Yesterday, I wrote a brief review of Bruce Ashford’s new book, Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians. Today, I’ve invited Bruce to the blog to answer a few questions about Christians and cultural engagement. Bruce is Provost and Dean of the Faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture.
Trevin Wax: You want Christians to understand that all of life matters to God, and that every Christian can serve powerfully as a representative of Christ, even if he or she is not an international missionary or a pastor. Why do you think so many Christians believe the only way to really please God is by “going into the ministry?”
Bruce Ashford: One reason is they’ve been told by pastors and ministry leaders that if they really want to please God, they’ll be pastors or international church planters. And, of course God is pleased with pastors and church planters, but he’s also pleased with businessmen, artists, politicians, scientists, athletes, and homemakers who shape their callings toward Christ.
Another reason is that Christianity has always been plagued by sub-Christian ideas imported from the Greeks, ideas that denigrate the physical world in general and the body in particular. Christians influenced by these sub-Christian antipathies will have a difficult time living out the Christian life, precisely because the Christian life is profoundly and thoroughly cultural.
Trevin Wax: How do you define “culture” and what are common Christian postures toward the culture we live in?
Bruce Ashford: Laying aside more scholarly and expansive definitions of culture for the moment, we can define culture as “what is produced when human beings interact with God’s good creation, making something out of what God has made by bringing out creation’s hidden potentials.” When we interact in this manner we cultivate the ground (agriculture), produce artifacts (houses, clothing, cars), build institutions (governments, businesses, schools), and form worldviews (theism, atheism, pantheism).
Some Christians have viewed culture as something inherently bad, equating it, I suppose, with biblical language about the “spirit of the age.” These Christians will tend to hide from culture, viewing the church as a sort of bomb shelter, or to attack “the culture” relentlessly, as if the church were an Ultimate Fighter®. Other Christians have viewed their cultural contexts as neutral or, perhaps, comprehensively good. These Christians tend to build churches that are institutional chameleons, if you will. Their churches change colors as the cultural context changes colors. Neither of these options is faithful.
The better way is to view cultural activity as something ordained by God and, therefore, structurally good. God always intended for his imagers to “till the soil,” to bring out the hidden potentials of his creation by making languages, art, architecture, songs, cities, and so forth.
In the aftermath of the Fall, God’s intentions for humanity haven’t changed. What has changed is the fact that we must now make culture in a fallen world. Because humans are sinners, any given cultural context will be warped and misdirected by sin. All cultural activity is directed either toward God or toward false gods. Therefore, every culture is to some extent misdirected by sin and idolatry. Our job is to discern what has been misdirected so that we can redirect it toward Christ.
Trevin Wax: Give us an example of someone using their vocation to redirect cultural realities toward Christ rather than toward idols.
Bruce Ashford: Take, for example, Stephen Barr, a theoretical particle physicist at the University of Delaware. Having embarked upon his career in physics, he noticed that many of his peers had bought into a flawed narrative of the rise of science, a narrative in which science and Christianity are inherently conflicitive, and in which science is always on the right side of the conflict. In response, he has written essays that show how Christianity and science are mutually beneficial conversation partners, and how recent scientific discoveries in cosmology, teleology, physics, biology, and biochemistry tend to confirm basic Christian teaching.
Trevin Wax: Your book offers six examples or “case studies” on culture, ranging from Augustine to Hubmaier to Dorothy Sayers. Why these six, and what do we learn from them?
Bruce Ashford: To be concise to the extreme, I would say:
- Augustine teaches us to do deep-level biblical exegesis and cultural exegesis in order to bear witness in the midst of a declining empire.
- Balthasar Hübmaier teaches us to remain faithful even in the midst of opposition and even persecution.
- Abraham Kuyper (politics), C. S. Lewis (literature), and Dorothy Sayers (literature) teach us how to shape “non-religious” callings toward Christ.
- Francis Schaeffer teaches us to do deep-level cultural exegesis in order to live culturally faithful lives.
Trevin Wax: There has been discussion and debate about the extent of Christian mission in recent years. You write that “the Christian mission includes the outworking of the gospel in every dimension of a given culture, in every human vocation, and across the fabric of human existence.” Why do you take this view over against an understanding of mission that focuses more on what the church does as part of its gathering?
Bruce Ashford: The Christian mission includes the outworking of the gospel in every dimension of culture because God’s grace renews and restores nature. In the aftermath of the Fall, every dimension of society and culture is corrupted and misdirected because of sin and sin’s consequences. For that same reason, every dimension of society and culture is ripe with potential for Christians to reshape and redirect it toward Christ. We do this as a matter of witness and obedience.
Trevin Wax: Many church leaders consider “politics” and “Christianity” to be in two separate spheres. You argue for a robust Christian voice in the public square. Why is this necessary and how can we cultivate a winsome witness for Christ in these areas?
Bruce Ashford: How could Christianity possibly be separate from politics? Christianity is a deeply political religion. It claims that Jesus, rather than Caesar, is Lord. Jesus Christ’s Lordship is as wide as creation, and therefore as wide as culture, and therefore as wide as politics. Christians should bring their Christianity to bear upon everything they do, including their politics and public square interaction. Now, how to do that appropriately is the real question, a question that Every Square Inch broaches.