Foundations: No.70 Spring 2016

Dialogues Concerning Cultural Engagement (Part One)

In this two-part essay, the author addresses the subject of Christian cultural engagement in a post-Christian context. In Part One (Foundations 70), the author establishes that cultures of the West can be characterised as post-Christian. He then explores the issue of engagement through a series of dialogues with different characters: 1) the Knight, who represents a political approach to cultural change, 2) the Gardener, who represents the Benedict Option espoused by conservative writer Rod Dreher, and 3) the Member of the Loyal Opposition, who represents the posture of “faithful presence” espoused by sociologist James Davison Hunter. Part Two (in Foundations 71) gathers the various characters for a round-table discussion. After pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each, the author lays out his own approach which focuses on imaginative cultural engagement using the arts and entertainment. He explores the issue of same-sex marriage as a case study, and the reconciliation between gay activist Shane Windemeyer and American Christian businessman Dan Cathy as an example of winsome engagement in which each discovered a common humanity in the other. Our goal is a cultural engagement that is an analogue to that kind of winsome reconciliation that creates space within which estranged parties can meet, or what the author calls “planting oases”. He then briefly considers two examples of this in the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, and U2’s Superbowl performance in February 2002.

Introduction: The Post-Christian World We’re Living In

This is a chapter (or maybe several) for a work in progress about the Christian imagination in a post-Christian world. It examines how we can use the imagination to engage post-Christian culture creatively and positively. What follows assumes that the reader is already convinced that it is our biblical duty and privilege to engage post-Christian culture. The real question is: How?

For those who remain unconvinced that cultural engagement is a large part of our Christian calling, here are the points I touch upon elsewhere:

  1. Jesus calls us into cultural engagement. In John 17:14, Jesus not only acknowledged that his disciples are in the world (but not of it). He called them into the world.
  2. Though Christians are a pilgrim people, we have found our (temporary) home here in a culture we share with non-Christians. We are called to work for its good (see God’s letter to the exiled Israelites in Jer. 29).
  3. Christ’s lordship extends to culture. Dualistic thinking that would separate culture and “spirituality”, and so withdraw from culture actually undermines Jesus’ claim as Lord of all creation.
  4. The cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26-28 persists because culture is the necessary context for gospel proclamation.
  5. There seems to be Scriptural support for the continuation of present cultural goods in the new creation (contra the radical Two Kingdoms model).

If you need more detail than that (it’s where the devil lives, right?), you will have to wait for the book itself (and pray for the manuscript’s speedy completion).

So let us assume there is a biblical case to be made in favour of cultural engagement. Jesus called us into “the world”, and if we wish to honour his lordship over all creation, we cannot be indifferent and withdrawn concerning culture. We need to be culturally engaged if we wish to bring truth and healing to the world around us. But what does engaging culture mean? Assuming that we are to bring healing and light to the world we live in, how should we do that (to the extent that we can)?

The answer to that question depends, of course, on what sort of world we are trying to change. What sort of world do we live in? How is Christianity faring in our world? It seems obvious to me that the West (North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand)[1] should be characterised as “post-Christian”. And it is becoming more “post” with every passing year. Allow me to cite some statistics to back that assertion up.

A recent Pew Research Center study on the future of world religions found that the percentage of the world population that identifies as Christian will likely remain steady up until 2050 (31.4%). The centre of gravity of the Christian world, however, is moving south and west, from North America and Europe to Latin America, Africa and Asia.[2] In the global North and West, Christianity is predicted to continue in a slow decline. This prediction is borne out by the much-discussed recent growth of the “religious nones” (those who choose no religious affiliation). Some specifics:

  • Between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of Americans who identified as Christian dropped from 78.4% to 70.6%, a decline of 7.8%. During the same period, the religious nones (including atheists and agnostics) grew from 16.1% to 22.8%, an increase of 6.7%. More alarming, the religious nones make up more than a third of “Millennials” (those born from 1981 to 1996).[3] The future growth of the nones seems all but certain. (During this same period, non-Christian religious in America grew 1.2%, probably due to immigration.)
  • Between 2001 and 2011, the proportion in England and Wales who identified as Christian declined from 71.1% to 59.3%, an 11.8% drop. During the same period, those who claimed no religious affiliation grew from 14.8% to 25.1% of the population, a 10.3% increase. All other non-Christian religious faiths grew, with Muslims increasing from 3% to 4.8%.[4]
  • In Australia, those who identified as Christians declined slightly from 63.9% to 61.1% (continuing the decline from 96.1% held in 1901). During the same period, the non-affiliated rose from 18.7% to 22.3%.[5]

Demographically, Christians still comprise a majority or significant minority in each area, though the numbers continue to trend steadily downward.[6] But that is not the most important storyline. The centres of cultural power – media and entertainment companies, government, judiciary and educational institutions – either treat the Christian faith indifferently, or they are actively hostile to its claims. This has had a remarkable influence on the direction of our culture (the legalisation of gay marriage in the United States and Ireland being only the latest and most technicolour public rejection of Christian norms).[7] In terms of cultural tone and texture, we can speak of North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand as broadly post-Christian. In terms of overall cultural influence, to use Vermon Pierre’s vivid image, Christians are like the kid who always gets chosen last on the playground for the game (if he is chosen at all). Christians are largely irrelevant to the game that’s being played.[8] Further, sociologist James Davis Hunter says that Christians in the West now face two major cultural challenges: difference (our culture now houses many incompatible perspectives on what is true and good) and dissolution (as we lose hold of common meanings, words like “goodness” and “freedom” break free from their old definitions, making cultural debate tortured, elusive, attenuated).[9] All of the meanings we used to assume have changed. We are in, quite literally, a different world. That is what I mean by post-Christian culture.

I don’t mention these statistics and social changes to frighten or inspire handwringing. The sky is not falling. The collapse of the Christian church is not imminent. As G. K. Chesterton famously quipped, “At least five times… the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.”[10] Nevertheless, Christians need to be clear about the world in which they dwell today. The Western world is made up of cultures that are increasingly disenchanted with the gospel and the Christian imaginary landscape (its values, hopes, expectations and moral orientation). Christians have become, in effect, missionaries to their own cultures, “exilic disciples” to use Keller’s phrase.[11] In short, we’re not in the driver’s seat of our own cultures anymore. Christians still want to make the world a better place. We want to see God’s shalom (peace, flourishing, justice) brought to bear. We want to see truth proclaimed. We want to see broken lives and social systems healed. But now we must do so from a position of cultural disadvantage and relative powerlessness.

The response to this situation from Christians has been a proliferation of discussions about cultural engagement. Everyone agrees that the situation is dire, but they are divided on how best to respond. That is what I wish to sort through here.

I have decided to follow in the proud tradition of Plato and David Hume,[12] thinking through the options in terms of a series of dialogues with imaginary interlocutors. Unlike Plato and Hume, I am a denizen of the 20th and 21st centuries, and I tend to think cinematically. The dialogues have taken the form of a script for an imaginary film. In the film I will be conversing with three characters who represent the different major options for engagement (or disengagement) with the surrounding mainstream culture: a Knight, a Gardener, and a Member of the Loyal Opposition.

  • The Knight is passionate. His modus operandi is to charge into the fray and, through political manoeuvring, try to power his way to cultural change. His slogan might be from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!”[13]
  • The Gardener is just as passionate, but has a quieter manner about her. Her modus operandi is to attempt an indirect route to cultural change. By withdrawing to a place of cultural seclusion, she hopes to re-establish a Christian culture, forming nurturing communities where roots can go down deep into the nourishing soil of ancient Christian traditions of belief and practice. Her slogan might be the last line from Voltaire’s Candide: “We must cultivate our garden.”
  • The Member of the Loyal Opposition is a patient, even-tempered sort. His modus operandi is to simply be a Christian in a post-Christian world. He seeks neither to flee the mainstream culture, nor large-scale reform. Rather, he remains within mainstream cultural structures practicing “faithful presence”. He is content to see incremental, gradual changes where possible. His slogan might be taken from the famous English poster from World War II: “Keep calm and carry on.”

Please bear in mind that these characters are purely my inventions, foils whose main purpose is helping me articulate my critiques and sketch out my own position. Even so, I hope to faithfully present the relevant positions without caricature (which is why the dialogues are heavily footnoted). In other words, none of these characters should be made of straw.

For you visual learners, here is where I would place each character on the spectrum of cultural engagement:

Knight

Member of the Loyal Opposition

Gardener

Mission: transformative – to transform culture so that it might conform to Christ’s righteous rule.

Mission: mediating – to leaven culture with Christian influence maintaining a “faithful presence” within various cultural institutions.

Mission: conservationist – to preserve and deepen Christian tradition.

Outward-facing

Inward-facing

               

The dialogues will comprise Part I of this essay. For Part II, I will gather the characters for a roundtable discussion (or better, monologue) to explore what I consider to be an overlooked dimension of the discussion: engaging post-Christian culture through the imagination (especially in the arts and entertainment), or what I call “planting oases”.

