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The Boundaries of Cultural Engagement by Greg Veltman

Friday, January 27, 2012

I wrote this a while back in response to common criticism that those of “us” who are passionate about cultural engagement are merely trying to justify our love of something that is evil, or secular, or merely not pietistic enough to be within the bounds of Christianity. And yes, it is somewhat of an argument of justification, but only because the predominant view is that popular culture and Christianity cannot be reconciled. So, what is your reasoning for how these can be reconciled? Here is mine (in short form):

When I was in the ninth grade I wanted to be cool.  So, I bought the coolest album I could- Pearl Jam’s Ten. Everyone in high school seemed to love them.  They sounded good, and it wasn’t like I had to reflect to hard on the lyrics that you couldn’t catch most of the word too anyway.  It was about being cool.  I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but my Dad (a pastor) decided that we should sit down and listen and read the lyrics together.  At first this seemed even cooler, seeing as how my first experience of rock music was the Simon & Garfunkel my Dad recorded off the radio during his college days.  But as we read the lyrics of songs like “Evenflow” and “Jeremy” I began to realize that this was disturbing stuff- painful and emotional songs about child abuse.  My dad didn’t make me burn the CD’s or throw them out, he merely pointed out that there was a massive disconnect between my own life and experience and the music I was listening to. I came to the realization that I wouldn’t be listening to Pearl Jam anymore (My junior year of college I returned to them with more mature questions). I had to recognize my own limitations. 

What I have come to realize is that while a Reformed view allows Christians the freedom to really engage and ask good questions of culture, it also places on us the responsibility of knowing where the boundaries are.  Even before the Fall, God had told Adam and Eve the limits that they were under, not as slaves to God, but so that they could find their identity and flourish in their relationship with God, rather than being deceived by thinking of themselves as god.  This has become clearer, or rather more muddled, after the fall, where we now see the world “through a glass darkly.”  In a world with real goodness and real evil, we must come to realize what our boundaries are so that we are pursuing faithfulness, rather than running into ruin. 

What we need is a community of conversation- a space where we can learn and grow in maturity and discernment.  To be human is to be a creature in God’s world, and we flourish most when we live inside the limits that God’s grace provides.  Engaging culture is not a free for all in which we celebrate every created thing as art, rather it is a careful process in which we work out our faith with “fear and trembling,” trying to discern the complexities of an originally good creation that we have screwed up by mistaking grace for irresponsible freedom. Engaging culture will involve developing appropriate gestures in response to culture; these gestures then shape our posture toward culture.  Andy Crouch (Culture Makers, 2007) lists “condemnation, critique, consumption, and copying” as possible Christian responses to different things in culture.  While each of these responses are appropriate for different things, we should not allow one of them to become the dominating response. Rather, within the limits of God’s world we have to become creators and cultivators of culture- to truly be salt and light in the world.