It is all to easy for Christians either to ignore contemporary culture, or to demonise it as ‘bad’ without even trying to understand it.
Trevin Wax says that ‘examining a cultural artifact is not a statement on the spiritual state of an artist; neither is it a blanket endorsement or condemnation of a product.’ Rather, ‘cultural commentaries are an exercise in cultural literacy, what Kevin Vanhoozer describes as “discerning the meaning of cultural texts and trends in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”’
Following Vanhoozer, Wax suggests several reasons for engaging in cultural commentary:-
- To resist the temptations of the time. Through songs, films and other artefacts the culture transmits messages that vie for the control of hearts and minds. When we seek to name and understand these, we place ourselves in a better position to resist those arguments and temptations that would disrupt the formation of our spirits.
- To follow Scripture more faithfully. When we understand culture, we can better distinguish between the message of culture and the message of Scripture. When we understand the underlying worldview, we will be able to recognise what is good in it and what needs to be challenged.
- To know the setting for faithful witness. To understand culture is to understand where we are in the story of redemption.
- To love and understand one’s neighbour. I cannot love my neighbour unless I understand him and the world he inhabits.
- Begin with a cultural artefact. A song, perhaps, or a book or a film. Anything, in fact, that sheds light on the beliefs and values implicit in a given culture.
- Ask questions of the artefact. Why is this important today? What does it tell us about society? What is the message, and how is it communicated? What impressions or emotions does the artist want to leave with us? How does this artefact resonate with people today? What is its significance here and now?
- Hold the artefact up to the gospel’s storyline. You may find some things that are true, though these may be just longings and aspirations that only the gospel can satisfy. There may be some things that are false, including false offers of happiness or fulfilment.
- Help people to understand their culture in the light of the gospel. From G.K. Chesterton in the 1920s, to C.S. Lewis in the 1940s, to Francis Shaeffer in the 1960s, there is a long line of Christian thinkers who sought to understand the culture of the day and hold it up to the light of the gospel. We need to engage in what John Stott called ‘double listening’ – attending to the message of the culture and attending to message of the gospel in order to become more faithful and effective witnesses on behalf of the latter.
Conclusion: ‘When done well, cultural analysis helps you ask the right questions, see the narrative in light of the gospel, and look for what can be affirmed and what should be challenged.’