Scene I: The Knight’s Dialogue

The scene opens in a tastefully furnished office somewhere in downtown Washington D.C.[14] The Knight sits comfortably behind a big mahogany desk. An oriental rug covers the floor. Pictures of the Knight with various influential members of Congress and framed degrees hang on the wall. Behind the desk sits the Knight, a man in his 50s, greying at the temples, and steel-grey eyes. He is a man of no little intelligence and experience; he knows the ropes in D.C. He is a culture warrior of the Christian Right.[15] In truth you could substitute someone from the Christian Left,[16] the Neo-Kuyperians of the Center for Public Justice,[17] or a Theonomist.[18] For all their differences (and they are profound), these movements converge in terms of their goal and method: they each seek cultural change through primarily (or even solely) political means. This political approach seeks to build a grassroots movement, believing that if only they can get enough ordinary Christians to get involved, change will happen.

But cultural change is more complicated than that, as we shall see.

Turnau: Thanks for seeing me. I can’t help but notice, Sir Knight, how thick your armour and how sharp your lance.

Knight: A wise guy, eh? You can clearly see I’m wearing a 3-piece suit.

Turnau: I mean metaphorically. In terms of cultural stance, aggression and so on.

Knight: What of it? I’m on a mission.

Turnau: A quest?

Knight: (Rolls eyes.) If you insist.

Turnau: And what is your quest?

Knight: To reclaim this country for Jesus Christ and his reign. We need to turn this country around. This is God’s country, but we don’t live by his standards. We’re going to hell in a handbasket. Or as Solomon put it, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov. 14:34). This nation has become an object of reproach. Gay marriage is only the latest piece of evidence that things need to be turned around. Someone has to shore up the tottering foundation, like Ezekiel said: “I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one” (22:30). I’m one of those standing in the gap.

Turnau: For this Christian country?

Knight: Yes. You don’t sound so convinced of it yourself.

Turnau: Well, I’ve been living in Europe for almost 17 years, and in that context, really strong nationalism generally doesn’t go good places.

Knight: Are you calling me proto-fascist, or something?

Turnau: Nothing so extreme, I assure you. But the fact remains, nationalism as an identity fits Christians ill.

Knight: Why’s that? What’s wrong with loving your country?

Turnau: Not a thing. Except that Christian love transcends country.

Knight: I don’t see the conflict. This is a country founded on Christian principles that has drifted from its roots. I’d love to see spread around the world the kinds of freedoms that we’ve known (but that are fast disappearing here).

Turnau: No, I totally agree. I love religious liberty. But I think Christians can get confused in their love of country versus love of God.

Knight: How do you mean?

Turnau: Let me tell you a story. When I was a seminary student, I worked for about six years in a Korean church as a youth minister. They were lovely people. They loved God, and they loved their native Korea. While I was there, something strange and wonderful happened: kids started bringing their friends from the neighbourhood or school to our Friday evening meetings. And these kids weren’t Korean. A white kid showed up. Then a black kid. Then a mixed race Hispanic /Thai kid showed up. I thought it was great, but some of the old ladies in the church didn’t like seeing kids like that in our church. They went and complained to the pastor.

Knight: What did he say?

Turnau: He said (and I’ll always be grateful for this), “This is a Christian church first, and a Korean church second.” These different kids were to be welcomed, not expelled.

Knight: So what are you trying to say? How does that apply to a Christian’s good and proper love of country?

Turnau: I guess I’m trying to say two interconnected things: 1. It’s easy for well-meaning Christians to buy into a nation-first type of Christianity that tends to be self-protective and unwelcoming to outsiders, whereas Christianity has always been about welcoming the outsider (at least if Jesus’ model is to be followed). 2. Once somebody entrusts his or her life to Christ, the relationship to nation is attenuated. Our first loyalty is to King Jesus. He certainly calls us to be good citizens, to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:15-22). But he also destroyed the “wall of hostility” that divides nations and ethnicities, creating a new, unified people in himself (Eph. 2:14-16). “In Christ” is our real country, a home deeper than our homeland. And it holds people from every nation. That’s our first love.

God and country don’t often fit into a neat, seamless package. They didn’t for the early Christians, and they don’t for us. And we get into trouble when we start investing our nation with semi-messianic powers, as if reclaiming the country would make everything all right again. There’s always going to be a tension between God and country, and it’s worth thinking about. Otherwise, we end up demonising our opponents, or excluding people, like those old Korean ladies did. Just like Jesus didn’t. Nationalism is potent stuff, and I’m dismayed when I see Christians fall too readily under its sway.

Knight: Just for the sake of argument, let’s pretend I’m not a xenophobe or a racist. Let’s just say that I love my country, but I recognise that my love for God rightfully claims priority. Let’s say for argument’s sake that I still deeply love my country and want to fight for it, to make its laws just, to love the poor, to protect the unborn, to work for the good of all America’s citizens. I’m still going to insist that Christian laws are the best basis on which to do it.

Turnau: That certainly sounds encouraging, if you can do it in a way that respects other beliefs and understands that we are a minority within a democratically plural society. So how goes the fight?

Knight: (Sighs.) Not so great, lately. We’ve had a lot of defeats lately, and things are getting dire, especially in terms of our constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom. But I’m sure it’ll turn around. These things have a way of doing that. The pendulum swings both ways, you know. I’m just trusting in God to give us the victory we need to save this culture. Psalm 91:1, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.”

Turnau: Are you sure it’s not a problem of strategy? You’re not rethinking your approach?

Knight: A little, perhaps. After all, we’re not in the heady days of the Moral Majority, so we don’t have the influence we once had. But it’s still my conviction that there are a lot of good Christian people and like-minded conservatives who, if motivated, could help roll back the advances that the so-called progressives have made recently. We just need to stick to what worked: introducing legislation, calling congressmen to account, fighting to get the right people appointed for judicial nominations… that sort of thing.

Turnau: Has this approach ever succeeded?

Knight: (Casts him a sharp glance.) Absolutely. Look at history. Think of the Reagan Revolution! The Republican Party made overtures to Evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Jim Dobson, who in turn mobilised their supporters and helped get Reagan elected in 1980, and then again in 1984. During that time, federal funding for abortions was cut, and that saved who knows how many unborn lives. Family values became front and centre of the national agenda. Love us or hate us, you couldn’t ignore us. Those were the days of non-alcoholic wine and roses, my friend.

Turnau: I’d agree that Christians got a lot done. But did it stick? And did we come away unchanged? It seems to me that that alliance with the Republicans changed the character, the flavour of Evangelical commitment over the years.

Knight: What do you mean?

Turnau: (Beat. Continues cautiously.) Well, it’s always struck me as curious that so many theologically conservative Christians often automatically support conservative political positions, as if the two naturally went together.

Knight: Don’t they? We’re all about individual moral responsibility, which fits naturally into a pro-entrepreneurial, pro-traditional family agenda.

Turnau: Perhaps, but there are other positions that feel pretty unnatural biblically. Pro-gun Christians? Anti-environmental protection Christians? Anti-immigration (or even anti-refugee) Christians? It feels as if American Evangelicals have drunk Republican Kool-Aid and it’s changed their DNA.[19]

Knight: Evangelicals (and the Fundamentalists before them) have always been a fairly culturally conservative bunch. A lot of that has to do with a suspicion of government interference, keeping big government small and out of our lives.

Turnau: True, but consider an even wider historical perspective. Consider the roots of American Evangelicalism in the First and Second Great Awakenings.[20] Spiritual revival produced an amazing array of what we today would call “progressive” social justice and social reform movements, things such as: shortening the workweek, anti-child-labour legislation, rescuing women out of prostitution, stuff like that.[21] And a lot of that included government initiatives. Christians haven’t always been against governmental involvement.

Knight: But you’re leaving part of the story out, aren’t you? A lot of those social reforms were lobbied for in the early 20th century by the Social Gospel movement, liberal theologians who had no use for evangelism. Those aren’t my religious predecessors. They are the great-grandfathers of the political liberals of today. Are you saying we should walk in their footsteps?

Turnau: Not necessarily. I’ve got some real concerns about the theological liberalism bound up with the Social Gospel movement. But it just seems odd that people who care so much about sharing the gospel are at the same time so indifferent (or even hostile) to ideas concerning racial justice, or justice for the poor. Once upon a time, it wasn’t like that.[22] Concern for evangelism and social justice weren’t always seen as mutually exclusive. Of course, not all of that can be laid at the feet of the Republican Party – the polarisation between theological conservatives and the Social Gospel happened way before the 1980s. My point is simply that since the 1980s, Evangelicalism and Republicanism have come to mirror each other in uncomfortable ways. And that points to a larger lesson to be learned…

Knight: Which is?

Turnau: When Christians cosy up to the halls of power, whether liberal or conservative, they will end up looking and acting like their political benefactors. Just like dogs end up looking like their masters.

Knight: (Deadpan.) Nice. You just called us dogs.

Turnau: Just a metaphor. Again. But that’s not the worst of it.

Knight: Worse than being a dog?

Turnau: Sure. When Christians seek cultural change primarily through power politics, you invite a backlash movement against those changes. Politics is an inherently coercive strategy for changing culture. Even if you gather a majority, your programme of reforms force the minority into the cultural patterns you choose. And that inevitably creates resentment against that coercive majority, and a backlash.

Knight: (Fixes him with a hard stare.) Do you have any proof of this?

