I remember taking an introductory communication course during my first year of college. It wasn’t a profound experience, really, just a community college course outlining a few social science theories while most of the class worked on math homework or played Angry Birds. Something from that course stuck with me though. It was the first day of class when the professor challenged us, “try to not communicate” the professor said. So we stopped talking and put on an expressionless face. “Nice try, but you failed” quipped the professor. “You are always communicating something. Through your body-language, your choice of clothing, your mannerisms, your vocal inflection. You can’t not communicate.”
After forgetting most of what I learned that semester, that stuck with me (granted, it helps that every communication professor starts their semester with this little exercise. Since I studied communication theory for my undergrad, I’ve probably blended a dozen or so lessons into the story above). But the point holds true.
Drenched in Culture
To take a page from my old professors, I would like to suggest that the same is true for culture. Take a minute to try to imagine a person not influenced by culture. I’ll wait.
Do you have your imaginary case study ready? Maybe it’s a sort of unabomber character, living off the land in Montana. Maybe it’s a small town fundamentalist preacher who hasn’t watched a movie, played a card game, or read a “secular” book since 1971.
Well, thanks for playing, but even these folks can’t escape the reach of culture. Culture is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. The clothes we wear (or don’t wear), the language we speak, and the things we buy—which are all evidence that we are all drenched in culture.
Culture is everywhere and, like it or not, culture is changing you.
After watching that movie last night, listening to that album, reading that book, binge watching House of Cards, and buying that new shirt you are not the same person.
On a recent Christ and Pop Culture podcast we asked Dr. Greg Thornbury, president of King’s College in New York City, about engaging culture. To which he responded,
“You want to engage culture?—too late! Because culture has already engaged you . . . It’s the air you breathe. You’re so suffused with it, that to talk about engagement is almost a misnomer.”
Thornbury then recalled this old Palmolive commercial. “You’re soaking in it,” Madge tells her friend in the commercial. Just as our curiosity is peaked about culture and Christianity, we realize that we’ve been soaking in it this whole time.
Maybe you fully realize this, but fear the growing influence of secular culture, and try to avoid that which seems antithetical to Christian morality, or liberal, or heterodox. However, because we are unable to escape culture and since culture is undoubtedly influencing us, the question cannot be “how can we avoid being discipled by culture?” and should be “how can our involvement in and consumption of culture be harnessed as a gospel-centered discipleship tool?”
For the rest of this article, I will lay groundwork for the latter question and, in a series of monthly posts at Gospel-Centered Discipleship, I will go through several case studies using different cultural artifacts.
What exactly is Culture, anyway?
What: What is culture? Culture is hard to define because culture is both profoundly visible and invisible. Both concrete and abstract. Culture is what you are expected to say when somebody sneezes. Culture is the free version of Hamlet in the local park. Culture is the billboard on the highway. Culture is how long you are expected to pray, if at all, before a meal. Culture consists of the shared ideas, norms, and practices that knit humans together. Culture forms us and we form it.
Why: Why do we create and consume culture? Maybe more important than understanding the precise definition of culture is understanding why we create and consume it. As articulated by James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, humans create and consume culture because we are lovers––that is, we participate in the cultural practices that we do because they promise to fulfill us. “We are essentially and ultimately desiring animals, which is simply to say that we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are,” says Smith (50-51). Simply put, the cultural practices that we participate—sometimes without even realizing it—reveal what we desire.
Culture is much more than beliefs and ideologies. Culture is a collective conscious and unconscious striving for happiness, understanding, and fulfillment. To quote James K.A. Smith again, the ideas and practices that make us human are “always aimed at some vision of the good life, some particular articulation of the kingdom” (24).
“Pop Culture”: To briefly summarize for clarity, “pop culture” is the media, practices, and artifacts that are produced by culture.
Popular culture is one big, diverse collection of desire-driven narratives. We often buy certain clothes because we believe that how we look will lead to some sort of fulfillment. We watch films that explicitly reflect our desire for reconciliation or subtly reflect our desire for beauty. These artifacts are what Smith calls pictures of the good life. We are being discipled (changed into the image of something) by what we consume,
“[A]esthetic articulations of human flourishing as found in images, stories, and films (as well as advertisements, commercials, and sitcoms). Such pictures appeal to our adaptive unconscious because they traffic in the stuff of embodiment and affectivity. Stories seep into us––and stay there and haunt us . . . . we can’t not be lovers, we can’t not be desiring some kingdom” (58, 75).
Considering the power and ubiquity of culture, we cannot afford to ignore it. Nor can we afford to go to war with it. If “The earth is the LORD's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein”(Ps. 24:1), then we must recognize the import, God-ordained role that culture has to play in our lives. More than, culture can be used as a valuable discipleship tool. With all the complicated messages that culture presents, we need supernatural help to view it as such.
Trained by the Spirit to See
The beauty of grace is that we aren’t going to get it right, but that’s okay. God is actively living and working inside of sinful people.
