom, love or spirituality. And thinking Christians should have plenty of good things to say on every one of them.

More help

For more information, and for examples of this approach in action, see:
Damaris [www.damaris.org] | CultureWatch [www.culturewatch.org] | TonyWatkins.org [www.tonywatkins.org]

Further reading on Acts 17 – articles from Lars Dahle:
Acts 17 as an Apologetic Model [www.damaris.org/content/content.php?type=5&id=220] – argues that Acts 17:16-34 should be seen as a significant apologetic model
Encountering and Engaging a Postmodern Context [www.damaris.org/content/content.php?type=5&id=26] – applying the Apologetic Model in Acts 17

Tony Watkins [www.damaris.org] works with culture-watch organisation Damaris [www.damaris.org].

bookHe is the author of Focus: The Art and Soul of Cinema, Tony Watkins, Damaris/Authentic 2007: review

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