Turnau: Sure. Look at the rise of the “religious nones” among Millenials. It’s no secret that it’s due in large part because of their resentment and rejection of their parents’ politics.[23] This resentment may also be behind the way young people have been transforming Christianity into “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”, a watered down, more tolerant, “nicer” version of Christianity in which God remains a fuzzy distant being who only wants you to be a better you.[24] Resentment probably also explains the popularity of the New Atheism in the U.S., as well as the rapid rise of a new sexual orthodoxy.[25] We are now reaping the harvest of resentment against the Reagan-Bush years.

Knight: But coercion can’t be helped! That’s the nature of politics. Besides, it’s not as if we were the aggressors. The culture shifted away from us, and now we’re the ones being coerced! There’s a lot of resentment among conservatives nowadays.

Turnau: I don’t deny that, when given the chance, liberals have used political muscle to shift culture and policy in directions they desired. Predictably, their recent successes have created resentment among conservatives.[26] The difference is that social liberals have also invested in élite universities, mainstream media and entertainment companies – the core cultural institutions that shape the collective imagination (what I call the “imaginary landscape”) – in a way that conservatives did not.[27] That makes a huge difference, because it sets the stage for a long-term cultural change. The grassroots revolution of the 1980s never swayed those at the centres of cultural power, so the changes it brought about soon faded. Its real legacy is the resentment it engendered among those élites who truly shape the culture.[28]

Knight: (Pounds desk, startling Turnau.) But we have to do something! We need to be involved in our culture. Think of the world we’re leaving our kids. We can’t just let it all go to hell!

Turnau: (Collects himself. Placating, but sincere.) Look, I admire your passion and conviction, the way you call people to be intentionally engaged in culture. I truly do. You look at the world and want it to be better, and you’re throwing yourself into the fray. There’s no quit in you, that’s for sure. However, maybe we ought to step back and draw some lessons from history. The failure of the Reagan legacy is only the last chapter in a saga that has been going on for centuries.

Knight: (Begrudgingly.) I’m not sure I am willing to admit that the Reagan years were in vain, but what is this historical “saga” you’re talking about?

Turnau: I’m saying that you can see a similar pattern elsewhere. The Great Awakening took place in New England, and now it’s one of the regions of America most resistant to the gospel. Look at the Netherlands. The Christian influence there reached its height in the early 20th century when the brilliant theologian/educator/ statesman Abraham Kuyper became Prime Minister. But where is the Christian influence now? Holland has some of the most liberal narcotics laws in the world. England was once considered a Christian nation, but it too experienced a gradual, but serious, erosion of the faith after World War II that continues to this day. In fact, the erosion of the Christian faith institutionally and in the hearts and minds of the people has been the story of the last few centuries in the West generally.

Knight: But why? In each case, they were doing the best they could. Each of these countries was founded on Christian principles. Why shouldn’t they try to move them back in line with those principles, even using politics to do it?

Turnau: (Takes a deep breath and settles into “teacher mode”.) The problem lies in the nature of political power itself and its effect on the collective imagination, especially when the church is involved. Whenever the church gets too close to the political powers that be, it is always the church that gets burned in the long run. At least that’s the lesson I draw from sociologist David Martin and his study of the different patterns of secularisation.[29] Secularisation took different routes in the West according to the various patterns of church-state relationships. Where church and state were highly integrated so that the church was a virtual tool for state policy (for example, in Catholic countries such as France in the 17th and 18th centuries), the reaction was eventually a violent anti-clericalism: “Strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest!” Where church and state ties were looser, but still substantial (for example, in the state supported Protestant churches of Britain and Northern Europe) secularisation was experienced as a gradual decline of social legitimacy. The church lives on, but comes to be seen as more and more socially irrelevant. And in America, where there was a separation of church and state, and the various denominations were left to fend for themselves on the model of an open marketplace (as in the United States), religion fared rather better. Secularisation arrived rather later, and took hold mostly among the cultured élites. So the more the church got intertwined with state power, the more pronounced was the secularisation that followed. And you could tack on the Reagan and Bush years, and the secularist backlash that followed, as an example of more of the same.

Knight: So you’re saying the drift to secularisation was inevitable and our fault?

Turnau: No, of course not. The causes of secularisation are varied and complicated. But there is a lesson to be learned from the story Martin tells.

Knight: (Patiently, knowing that Turnau won’t stop until his punch line.) Which is?

Turnau: That the health of religion in the long-term is inversely proportional to the amount of integration between state and church. More integration and state support for the church in the long term produces, paradoxically, a weaker, more socially marginalised church.

Knight: (Blinks.) That doesn’t make sense. Why would more political influence weaken the church’s political influence later on?

Turnau: Because that short-term cultural influence doesn’t come for free. It must be paid for in the loss of long-term social legitimacy. The church cannot be seen as a friend to the powerless when it dwells habitually in the halls of power. So it loses the right to speak prophetically to power on behalf of the powerless.

And here is the corollary that is pertinent for us: Wherever Christians have sought to impose their will on society through political coercion, even in subtle ways, they always end up paying for it in the currency of the loss of respect of the next generation. The picture of a politically powerful church is etched with resentment in the collective imagination of its children. This has been the story of the rapid or gradual decline of Christian fervour in Europe, and more recently, in North America as well. When a Christian faith-inspired social order is politically imposed on a society, it simply inoculates the next generation against the Christian faith. And that inoculation is difficult to overcome.

Knight: (Shifts uncomfortably in his upholstered desk chair, ready to change the subject.) Nevertheless, we can and must present arguments that should carry the day. OK, so maybe the day of Christian America and appealing to the Bible has passed. But God has implanted a solid sense of natural law in people (Rom. 2:14-15), so that they know what is right. We can make our case based on that, even in as thoroughly a secular society as ours is becoming. We just need to communicate our points more elegantly, more powerfully, and eventually, truth shall prevail.

Turnau: (Eyes narrow.) I’m not so sure it is that straightforward. Culture is, among other things, an interpretive project. It’s a way of collectively understanding the world around us. And as our culture fragments and drifts in a more inoculated, disenchanted, post-Christian direction, the way we interpret things like “natural” or “marriage” or “family” or “human rights” or “freedom” or “justice” are going to become more and more fragmented and post-Christian too. Surely you’ve felt that in the debates you’ve been involved with.

Knight: Well, yeah, but I’m not convinced we should give up on natural law. There are some things that are simply part of the natural created order.

Turnau: (Leans forward.) Yes, but to be a persuasive part of the debate, those things must be understood as natural and right. We assume that “natural” means “neutral”, but it doesn’t. “Nature” for Christians is always God’s nature, interpreted according to his standards (that is, biblically). If the people we are debating (and our audience) don’t accept God’s lordship over nature, and his authority over natural standards, they are unlikely to accept biblical standards of what counts as natural. Isn’t that what Romans 1:18-25 is all about: suppressing the knowledge of God? Natural law isn’t self-evident to fallen people who compulsively distort nature’s revelation about God and all reality.[30] Bottom line: members of both sides of cultural debates no longer agree upon definitions that we used to. These definitions (“natural”, “marriage” and so on) are embedded in specific traditions and have meaning only within those traditions.[31] In this sense, the collective imagination is the cradle of “natural”. If your interlocutor’s imaginary landscape is no longer recognisably Christian, appealing to natural law is simply a way of talking past each other.

Knight: So what are you saying? If we give up on natural law dialogue, what’s left? Admit we no longer speak a shared language, so we should just withdraw from politics and admit defeat?

Turnau: Not exactly, but I am suggesting that culture-war-politics-as-usual isn’t working. We need to reassess our position, and widen our approach. Christians (especially strongly nationalistic Christians) have often seen themselves as Conquistadors who are interested in reclaiming the land, bringing the country to heel (and not to heal).[32] We get territorial and pugnacious. We come off as bullies. Perhaps we need to stop thinking of ourselves as a moral majority and understand our role as what Russell Moore calls the “prophetic minority”.[33] There is a better way than bullying and trying to re-conquer a mythically once-Christian land.[34] A better option would be to speak about what’s important to us, ground our messages in Scripture, and seek to be part of the broader cultural conversation for the good of all (after all, we have the gospel-wisdom of God to share).

Knight: As if anyone will listen to us without some kind of political leverage…

Turnau: They might, if we demonstrate our goodwill in compassionate and creative ways. But relying on politics alone is a non-starter.

Knight: Why so? It’s the way things get done. Politics is the most expedient way to bring change.

Turnau: Most direct, maybe. Most viscerally satisfying, for sure. But, as I said, it’s not the most successful way to bring long-term cultural change. When you rely on politics alone, you overlook something important: the context within which politics takes place.

Knight: Which is?

Turnau: The cultural imagination. Politics alone never really impacts the imaginary landscape upon which politics rests, in which political action is rooted. Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image (a Christian arts journal), put it this way:            

But the urgent need at the moment is to recognize that we cannot reduce culture and its various modes of discourse to nothing more than a political battleground. The political institutions of a society grow up out of a rich cultural life, and not the other way around. As its etymology indicates, the word culture is a metaphor for organic growth. Reducing culture to politics is like constantly spraying insecticide and never watering or fertilizing the soil.[35]

It feels very much as if Christians need to shift their focus to prepping the soil, that imaginary landscape that allows or resists political change.

Knight: Well, that sounds like what an art journal editor would say. But that’s not where the action is. That’s not how you change things.