I grew up in a non-Christian home, intellectually discipled by my dad to love and appreciate great film, music, and literature. Before becoming a Christian at sixteen, I found refuge in the music of Bob Dylan and Uncle Tupelo, the writing of Salinger and Vonnegut, and the films of Kurosawa and Wes Anderson. These cultural artifacts shaped me, dare I say, in wonderful and healthy ways.
When I became a Christian, my life was changed by Jesus. I understood that I was a bad person who needed to be saved from myself. I found security where I had only known insecurity. I also found Christian culture, and, for about three months, I gave up “secular music” and listened only to Christian radio because I thought that’s what Christians did. It was like only feeding a kid spinach for three months—”I know it’s good for me.” I would tell myself, “but it’s so awful going down!” I don’t remember the day that I gave in, but going back to my Wilco and Rolling Stones albums was a breath of fresh air. And those albums turned out to be some of the most helpful discipleship resources I’ve ever interacted with. They displayed what it looks like to wrestle through doubt, insecurity, and loneliness. Not to mention, expressions of joy, historical rootedness (here’s looking at you, Mick Jagger), and intimacy. As I began to study the Bible, I found that culture expressed similar emotions and often strove towards the same goals, and fell into the same trap.
There is an invisible thread that runs throughout culture. Christians have the grace of the revealed knowledge that this cultural mystery is the Logos—God himself working through culture, history, and music. Paul quoted Aratus and Epimenides of Crete in Acts 17 to show the Greeks that God was at work in their culture. While the Spirit teaches us the substance of this thread (the gospel narrative) through the preached Word, the sacraments, Scripture, community, and prayer, we can learn to boldly draw parallels between the seemingly secular, obtuse, or ignored and the Creator of the universe.
After years of being well-discipled in a gospel-loving church—a safe place to wrestle through the inherent goodness or badness of the pop culture that I love so much—the Spirit trained me (and is continuing train me) to see how, while broken, human culture is divinely infused. Through cultural expressions of honest doubt, sincere beauty, and vulnerable intimacy, the Spirit has taught me the cathartic joy of identifying with human longing and the art of seeing the sacred in the secular.
The Spirit teaches us to view the world and culture through gospel colored glasses. Humans who create culture are creatures who are longing for redemption—creatures with eternity written on their hearts and the image of God in their DNA.
“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (1 Cor. 2:12-13).
Our spiritual nature (that is, united by faith to Jesus) allows us to see the world for what it is. We are taught by the spirit to see people as made specifically in the image of God, longing for something to save them from their fallenness. The culture that humans create—Christian or not—reflects this Godward orientation and can itself lead Christians to understand God in rich, previously untapped ways.
Take The Brothers Karamazov—the book that, apparently, led Reza Aslan to reject Christianity. The same book that I would call one of the most import books in my spiritual life. While I saw pure, Christ-like grace exemplified in the characters of Alyosha and Zossima, I saw a wise vision of ecclesiology in the chapter “The Grand Inquisitor” and even when Dostoevsky inevitably strays from Protestant orthodoxy, as I read I grew in love. I don't need it to be explicitly evangelical to see God’s divine imprint in Dostoevsky's work.
Enjoying good culture is a joy and a blessing. When we see God’s fingerprint on it, we can be sure that the Spirit is teaching us that he loves his creation and culture as a good, undeserved gift. No need to freak out at the upsurge in “secular” culture. If God created culture and man is wired to know God, even the most anti-Christian cultural expressions will not be able to overcome God’s redemptive plan and will, in some way, reflect gospel truth. One of the joys of being a Christian is that we get to search for it.
Granted, Scripture says that some things are truly wicked and should be avoided (see 1 Cor. 10:23-33), and that many things are unhelpful, though lawful. Pornography, hate speech, and like are to be rightfully abhorred and actively fought against. However, everything is a mixed bag, including Christian culture (and certainly including this article!). So we must be careful not to draw black and write lines in the sand, calling everything that disagrees with our theological and moral sensibilities irredeemable smut. Culture is complex, and more often than not has much more to offer us that we think, not less.
Culture can be spiritually detrimental, but often it simply exposes our already corrupt heart. If we are unrepentantly greedy or adulterous, films like The Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas will feed those desires. However, if we approach these films with an explicit desire to understand the character of God, culture, even the most seemingly unredeemable can point us to the gospel.
Maybe you zone out to How I Met Your Mother every night after work. Maybe you just bought Weird Al’s new album and you’ve been jamming out to “Tacky” this week. Whatever it is, it isn’t “secular”—it’s shaping you. Be encouraged though, as you learn to view it through a gospel lense—like Paul did with the poetry of Epimenides and Aratus. God can use it as a means to reveal himself and the good news of his Son.
Nick Rynerson lives in the west suburbs of Chicago with his groovy wife, Jenna. He is a staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture and a marketing coordinator at Crossway. Connect with him on Twitter @nick_rynerson or via email.