One of my favorite comedy movies is Rat Race. If you’ve seen it, you’ll get an idea of what I laugh at. One scene early in the movie has the group of would be competitors meeting in a fancy Las Vegas hotel ball room, waiting to find out what their once-in-a-lifetime prize is going to be.
The character played by Rowan Atkinson exclaims to the others already there as he gazes wide-eyed at the fancy décor, “Oh, isn’t this wonderful? Look at this room, what a beautiful room, have you seen this room?”
As the others look at him with bewildered expressions, Jon Lovitz’s character says, “Yes! We’re in it!”
I got the impression that was some people’s reaction to last week’s column about the “Five Myths of Cultural Engagement.” One person referred to the idea of cultural engagement as a myth itself, as in not a real issue. As if they said, “How can we not engage the culture? We’re in it!”
True enough. I apologize for tossing around a common buzz-word without defining what I meant by it. Not too many people really have a clear idea what the term means. It all depends upon how a person defines “culture” and “engagement.”
Rather than spend the rest of the article defining culture and engagement, I’ll put it simply and then give an analogy to make it clear.
For one culture to engage another assumes we’re talking about two cultures. In the context of these articles, we’re assuming a Christian culture and the culture we live in the world.
The question isn’t whether our Christian culture will engage that of the world’s, but how it engages it.
Which culture will change the other? Which culture bears a greater influence over the other? In short, which culture are you merely in it, but not of it?
And no, I’m not talking here of the Evangelical sub-culture bubble either. That is more a reaction to the culture one is in, attempting to redeem those elements of it in accordance to the Kingdom’s culture.
Many times, that sub-culture only changes the surface elements without changing the core of the worldly culture. Too many think if you take out the sex and cussing from a story, it is now Christian safe. Yes, just ignore the secular values behind the curtain.
What is a Christian culture in my definition?
Paul lays it out nicely in Romans 12. After imploring them to be living sacrifices, he says:
And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Rom 12:2)
Following that verse, for the rest of the chapter, he goes into detailed examples of how that plays out in everyday life. In short, Paul is talking about our mindset and our lifestyle. It is to be radically different from the world’s.
We engage the cultural elements we live in (books, movies, art, politics, etc.) through the filter of a Christian mindset and lifestyle. If that is flipped—we engage the Kingdom through the filter of worldly values—we are not doing cultural engagement for the Kingdom, but for the world.
This brings up a major myth of cultural engagement that is true for more than Christian speculative fiction.
We engage the culture not by being the same, but by being different.
Often cultural engagement is put in terms of identifying what is popular in a culture and incorporating it in the hope those in that culture will identify with us. Too often in story-telling, some assume this means adding more sex and cussing back in, hoping to sound more “real” to the secular person. Then they’ll take us seriously.
Problem is a light version of what they are used to isn’t going to be that attractive. Shining the black light of Christ into the darkness is not going to get near the attention.
Consider the draw of a good fantasy story.
While there are many elements that go into making a fantasy story a good one, the ground-level core of what a fantasy story has is, well, a fantasy element. Something about the story that makes it radically different from what we experience in our lives. Without that, the story loses its appeal to fantasy fans.
Likewise, if everything in the fantasy story is nothing like our real life, it will be hard to relate to it. A reader needs to be able to identify on some level with the characters and the world, even while there needs to be some facets that are totally not of this world. The story revolves around how these fantasy elements affect the lives of the characters.
Light shining in darkness is a radical change, and will be noticed. Some will run from it, others drawn to it.
You’ll notice the same dynamic when Paul preaches to the Athenians. Paul had been preaching among them for a while. That’s when the philosophers decided to hear Paul out.
Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. (Rom 17:18)
It wasn’t Paul’s use of the unknown god that gained him a hearing, but because he preached something radically different from what they were used to: Jesus Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead.
The mindset and lifestyle Paul lays out is radically different from the world’s. Engaging the culture with a Christian one is more than identify with them. It is shining that radical light and life into the secular darkness.
That’s why Christ said that they’ll know we are Christians by our love for one another. (John 13:35) Because that love is different from what the world knows.
How do you see a Christian culture engaging the secular one?