Turnau: But unless you do that patient cultural work, if all you do is focus on politics, you end up making the Christian faith look like just another political interest group. Except that this one wants to control everyone else’s private lives. Non-Christians look at Christians and they see us as aggressive, coercive, and uninterested in the common good.[36] Because Christians have ignored the resentment they themselves have created, we are now largely seen as Grinches, more defined by what we are against than what we are for. Maybe it is time for Christian culture warriors to tone it down somewhat.

Knight: (Incredulous.) Tone it down? Do you even realise what’s going on? Christians are being persecuted as our freedoms are being undermined, even the freedom of speech. The rights of Christians are being trampled underfoot. What you’re suggesting sounds defeatist and disastrous. You’re saying we should abandon politics and just let the culture drift where it may, without struggle, without contest.

Turnau: I’m not suggesting that we just give up and give in. We are still called as witnesses, a prophetic voice. But we do need to adapt to our current situation. We’re no longer a moral majority. We are now on the margins looking in, as the cultural logic of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (however you choose to define it)” plays itself out. We need to realise that we’re in a post-Christian society. Christians have become missionaries to our own cultures, and it is time for us to give up on dreams of empire. Instead, we need to work for the common good and loving our neighbour. And we need to prepare ourselves mentally, emotionally, and spiritually for some harassment (not persecution – I’d reserve that word for places where Christians really are under attack, like Syria).

Understanding our current situation means modifying our tone to be more winsome than aggressive. We need people to understand that we’re not seeking to enslave them or spoil the fun. Rather, we’re trying to heal brokenness and bring light for the common good. As it is, Sir Knight, not a lot of non-Christians would consider Christians to be a gentle people, but that’s what we need to be. It’s what we’ve always needed to be. And thankfully, there are already some public representatives of the faith who are measured, nuanced, and gentle in their tone (Tim Keller and Russell Moore come immediately to mind).

Knight: But politics is a rough-and-tumble sport, not for sissies. You give an inch, they’ll walk on you for a mile.

Turnau: Nevertheless, we need to conduct ourselves politically in such a way that our opponents understand that we love them. I mean, if Jesus commanded us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48), doesn’t that apply to politics as well? But that’s not the tone I hear coming from many Christian culture warriors. We need to love and work for the good of those we consider our opponents. And it is going to take great patience on our part.

Knight: OK, so we should love those across the aisle from us. Is that going to get it done? Will that bring the victory we seek?

Turnau: Well, it depends on how you define victory. If you see victory in terms of a zero-sum game where we win and they lose, then probably not. But if you see victory in terms of prophetic witness for the common good as the truth is spoken in love, then yes (though I’m sure not all prophets – like Jeremiah – feel like victors at the time; it may be prophetic witness through tears). But that’s the kind of politics we need to strive for: loving, truthful witness rather than dominion over our enemies.

Knight: (Shrugs and shakes head.) I don’t know. That just sounds so incredibly naïve. Politics doesn’t work like that. And it still sounds defeatist, like lowering the bar and saying, “Well, just get your message across.”

Turnau: (Hands outstretched.) From our current position within post-Christian culture, I’m not sure that anything more is possible, or even desirable. But when I’m talking about witness, I’m not just talking about political witness, though that’s a part of it. If we want to be salt and light in this culture, we need to diversify our efforts. Political debate done in a loving way is an important part of Christian cultural witness, but only part. Though it’s often the most visible part, it is perhaps not the most important. We have neglected our broader cultural witness in favour of the solely political. For us, public witness has become reduced to politics.[37] In the meantime we have neglected the imaginary landscape, letting it develop in ways that are inimical to a Christian social order, and even some Christian virtues.[38] No amount of culture warring will fix that. It’s like tilting at windmills.

Look, I am definitely not saying “Give up on politics”. Democracy grants us a political voice, at least thus far, and we should use it. But I would insist that it is time to adjust our politics to the reality that we are a minority and we cannot simply push our agendas through. And even if we could, given the amount of resentment we’ve generated, is it a good idea? Perhaps it is time to restrict ourselves to a political language that cultivates civility, compassion, and the common good, rather than a political language that resonates with themes of dominion and conquering the land. And it is high time to tend to the slow, careful work of tending the imaginary landscape rather than taking political shortcuts.

Knight: (Ruminating, reflecting.) Well, I’m not ready to give up the battle just yet, but it’s worth thinking about.

Turnau: While you’re thinking about it, let me sum up my critiques.

                (Turns to camera.) While there is much to admire in the Knight’s quest – its intentionality and passion, for instance – the are some deep problems in relying on politics alone to bring change in culture:

  • It can inspire a nationalism that confuses our loyalties to God with loyalty to country.
  • Christians can compromise to retain political influence, which subtly changes the character of the faith (just as dogs grow to resemble their masters).
  • Politics is inescapably coercive. If you force new cultural patterns upon the unwilling, there will inevitably be a backlash. The church ends up paying for its short-term influence in the currency of long-term loss of social legitimacy. We end up inoculating the next generation against the gospel.
  • Natural law doesn’t provide the neutral ground for debate we hope for. Terms like “natural”, “family,” and “human rights” become redefined against the backdrop of a new imaginary landscape.
  • We must come to grips with our current cultural position and serve as loving prophetic witnesses who speak truth to power, as well as do the patient cultural work that provides the necessary context for political engagement.

Knight: Stop breaking the fourth wall, weirdo.

Scene II: The Gardener’s Dialogue

The scene opens on a bright spring day in the walled garden of a monastery. Dark clouds loom on the horizon. The Gardener is a genteel woman in her 60s with a kindly face, perhaps from the Cotswolds or Swansea. She is dressed in work clothes, tending to her plants while Turnau sits on a stone bench about three feet away. She is a member of the Benedict Option.[39] But truly, she could be a stand-in for garden variety (pun intended) Pietism,[40] neo-Anabaptism,[41] or the New Monasticism.[42] Despite their differences (less profound than with the Knight), these movements share a goal and method: withdraw from mainstream culture so that they can form strong and distinctive spiritual communities that will preserve Christian belief and practice. These communities will serve as incubators, a positive model for others in the world. In other words, the world will change (perhaps) when the church succeeds at being truly and deeply the church.[43] Christian cultural influence happens (if at all) primarily through setting a good example by living a decent, moral life inculcated through intentional Christian community, and through personal evangelism.

But can cultural change transpire through a strategy of withdrawal from culture? We shall see.

Turnau: Nice crop of catechumens you have there.

Gardener: (Not looking up.) They’re dahlias.

Turnau: Oh. Well, (sings) “Hello, dahlia!”

Gardener: (Irritated, but still not looking up.) Is there something I can help you with?

Turnau: Yeah. I’m wondering what you’re doing in here, while the Knight and others are hard at work jousting with opponents… in Christian love.

Gardener: (Looks up for the first time and fixes him with a hard stare.) You don’t understand, do you? The battle’s over and the enemy has taken the field. It is now time for a strategic withdrawal. [44] It is time to regroup. The barbarians are at the gate. Time to do as St. Benedict did when Rome became utterly corrupted: go out to the forest, pray, build communities and preserve what we have got left in the hope that someday things will turn around.[45] For now, we need to do what we can to preserve Christian culture to pass it on to the next generation. We lose hope of any good influence on a culture like this if we lose our Christian distinctiveness. “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” (Matt. 5:13). We’re fast becoming something good only for stepping on.

Turnau: How do you know? What led you to this depressing conclusion?

Gardener: Well, look around you. As you say, the culture (especially popular culture) is clearly post-Christian, antagonistic to Christian concerns. And just look at the effect it’s had. Just look at this next generation of so-called Christians.

Turnau: What about them?

Gardener: They’ve lost their flavour. They’ve transformed traditional Christianity into that bland, inoffensive, tasteless mélange that sociologist Christian Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”. It’s naught but a feel-good religion of niceness designed to affirm the self.[46]

Turnau: Yeah, I was talking about MTD with the Knight. Know him?

Gardener: Good-hearted fellow. I can’t take the way he wraps the cross in the flag, though. I’m better off in here, away from that ruckus.

Turnau: Well, you’re not going to get an argument from me about conflating the gospel and nationalism. And I don’t think you’re wrong about the kinds of Christians too many churches produce: bland, ineffectual, about an inch deep in their Christian life and knowledge. What’s your solution?

Gardener: (Intensely.) Intentional communities; places where families and friends can disconnect from the surrounding culture and deepen their faith roots through better teaching and relearning age-old Christian habits and practices. We need places where we can start retraining our passions and imaginations to pursue God and holiness like we should. You know: Christian spiritual disciplines and the like.

Turnau: (Cautious, probing.) And must we disconnect from the surrounding culture to do that?

Gardener: Certainly, at least in part. The very structures of modernity are like acid to the faith, or aphids on the roses. It weakens it, fades it, sucks the life right out of it, and renders faith mute, a trivial private concern of the heart that has no impact on public life.[47] The ordinary Christian has no choice but to buckle under to that cultural pressure, or withdraw and regroup. We need to build ourselves “plausibility structures”, places where being and living like a Christian makes sense.[48] This culture is not that place.

Turnau: What about outreach? What about the church’s mission to reach the lost?

