Election year in the United States has brought back to the forefront of many Christians’ minds their implicit disposition towards the perceived trajectory of culture. Whenever one candidate win, you often hear Christians from the other side of the political aisle lamenting the degradation of the culture. These sentiments should cause us to look critically at how we view culture. Let us define the usage of the word “culture”, assess the extent of culture’s fallenness, and determine whether we should strive to actively influence it.
Let me state how I use the term culture. By “culture”, I’m referring to the shared ideas, experiences, and ways of life that are transmitted from generation to generation within a shared geo-political space. Stated and emphasized another way, I’m referring to the prevailing beliefs, ideologies, and their associated tangible expressions within a nation that shape the lives of the citizens of that nation. How, then, do we view culture?
With regards to the extent of culture’s fallenness, the book of Romans provides excellent insight.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. – Romans 1:18-21, 32
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” – Romans 2:14-15
Romans vividly describes how mankind and the various cultures in the world are infected with sin and unrighteousness. People routinely suppress what their consciences tell them and give approval to those engaged in ungodliness. However, there is still God’s abounding common grace in the world, in every culture, and on every person. Romans tells us that God’s invisible attributes are perceptible in creation and that people, to some degree, are implicitly aware of some of God’s decrees. Furthermore, peoples’ actions show that God’s law is to some degree present in people’s minds and consciences. This should infuse us with optimism. Even though we see the ungodliness of the world around us, our culture isn’t devoid of God’s grace. In fact, God’s common grace appears to be quite perfuse in every culture, capable of impacting the thoughts and actions of those who aren’t Christians. In fact, the book of Isaiah even attributes excellence in work to God’s influence.
Give ear, and hear my voice; give attention, and hear my speech. Does he who plows for sowing plow continually? Does he continually open and harrow his ground? When he has leveled its surface, does he not scatter dill, sow cumin, and put in wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and emmer as the border? For he is rightly instructed; his God teaches him. Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge, nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin, but dill is beaten out with a stick, and cumin with a rod. Does one crush grain for bread? No, he does not thresh it forever; when he drives his cart wheel over it with his horses, he does not crush it. This also comes from the Lord of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom. – Isaiah 28:23-29
What then should be conclude? All cultures are fallen, yes. However, God’s common grace still abounds in every one, capable of influencing the thoughts, actions, and skills of people, even those who don’t know the Lord.
How, then, should we engage with culture? Should we actively try to influence it or be resigned to its trajectory unto greater ungodliness? Make no mistake, the book of Revelation showcases the world’s and every cultures’ path towards greater sinfulness. Put simply, I believe Christians should actively try to make contributions to and influence our culture for good. Jesus says as much in the Sermon on the Mount.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. – Matthew 5:13-16
Jesus describes both the fallenness of the world and Christian’s responsibility to be salt (a preservative) and light to it.
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” – Colossians 3:23-24
Colossians tells us that all our work on earth is to be done with an eye towards Christ. Insightfully, in Jeremiah, God tells exiled Jews to seek the welfare of the city around them.
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” – Jeremiah 29:7
Scripture appears clear on the issue. As Christians, we are to be salt and light to the world, working heartedly in whatever we do for Jesus’ sake, and seeking the welfare of those around us. However, I would likely be discouraged if I knew all the effort I put into influencing the culture around me is transient and wouldn’t make much of an eternal difference. Amazingly, Revelation, in describing the new creation, implies that there will be some measure of cultural continuity into eternity. The impact made in nations and cultures today can have an eternal impact.
“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” – Revelation 21:23-26
The glory of the nations will be brought into the new creation. I believe this should fill Christians with a sense of optimism, regarding cultural contributions they make while on earth.
Hopefully this study of Scripture has firmed convictions regarding how Christians should engage with culture. As many verses have shown, even though every human culture is fallen, every culture isn’t as fallen as it could be. God’s common grace still influences the thoughts, actions, and skills of people within it. Additionally, the Bible is also clear that Christians are to strive to every culture we’re in for the better. We’re called to be salt and light and to seek the welfare of the city around us. Further, we should find joy in knowing that cultural contributions we make on earth can make an eternal impact.