Let me describe an experience that has become very common for me over the years.
I’ll navigate to a well-trafficked Christian blog or publication. The major headlines are almost exclusively devoted to other headlines, from a secular newspaper, journal, or magazine. You see, the entire purpose of this Christian site is to recapitulate what else has been published in mainstream journalism, and to offer a theological or political commentary on it. Whether the topic is “throuples” in Manhattan, the latest ritual at Burning Man, or a tenured professor’s tweets, the conversation is always started by the consensus of prestigious journalism institutions on what we need to be talking about.
Based on my experience, this is what a lot of evangelicals mean by “engaging culture.” Like the cast and crew commentary on the Special Features section of a DVD, this mode of engaging culture adds Christian words to a preexisting perception of the world. Here’s what the editors of The New York Times, CNN, The Atlantic, and BBC want you to be thinking about. “Here’s commentary from a Christian point of view to accompany your thinking about these things. Now you can go and think!”
There is certainly something valuable in offering believers this kind of resource. Especially for Christians whose career puts them in close contact with thoughtful unbelievers, being able to intelligently answer questions has massive evangelistic implications. It’s also true that many American Christians lack the training these resources offer.
But lately I’ve wondered whether something is insufficient, not merely with the kind of commentary being offered but with the genre of writing itself. Does this kind of cultural engagement presume something potentially untrue—namely, that Christians should be thinking heavily on the kind of stories featured in the pages of elite media? Behind that question lies another, perhaps more complex one: Does what we read in the pages and watch on the screens of American media actually represent our “culture,” or does it just represent the ambitions and imaginations of media moguls?
The 2016 presidential election raised serious doubts among many that mainstream American journalists understood their own nation. In fact, in the shocking aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, many of them said so. Trump’s victory was unthinkable to any whose vision of society was shaped by the stories and ideas promulgated by national media outlets like The Washington Post or Forbes. Some self-reflective members of the media concluded that their work culture was insular and severely disconnected from the concerns and convictions of a huge chunk of American voters. I think that’s a reasonable conclusion.
Evangelicals have sometimes thought of “culture” as a monolith, a coherent ambience that is the sum total of Hollywood, education, the bestseller lists, and journalism. In my experience it’s common for Christians to talk of “the” culture without any effort to specify whose culture is being talked about. This is evident in something I’ve talked about here before: The tendency of a lot of Christian literature to offer over-generalized aphorisms and observations that don’t take into account how different people in different places need to hear different things.
We often talk about purity culture as if it there is only one kind of purity culture, and every single evangelical in America experiences that singular purity culture in the same way. But even a minute’s reflection will reveal that to be spectacularly untrue. Evangelicals raised in rigid, homeschooling environments have a particular experience with the doctrine of chastity that another Christian with a background in nominal religious culture won’t necessarily have. One church in evangelical Christianity uses Scripture to shame and brutalize teen girls over their sin, while another church sweeps the adultery of the minister or the pornography of an elder under the rug. “Culture” is multifaceted.
If culture is not a singular, omnipresent thing, then it makes sense to suppose that perhaps it needn’t always be engaged at face value. Here’s what I mean: What evangelicals mean by “culture” when they talk about engaging culture is in a very real sense a product, something created by an individual or a group and traceable to them. It is therefore a mistake to suppose that whatever ends up in the longform section of The New York Times necessarily represents “where culture is going.” The longform section of the NYT isn’t created by “culture,” it’s created by individuals and groups that want to manufacture something: an idea, a fad, etc.
The reason this matters is that engaging culture by centering one’s intellectual orbit around what comes out of elite journalism can lead Christians to perpetually express the public implications of our faith in the direction of people least likely to heed our message, and on current events least likely to be urgent in actual churches. In other words, if your idea of culture is dictated to you by The Atlantic, you might think the most important thing you can talk about as a Christian is why polyamory is sinful, or why Drag Queen Story Hour is a moral outrage. Assuming, though, that your local church is unexceptional, the odds are incredibly good that suicide, depression, smartphone addiction, and sexless marriages are much bigger issues for you than those. If however the agenda for Christian thinking is being set by elite media, concentrated in affluent coastal bastions of progressivism, the witness of evangelicalism is always from behind—reactive—and never from ahead.
What would it look like to engage culture from ahead rather than behind? Simply put, it means fostering Christian publications and ministries and writers who are able to think at a theological and anthropological level rather than merely a journalistic one.
A great example of the potential for Christians to set the intellectual agenda for others is technology. Secular society for the most part sees nothing at all moral in the newest developments from Silicon Valley. But there is a growing number of secular Americans who nonetheless feel that something is being lost in the omnipresence of screens. This is a tremendous opportunity for Christians to supply unbelievers with the language they seek but lack. Christians believe in the inherent goodness of the created world, but also in the indelible tendency of fallen humans to curve the resources of this created world toward sinful, selfish ends. The reason many Americans feel alienated by the technocratic culture is that we are not designed like robots, but in the image of a relational, rational God with real presence. To be disconnected from the physical world is to become less like the God in whose image we are made, thus, to become less human.
On the issue of technology and human flourishing, Christians have the ideas and categories that explain why things are the way they are. And here’s the upshot: Almost everyone in your church, neighborhood, school, workplace, or family has a smartphone. Almost everyone is connected to the liturgies of the internet. Compare that to how many people you personally know who are sending their kids to Drag Queen Story Hour, and you have an idea what is actually relevant to your culture. True, The New Yorker is much more interested in genderqueer libraries. That doesn’t mean you should be.
Take another example: Depression and suicide. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that anxiety, loneliness, and self-harm are among the most pressing issues facing believers in the West today. The numbers are staggering, the testimonies are too numerous to count, and the severity of the problem is only rising. People are dying of despair. Lots of people. People in your town, in your church. Maybe in your own home.
You’ll get a different answer as to why this is depending on whether you listen to economists, sociologists, doctors, activists, or journalists. Shouldn’t those who believe in a God of life, a God who puts the lonely in families, a God who wipes away tears and will live inside sinners like an explosive spring of water—shouldn’t we be setting the agenda here? Deaths of despair in a rich, affluent time are not surprising to people who know the real condition of the human heart. Are we speaking to this the way we could? Or does the lack of political leverage to this story make us bored, uninterested, or even apathetic? Sometimes I wonder if labeling everything as “culture war” makes us blind to actual death.
The point is that by engaging culture from behind, we shrink our world and our mission field. Being unable to tell the difference in urgency between the carryings on of coastal trust fund socialites and the silent cries of those sitting right next to us is a colossal miscalculation. It is, actually, failing to engage culture at all. It doesn’t “engage” because it usually fails to persuade (and honestly isn’t meant to). And it mistakenly identifies as “culture” what could probably more accurately be described as “anticulture.”
Engaging culture from ahead begins with a careful posture of learning and discernment. It prioritizes life and death rather than language and signaling. And it seeks to speak into a specific need rather than a news cycle. It’s not as lucrative, and it’s frankly not as easy. But it’s obedient.