Gardener: (Patiently; she’s heard this objection before.) Well, we’re not going to up and abandon evangelism.[49] But do consider: what is evangelism, really? Is it just passing on a few words? Or is it an introduction to a spiritual relationship with God, a way of life, an ongoing pursuit of holiness? By living in intentional communities the way Christians are supposed to live, by deepening our roots, by telling the real story of our faith to ourselves first, we are able to reach out to others better. In the words of church historian Robert Louis Wilken (reads from a magazine lying in the flowerbed):

Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.[50]

That’s why I think when we talk in church about “missions”, we need to focus first on the real mission of the church. In the words of Rod Dreher, “[The Benedict Option] needs to be mission-minded, and that mission has to be the search for holiness, which is to say, to find unity with God. All the evangelizing and good works done by the congregations must be subordinate to the prime love, which is of God.”[51]

Turnau: (Pauses a moment, considering.) What you say makes a lot of sense, but I’m not convinced that cutting ourselves off from the culture is the way to go. Am I allowed to agree and disagree at the same time?

Gardener: Do continue.

Turnau: Okay, so for one thing, I too am pretty disappointed with the thinness of Christian knowledge and commitment I see nowadays. I think Christian Smith is right on the money with the MTD thing. And it’s not just teens, but adults, too. And who’s to blame? Parents, maybe. Churches, certainly. Too many do a pretty poor job teaching their people in depth, teaching them how to live the faith out in everyday life and in their communities, teaching parents how to catechise their kids, how to pray together, that sort of stuff. So as it is, there’s very little resistance to the drift of the culture overall. You’re absolutely right about that.

Gardener: (Waiting for the other shoe to drop.) But you don’t think withdrawal is the answer because… you think popular culture’s not to blame?

Turnau: No, no. I think popular culture often functions as a sort of combo-package secular/pagan catechesis and sentimental education that helps us feel what life is like in a world where God is dead or irrelevant.

Gardener: (Eyebrows raised.) Oh, so you agree with me, then?

Turnau: Not exactly. For one thing, I don’t think that’s all popular culture is. It’s certainly a parade of false idols, but it’s also a parade of common grace. And because popular culture makes up multiple worlds of meaning in which our non-Christian friends live, breathe, want, hope, we ought to understand it. If we want to reach them, we need to familiarise ourselves with the works that open up vistas for them, worlds of meaning that shape their imaginations. We need to learn to speak the language of these worlds.[52]

Gardener: But only at the cost of spiritual compromise, correct? Only at the risk of undermining our own faith, and the faith of our children.

Turnau: Really? See, here’s where I disagree with you. I’m not convinced Christians have to choose between intentional community and engagement with the culture (especially arts and entertainment) around us. In fact, done right, engagement with culture can bring out God’s glory more fully because we learn to see common grace in culture for what it is: God’s glory shining through his gifts to us. And we learn to see our culture’s idols for what they are: systemic distortions of God’s blessings, twisted gospels. And when the gospel is contrasted with the darkness and distortion of non-Christian counterfeits, it helps us see the real thing in bright relief, like a portrait of grace in chiaroscuro.[53]

Gardener: Now I’m the one who’s not convinced. It sounds like you’re playing word games. It sounds like a convoluted distortion of worship. And I think it will result in a generation mollified and transfixed by shiny false gods, their eyes drawn away from the true God.

Turnau: Not at all. Informed, critical engagement with non-Christian culture helps us see God’s glory more clearly.[54] As we see excellence, beauty and goodness in non-Christian culture (and it does exist), we have occasion to thank God who sheds his gifts abroad (Jas. 1:17). As we see the deceptive evil of the idols it promotes, the gospel shines by comparison. This way of seeing all of life – even stuff made in rebellion against God – is utterly biblical. Consider Isaiah’s idol polemic in chapter 44:9-20 (and, really, throughout chapters 40-48). Isaiah underscores God’s wisdom and power by mocking idols, showing how weird it is to bow down to a carved image made from the same piece of wood you used to cook bread an hour earlier. Consider Ezekiel’s lament for Tyre in chapter 27, how he lists and laments all of the good that will be lost with Tyre’s fall… because these things are good, and it is a loss. There’s goodness to be mourned, but also he calls out the idols by showing how Tyre’s idolatrous worship (of those very goods, among other things) has brought about the city’s inevitable downfall. Consider Paul’s drawing on truths and errors found in Greco-Roman culture in his speech in Athens in Acts 17. He’s not just practising good communication; he’s drawing on the insights of the non-Christian culture around him.

Gardener: But who actually does this? Most Christians I know who still consume that stuff just sit there and watch, oblivious.

Turnau: You’re right. The key is not to consume mindlessly, but rather to consume critically, reflectively, submitting every insight and delight to God. Such reflection is what separates idol worship from the worship of the living God. As Isaiah says in 44:19: “no one stops to think”.[55] Cultural engagement is precisely a call to “stop and think” about the culture around us. It is the practice of Christian obedience in cultural consumption (and, as we shall see, cultural creation). Done correctly, it should lead us into deeper worship.

Gardener: Still sounds suspiciously like a rationalisation to me.

Turnau: Not a rationalisation: cultural apologetics, and gratitude for the cultural gifts God has given us that help us enjoy him better.[56] I’ve written about an apologetical approach to popular culture, and I find it quite liberating.[57] It’s been my experience that watching/listening /playing in the fields of popular culture with my kids gave us plenty of opportunities to talk about what’s true and right and good.[58]

Gardener: But doesn’t such exposure change you and your children sub-consciously? Isn’t it a type of spiritual deformation of which you are unaware? Isn’t it a kind of worship that form desires that run counter to what God desires?[59] Is critical reflection really enough?

Turnau: No, I concede that by itself, it’s not. Our imaginations and desires need to be reformed in true, intentional Christian worship. But that doesn’t mean withdrawal is the answer.

Look, I think you’re fundamentally right. The church needs to tell its own story, and tell it well. And I agree: living out the Christian story in our marriages, families and friendships can have a profound impact on non-Christian friends.[60] But sometimes that story is told best when confronted with alternative stories, in contrast to those stories. We need to train Christians how to do that. Most churches do a really lousy job teaching their people how to engage culture in a way that is critical, nuanced, and insightful. If they do anything, they teach them how to hate non-Christian culture (especially popular culture) as the enemy, and that just succeeds at putting up a wall between us and the people we’re trying to reach.

Gardener: (Shakes her head.) But it’s a question of priorities. Evangelicals are so keen on being missional that they forget that the main mission needs to be our own pursuit of God, holiness, and right worship.

Turnau: Is it? Don’t misunderstand: I’m absolutely for discipleship, pursuing a deeper walk with God, pursuing holiness. But does the Bible ever present our pursuit of God and outreach to others as competitors, or that one needs to be subordinated to the other?

Gardener: (Eyes narrowed.) What do you mean? The Bible is clear: we must pursue holiness first. David says in Psalm 24:3, “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has cleans hands and a pure heart.” The author of Hebrews says in 12:14, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Peter says the same in 1 Peter 1:15-16: “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” Holiness is the sine qua non for the Christian. God accepts no one without it.

Turnau: Absolutely. But where does that holiness come from? The Bible talks about us pursuing holiness, but it also talks about our holiness as something we already possess in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 6:11, Paul talks about the church as those who have already been “washed, sanctified [made holy] and justified” in Christ by the Spirit of God. Ephesians 5:25 talks about Christ who has already sanctified his church through the washing of the word. Titus 2:14 talks about Jesus “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works”. We are called to pursue good works and live a holy life precisely because we have already been purified, set apart as holy, by God in Christ, because of Christ’s atoning work. 

Theologian John Murray called this “definitive sanctification”, the holiness we already possess truly and absolutely in Christ.[61] It doesn’t remove from us the obligation to live lives of obedience to God, but it does completely change our motivation for holy living. We pursue holiness out of gratitude to the one who has already adopted, cleansed, and embraced us as his beloved children. So all this talk of pursuing God as if we didn’t already have him (or rather, as if he didn’t already have us) in Christ undercuts what the Bible says, and it produces an unholy anxiety in believers. It morphs God into a strict cosmic headmaster, “You kids better measure up or I’ll expel you so fast…”[62] But the Bible is clear: we pursue God in the security of the knowledge that he has pursued and found us first in Christ. That’s the gospel.

Granted that this is not something all Christians agree on, but it is something about which that most traditions coming out of the Reformation concur.[63] Holiness is something we strive for in practice, but it is also simultaneously something we already possess perfectly in Christ. The goal of the Christian life, then, is to bring glory to God by striving to live out who we really are in Christ, relying on the power of the Spirit.

Gardener: OK, interesting theological digression. But what’s the point? And how is this relevant to what we’re talking about: the real mission of the church?

Turnau: This understanding of holiness is absolutely relevant here. It’s the promise of a sanctifying, sovereign grace that makes all the difference. If you already have the holiness God requires (in Christ), then there is absolutely no competition between your everyday pursuit of holiness and reaching out to love others (and cultural engagement as lessons in how to understand their world).

Gardener: But doesn’t the surrounding culture still undermine that pursuit of everyday holiness? Can you really be holy watching Jessica Jones, even if you do it for all the right reasons? I’ve heard about that show and all of the sex scenes and so on. Cultural engagement is just not worth it. You end up polluting yourself.

Turnau: Well, first, Jessica Jones is a pretty awesome show. And second, there’s nothing saying that you can’t skip forward through the sexy schmexy stuff. But, to your point: sure, why can’t a Christian benefit from a show like that? I’m learning tons about what the non-Christian world (or at least one Marvel-inspired segment of the non-Christian world) thinks about heroism, moral debt, true goodness, mercy, vengeance, gender roles, friendship, and so much more! The main character moves throughout the show with this heaviness, this guilt and burden. What if she really understood the gospel? How would it change her attitude towards life, her self-hatred and self-destructive behaviours? It makes me appreciate the gospel all the more.

Further, I don’t believe engaging (and even enjoying) non-Christian culture necessarily jeopardises holiness. And it certainly doesn’t jeopardise our salvation, as some might think. Pastor/author Mike Cosper wrote a really good book on popular culture, and toward the beginning, he says (whips out his copy and flips quickly through the pages):

It’s the promise of grace that propels us out into the world without the fear of the Church Lady. While our stories [from TV and movies] are indeed shaping our hearts and imaginations, they cannot do any permanent damage to those who are in Christ. In other words, you’re not going to watch a movie that will steal your soul; the world can’t really hurt you. Instead, you can take comfort in knowing that you’re forever secure in the hands of Jesus.[64]

No doubt navigating popular culture and pursuing holiness is tricky. I think the key lies in being honest and wise about the strengths and weaknesses of your own heart (and listening to them), as well as being critically aware and gospel-grounded deeply enough to see through the culture’s deceptions, the Emperor’s New Clothes promises of the mainstream culture. And a big part of gospel grounding is knowing our holiness in Christ, that God embraces us and invites us to deeper intimacy, rather than setting the bar so high that only the very holy, the marathon runners of religion (monks, priests, saints, missionaries) can truly know him.

So in sum, I think there’s some confusion surrounding the issue of Christian holiness. Walling ourselves off from mainstream culture isn’t the way to go about it, at least if we want to obey Jesus. As he said in John 17:14-19, his disciples are called to go into the world. We’re called to our cultures. Our true holiness is to be found in engaging, not withdrawing.[65]

Gardener: I’m not altogether convinced. Seems like a person should always set the pursuit of God through holiness over outreach to others. Loving God still trumps all other loves.

Turnau: But what I’ve read in the Bible (and in my experience) shows that love for God and love for others are not in competition. Neither “trumps” the other. Rather, they go hand-in-hand, or not at all. In 1 John 4:7-12, John writes that true love for God is expressed through true love for others. They dovetail into one another: if you love others, God’s love is in you. If you’re not loving others, you’re not loving God. And that is the very definition of Christian holiness: loving engagement, not withdrawal. Christian holiness that is established by grace alone (and not by our diligent practice of ascetic disciplines)[66] will necessarily flow outward to others.

The character of gospel holiness is one of generously pouring ourselves into the lives of those around, just as Christ generously poured out his life for us and served us so that we might become “the righteousness of God” (see Phil. 2:4-8, 2 Cor. 5:21). Far from being in competition, pursuing holiness and love for God requires love and service to others. 1 John 4 is quite clear: any holiness that does not express itself in love for other human beings is a sham holiness, a sham love for God. You cannot have one without the other. The love of God is properly expressed through the love of others, even others in the world.[67]

Gardener: You think we’re a bunch of hypocrites and Pharisees?

Turnau: I didn’t say that, but I think legalism and pride can be a temptation for even the best intentional communities. And the only sure antidote is the gospel, an understanding that even our holiness is by grace alone. It comes from “God who works in us”, according to Paul in Philippians 2:13. Therefore, contact with non-Christians or their culture is no threat. In fact, it helps us understand them and love them better through word and deed, as good ambassadors should (2 Cor. 5:20). In this way, engagement with the surrounding culture, even popular culture, flows from a holy love of God and people.

Gardener: I still think you’re putting kids at risk. Why not wait until they are older, responsible adults, before exposing them to that stuff?

Turnau: Because trying to protecting children by erecting a hermetically-sealed subculture simply doesn’t work. Shrink-wrapping our kids doesn’t lead to their holiness. I read a pretty heart-breaking blog post from a young woman who was raised Evangelical Christian and has since abandoned the faith. She examines the Benedict Option and says, “Hey, that’s nothing new. That’s how I was raised: strong church, good teaching in the gospel, home-school co-ops. But it didn’t work.”[68]

Gardener: Why not?

Turnau: Because by the time she reached college-age, she had been so shielded from non-Christian culture and ideas, she had no idea how to interact with non-Christians. And worse, once she did, she found that her community had only ever told her half the story when it came to things like evolution, gay marriage, and other things. When she actually met a nice, committed gay couple, or evolutionists who had answers for the arguments she’d been taught, she walked away from her parents’ faith. Sheltering our youth doesn’t work because you can’t shelter them forever.

Gardener: This proves nothing. Some Christian kids walk away from the faith no matter what their parents or communities do.

Turnau: True, and I wouldn’t want to deny that it happens, nor the pain of parents and kids in that position to whom it happens. But given the choice between sheltering and training, I’ll choose training every time. Why would I want to pass up opportunities to walk through tough issues, real issues, with my kids? That’s how the wisdom of the Christian story gets passed down from generation to generation. If intentional community can do that, then I think it’s on the right track. If it keeps parents and churches from doing that, then I think the community is squandering God-given opportunities and shirking God-given responsibilities. I want to be part of raising up a generation of ambassadors and artists who are culture-savvy people-lovers.[69]

Gardener: But you can’t spend that kind of time and be intentional about community. You’ve got to unplug from one to be fully plugged-in to the other.

Turnau: I’m not convinced. There are many ways of doing intentional community that deepen the knowledge and practice of the Christian faith, and they don’t all call for becoming disengaged from culture. Many churches have developed small group ministries, or retreats for communal bonding. The Wednesday night prayer meetings or Bible studies that are traditional in many Protestant churches for additional prayer or teaching do the same thing. The opportunities for regular hospitality, Sabbath rest, and forming friendships are endless. Christians can cultivate intentional community in all sorts of ways: a regular one-on-one coffee meeting, a mid-week small group meeting, a movie discussion night, support groups for those struggling with addiction, a theology-on-tap meeting at the pub, a mothers with toddlers play group, a group focused on feeding and sheltering the poor in their community.[70] My wife and I used to have a standing date every Thursday night with our church’s children’s minister to watch The Simpsons when it first came out so we could talk about the theological themes in it. It built our friendship, and also engaged culture. So like I said before, I am in no way against being intentional about the way we do church and build communities. But we don’t have to build walls to keep culture out.

Gardener: (Brows furrow.) Wouldn’t all this cultural engagement end up watering down the gospel itself? That’s what I’m seeing in the Evangelical church: some bearded hipster in jeans behind the pulpit making movie references, all in the name of “relevance”, “contextualisation” and “seeker-sensitivity”.[71] We’d be better off just sticking to the Bible and our traditions. Let non-Christians learn our culture if they want to be part of us!

Turnau: Well, I certainly agree that we need to preserve the integrity of the biblical gospel. But if we completely ignore issues of contextualisation, we’ll end up just talking to ourselves (which is a lot of what goes on nowadays anyway). Besides, you can’t really avoid doing contextualisation. If you’re not intentional about it, it’s not that you’re not doing it; you’re just committing to doing it badly. Even if you want to “stick to the Bible”, you must realise that your Bible is already contextualised. It brings a Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek book into the context of the English language. I mean, just try going to your neighbour and sharing the gospel (excuse me, το ευαγγέλιον) in Koine Greek and see how far you get.

Gardener: Translation is one thing, contextualisation is another.

Turnau: (Slips again into teacher-mode.) Is it? If we live in among people for whom Christian categories – sin, God, salvation, righteousness – are rapidly becoming empty or confusing, aren’t we really talking about issues of translation?[72] The German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer argued (persuasively, I believe) that any act of communication involves multiple “horizons” (expectations, conceptual categories, assumptions, desires, hopes, fears): the horizon of the speaker, and the horizon of the listener. In order for real understanding to take place, the gap between these horizons must be overcome by what he called a “fusion of horizons”.[73] This fusion is a translation; connect the circuit between the horizons, and meaningful communication has occurred. If it doesn’t, people simply talk past each other (which happens quite a lot). You can tell someone is paying attention to these horizons when he or she asks, “Wait. What did you mean by that?” It is something that happens constantly in biblical exegesis. And it needs to be considered when sharing the gospel.

That’s why pastor Tim Keller (someone who knows a thing or two about communicating spiritual truths to secular, post-Christian people) defines contextualisation this way:

Contextualization is not – as is often argued – “giving people what they want to hear”. Rather, it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.[74]

Contextualisation means looking for bridges, connections, places where the static that hinders communication can be overcome, all so that the gospel message registers faithfully in the conscious mind of the non-Christian. And it can happen without undermining the integrity of the gospel. Contextualisation is essential to Christian faithfulness in a post-Christian age, in a culture where the Christian vocabulary and categories have largely been lost. It means spending a lot of time with people who are strangers to the faith to learn their language.[75] Talking to a footballer in the Midlands isn’t going to be quite the same as talking to a taxi driver in London. Talking to a banker in Birmingham isn’t going to be quite the same as talking to a movie producer in Los Angeles. We don’t typically think about our own culture in terms of missionary outreach and translation of the gospel, but we should, for that is the situation we find ourselves in with the post-Christian West. The gap in terms of assumptions between Christians and non-Christians is wider than we realise. So spending time with people outside our Christian communities is vital if we’re going to get a handle on how to speak their language. That’s our missionary fieldwork, if you will.

But good contextualisation also means listening to the culture, especially to its arts and popular culture. We need to listen carefully, charitably, critically, listening for what resonates with the gospel, and what grates against it, how things mean in these works. I think a healthy Christian life in this day and age is going to have to learn how to relate to both worlds – intentional community and post-Christian culture – in dialectical tension, even shuttling back and forth between them.

Gardener: Like a spiritual ping-pong ball, darting here and there, never at rest? No thank-you. I prefer rest, quite, solitude, stillness. This is where I find God. You can’t find him in the maelstrom out there. (Glances up at the approaching storm.)

Turnau: I don’t know that I’d call it a ping-pong game, and I certainly don’t want to deny Christians seasons of stillness. But otherwise, why not acknowledge that we are called to live simultaneously in two worlds? We Christians live in eschatological tension, between the old and new creation. God hasn’t brought the old world to an end yet, and there are still people there who need us. And there are still God-given blessings to be received from the culture out there. So, no, I don’t think it’s a good idea to sever ties. We need to keep a foot in both worlds, and be intentional about our faith as well. It’s a stretch to be sure, but that’s what’s needed to worship God and love others in a post-Christian culture. At least until the Lord comes back.

Gardener: And you really think Christians can change the world – or, as you prefer, the imaginary landscape – that way?

Turnau: Perhaps. In small ways, and over the long-term. Unless God does something bigger and faster than we could anticipate. That would be fantastic. But if not, then we should be prepared for some slow, steady work ahead of us.

Gardener: And we couldn’t accomplish the same thing over the long-term by just focusing on our own communities, being good models for those around us, and evangelising our neighbours that way? Won’t that alone do the job?[76]

Turnau: Not really. Of course evangelism and being a godly model is necessary for witness to individuals. But if we wish to truly influence the world around us as God wants us to, we need to look beyond individual witness, beyond our lives within our own communities. Culture is more than a collection of individuals. Sin distorts the lives of individuals through guilt and relational dysfunction, but it also distorts whole cultural fields through structural corruptions such as racism, economic injustice, and biased representations in media.[77] Cultural sin patterns are more than a collection of individual sin-patterns. These warped patterns resonate throughout a society in ways that can wreak havoc in obvious and subtle ways (as your modernity-as-acid metaphor implies). And where the effects of sin are pervasive and super-individual, we should expect the effects of redemption to be just as pervasive. Redemption is not just individual freedom from guilt, but cultural healing from corruption.[78]

Bottom line: Personal holiness, one-on-one evangelism, inner-church community building; these are all essential. But they are not the whole mission of the church. We miss addressing that collective level if we just focus on our own communities, turning our eyes inward, so to speak. I think the imaginative life of the whole society has to be part of that conversation.

Gardener: (Looking up at the dark clouds looming.) The future just looks so unpromising at the moment. It feels so hopeless, as if our best efforts would be just a drop in the bucket, and at the risk of our own cultural survival.

Turnau: Has it ever been otherwise, really? Complete redemption and reformation doesn’t happen in our lives or cultures. That shouldn’t stop us from trying to engage with our culture in redemptive and healing ways.[79] Things may not change drastically or overnight. But given the reality of a God who acts in the world by his Spirit, we can anticipate substantial change. We have hope. We cannot give in to councils of despair. Thinking about and acting for cultural and social change ought to be squarely on the Christian agenda, despite our own declining cultural influence. In short, we ought to be thinking about sin and redemption not just on the individual level, but in their effects on cultural/imaginative/social structures as well.

My fear is that if folks like you turn inward, that changes the character of the faith itself. It stops being so much about loving people (that is, people unlike us), and starts becoming all about protecting us and ours. I’m not convinced that Christ was really that into self-protection. He was more into self-giving, and trusting his Father for the results. If we are faithful in living and giving out into the culture boldly, I don’t think that Christianity is in much danger of evaporating. The more realistic fear is that it might wither and decay from within.

Gardener: So your vision isn’t an either/or, either strengthen our communities or engage culturally. You’re more a both/and kind of guy.[80]

Turnau: When I can be. So that’s why I said at the beginning of our talk that I agree and disagree. I agree that the church needs to do a better job at teaching, training, and mentoring Christians of this generation and the next. And I agree that pursuing intentional community and deep relationships among Christians must be part of the equation. I just don’t think that we need to disengage from the mainstream culture (even popular culture) to preserve our own Christian identities. Rather:

  • When we critically engage our culture, the Christian story comes more clearly into focus so that we can worship God better.
  • When we understand our holiness as a gift of grace, when we understand ourselves secure in God’s love, our Christian calling to love is strengthened. We can live out the holy love that we already have in Christ for the benefit of others.
  • When we understand that the two great loves – love for God and love for others – are not in competition, but rather they dovetail into each other, it frees us. We can move out into the lives around us, engaging culture to help us learn how to love others more wisely, gaining insight into how to be a healing presence in our wider communities.
  • When we understand contextualisation not as a threat to the gospel, but as a necessary part of sharing the gospel, the necessity of cultural engagement comes into focus as a part and parcel of good contextualisation.
  • When we understand that sin and redemption apply not just to individuals, but to larger cultural and imaginative structures as well, it becomes clear that we need to do more than evangelise and be godly examples. We need to focus on broader structures as well, including the imaginary landscape that shapes the cultural conversations going on.

Gardener: What? You’re not going to do the breaking-the-fourth-wall thing?

Turnau: Nah. It weirded out the Knight, so I decided not to.

Gardener: Yeah, it did seem a little self-consciously meta; something Abed Nadir would do.

Turnau: Wait. If you’re supposed to be unplugged from popular culture, how do you know Community?

Gardener: (Concentrates pointedly on weeding her dahlias while whistling an ancient Gregorian chant).

Scene III: The Member of the Loyal Opposition’s Dialogue

The scene opens in a rather plain, shared office in an élite international publishing house located in New York or London. They sell serious fiction and issue-oriented non-fiction, not paperback bestsellers. We find the Member of the Loyal Opposition[81] (hereafter MLO) squirreled away in a rather plain office. A fluorescent bulb buzzes softly from a recessed ceiling light fixture. The only decoration on the walls is his degree from a well-respected university, and a family portrait of him, his lovely wife, and his adorable twin moppets. The MLO himself is preoccupied reading galleys. He seems a bit harassed. After all, he’s in the middle of a busy day.

The MLO works in publishing, but he could be a young, tenure-track academic at another fine university, a junior associate at a prestigious law firm, a member of the public relations staff for an arts centre or metropolitan orchestra. In short, he’s the type who is going places (but hasn’t arrived yet) in culturally influential institutions.

MLO: (Looks up, notices Turnau for the first time.) Hello. Can I help you? (Remembers suddenly.) Is it time for our chat already?

Turnau: What are you doing here? I thought you’d be in the halls of Parliament or something?

MLO: It’s your metaphor.

Turnau: So it is. OK, then, what’s your deal?

MLO: Just as you see. I am trying to keep my head down and do my job to the best of my ability. I would prefer to stay centred on God, and if I can perchance make a difference in some small way, all the better.

Turnau: That doesn’t sound very ambitious.

MLO: (Frustrated, defensive.) Oh yes? And what’s the alternative? Consider how things have turned out when all the “ambitious” Christians take the reins. Have they changed for the better? I’d say not! As a social sector, Christians have become defined by our politics, our judgmental spirit, our censoriousness. We have thinned a rich and complex cultural matrix down to these political battles.[82] Or we have played turtle and hidden away in our little pietistic holy huddles while the world goes serenely to hell.[83]

Turnau: Sounds like you’ve been talking to the Knight and the Gardener.

MLO: Look, they are good people. But as far as strategies for how one is to be a Christian within a post-Christian culture, well, they are sadly misinformed. Though I do think much of what the Gardener said makes sense.

Turnau: Which parts?

MLO: How real Christian spirituality is eroded under the conditions of late modernity, and the need for spiritual formation, building up Christianity as a distinct culture, the need for intentional community.[84] That sort of thing.

Turnau: So what do you disagree with her about?

MLO: I disagree with withdrawal from the surrounding culture, even “strategically”. We need to stay involved, keep our heads in the game. But without illusions, you know? We’re not going to bring massive changes into our culture, especially not with politics.

Turnau: Tell me, then, what’s your alternative?

MLO: Two words: “faithful presence”. We Christians have overreached in the past. We thought we could change the world. Alas, we cannot, or at least, not as we had hoped. Rather, we need to recognise God’s faithful presence – incarnationally – to us in Christ. And by way of response, we should seek to be faithfully present first to God, then to each other, and to the world in whatever sphere of influence God has placed us. In this way, Christians practice a sort of incarnation, bringing God’s blessing to bear in small, incremental ways in all sectors of mainstream culture, working for the common good.[85] Just as Jeremiah told the exiles in chapter 29: pray and work for the prosperity of the city to which God has carried you.[86] We need to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16) where we are, the way Jesus wanted us to be. And if in being faithful and committed to the common good we cause good to happen within post-Christian culture, so much the better!

Turnau: (Gently mocking.) Sooooooo, I can’t help but notice that you’re a galley slave…

MLO: (Pointedly.) At an internationally known publishing house! This place produces works that routinely have a massive cultural impact. Our books reach cultural élites and thus shape the culture around us. Granted, I am not a captain of industry... yet. But I bring light where I can by practising faithful presence where I am.

Turnau: So working here gives you opportunities to share the gospel? Is that what you’re talking about?

MLO:  Yes, of course. But that’s only part of what I mean by being salt and light. By being a Christian within this industry, I can perhaps change things for the better in other ways. Cultural change happens through élite institutions and networks.[87] I have a certain area of respon-sibility and leadership, however small, and I can be faithful there. Cultural influence is “scalable”, you know.

Turnau: What do you mean?

MLO: It scales according to position and location within the culture. It’s not just for the big guns. Faithfulness in the little things can be as important in impacting a culture as being a captain of an industry.[88] Right now, I’m just keeping my head down, being faithful where I am, working for the flourishing of everyone.

Turnau: Can’t argue with the idea of being faithful to God and loving others where you are. But… doesn’t it bother you that a lot of those books, maybe all of them, argue for perspectives that are diametrically opposed to the Christian vision of what is good and true and real?

MLO: That’s not under my control. I’m just called to be excellent in what I do. Hopefully, if I excel at what I do, they’ll call me upstairs where I can wield more influence over decisions of what to publish. Will I be faced with compromises along the way? Sure, but that’s the price of admission, isn’t it?

Turnau: I don’t know. I think I’d be pretty uncomfortable being part of a project like “How to Succeed in the Abortion Business in 10 Easy Steps!”

MLO: Don’t exaggerate. We don’t get many outrageously ugly titles like that. Mostly our authors present interesting arguments which, while not necessarily Christian, are well worth engaging.

Turnau: But when you do get the odd objectionable title…?

MLO: Well, I don’t really have the wiggle-room to opt out, you know? I signed a contract. I’m a part of this business. I’ve promised to do my job faithfully, or I’ll be made redundant, and there goes my chance for cultural impact. That’s really the choice, isn’t it? Either be part of what’s going on in the culture (and so have a chance at being salt and light), or turn away from it and so seal your own exclusion (and lose any chance at being salt and light). I’d rather wrestle with these issues than sequester myself in some safe space where I will have no impact whatsoever. Or I guess I could choose to shout at those in the culture from the margins, hoping people will just change their minds.

In short, I would rather struggle and take my chances trying to be faithful within the power centres of mainstream culture than opting for having an easier time in a subcultural institution that has only marginal impact, like a Christian publishing house.[89] And if I do a good job here, I’ll rise up the ranks and my influence here will increase.

Turnau: As will the pressures to compromise, right? You only ever have so much leverage to work for change, what titles will or won’t get published. The higher you go, the more you’ll be tempted to conform to the prevailing corporate culture to maintain your position.[90]

MLO: Well, it’s not as if I must face temptation alone. I’ve got my church behind me. I’ve got friends there who also work in publishing. They keep me accountable and help me navigate the grey areas. We bounce ideas off each other. It’s a great support network.[91] And through it all, I know I’m at least working towards the common good.

Turnau: Are you? You keep talking about the “common good” and “flourishing”. Aren’t these terms very much up-for-grabs? Can we even define the common good in a post-Christian world?[92]

MLO: I get your point. In a fragmented society, common definitions and cultural meanings become slippery and open to debate. James Davison Hunter calls it “dissolution”.[93] People lose faith that words can truly represent reality, so common meanings fall apart.

Turnau: What he doesn’t mention is that things don’t just fall apart, but things fall together again into new patterns. Stories and cultural motifs shape the collective imagination, and that causes dissolved meanings to re-coagulate, if you will, to come together into new, distinctively post-Christian ways.[94] Think of an oil slick in a puddle on the sidewalk. Throw in a rock, and the slick breaks into smaller bits. But before long, they move towards each other and, gloop!, they’re back into a single slick, though perhaps in a different shape. The same happens with meanings within culture: they don’t stay perpetually scattered and fragmented. Under the influence of networks of narratives, songs, attitudes, images, styles, and so on, meanings come together and solidify into new shapes as well.

So when we start using crucial words like “common good”, “natural”, “freedom”, “flourishing”, “healing”, “wholeness” and “human rights” Christians don’t just have to navigate the dissolution of old definitions. They also have to contend with new post-Christian definitions as well. Things have not only fallen apart, but they’re coming together again in a way that leaves Christians on the outside.

That’s why I’m so interested in popular culture.

MLO: Wait, what? Your train of thought just jumped the tracks for me.

Turnau: I think popular stories, images, songs, games – what we call “popular culture” – form networks of human significance that can become a major force in shaping the collective imagination, and so steering social meanings.

MLO: Are you kidding? New electronic media and popular culture have done nothing but trivialise our lives together. Are you seriously asking me to take this collocation of the bizarre and foolish as worthy of careful consideration? Things like X-Men and superheroes, Thomas the Tank Engine, Harry Potter, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Bart Simpson? These are works that simply will not sustain analysis. They are subpar offerings in a world that worships mere entertainment, making the world ever more banal.[95]

Turnau: Not banal: the world becomes re-storied along different paths, including paths of entertainment. Entertainment at its best (or worst, depending on your perspective) elicits a quasi-worshipful response.[96] It’s a powerful and fascinating thing. Don’t sell it short. I mean, look at us! We are having this discussion in an imaginary movie script. Entertainment doesn’t have to be trivial. Furthermore, you can find a surprising amount of depth both in the works themselves, and in the imaginative investments the fans commit to those works. It may just be that “The geek will inherit the earth.”

MLO: Intriguing (I am studiously ignoring your pun), but it seems obvious to me that what happens in the élite circles of cultural power – the fine arts, academia, research institutes – has a more decisive impact over the long term.

Turnau: I won’t deny the influence of élite culture. But my point is that contemporary popular culture has the curious property of being both widespread and élite. These cultural pieces have a sort of grassroots appeal, but they profoundly influence the cultural conversation even among people at the very top. In so doing, they shape the imaginary landscape of the whole culture. In that sense, Hollywood and other centres of popular cultural production are élite institutions, at least in terms of cultural influence.

MLO: You’ll have to make that case. I’m still of the opinion that it is largely trivial.

Turnau: I will a bit later. But there’s one other thing that bothers me about this “faithful presence” strategy.

MLO: (Sighs, knowing what’s coming.) What’s that?

Turnau: It just seems really passive. It feels a bit like raising the white flag.

MLO: But it’s not surrender, not really. We may have to surrender our dreams of empire and sweeping reforms, but we continue to seek incremental changes, small improvements that please God by working faithfully for the common good.

Turnau: But is that enough when anti-Christian sentiment has grown to this extent? Did you remember that story back from 2001 in Bournemouth? A street preacher was attacked by a crowd simply for carrying a sign that some felt was intolerant (“Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord”). They beat him, threw dirt on him, and when the police arrived, they arrested the street preacher for inciting violence under the Public Order Act 1986.[97] The courts seem more and more stacked with judges who have a certain distaste for Christians, at least in the UK. Doesn’t someone need to speak out?

MLO: But if we just carry placards and shout, we automatically are shown to the exit from any cultural sphere that matters. I know I’d lose my job.

Turnau: Well, maybe it doesn’t fall just on you, but on your pastor, your councillor, the lawyers in your church, Christians working in arts and entertainment, and so on. Maybe just practicing faithful presence for the common good (a common good that no one is quite sure how to define) isn’t enough.

MLO: What do you propose, and how does it not end with Christians either being so obnoxious and triumphalist that we end up undermining our own cultural influence, or so defeatist that we throw in the towel and retreat into our walled gardens?

Gardener: (Off camera.) Hey!

Turnau: (Ignores her.) Pastor Vermon Pierre wrote a really thoughtful piece in which he said we need more than faithful presence; we need “faithful prophetic presence”.[98] We need to do more than keep relatively mum as we level grind[99] our way inch-by-inch into positions of influence by working quietly for the common good. Pierre looks to figures from the Bible as well as the American Civil Rights movement to give us a model of how a culturally marginalised minority can possibly change things over time. Faithful presence is necessary, but so is speaking up prophetically against the current system.

He describes three levels of faithful prophetic presence, three types of prophets: “Court prophets” are those who have attained places of cultural influence, like you’re trying to do in this publishing house. Consider Nathan, Isaiah or Daniel, in the Bible, and those who networked within the system to end racial discrimination in the Civil Rights movement. Court prophets sometimes have to compromise to stay “in court”. After all, Daniel and his friends learned the language and the culture of pagans. Their job was to give wise advice to the very king who had attacked and deported their people. They actively supported the system that oppressed them – that’s a huge compromise, some would even say treason. As you said, that’s the price of admission. Nevertheless, they were faithful to God within those positions. And sometimes, when their superiors crossed a line, Daniel and company had to take a stand. For current-day court prophets, taking a stand while working within the system runs the risk of being shown the door. Daniel risked the Lion’s Den, and his friends risked the fiery furnace; part of the gig.

“Wilderness prophets” (John the Baptist, Martin Luther King) speak from outside positions of power. They can be more direct and provocative. But like the court prophets, their outspokenness carries with it a great deal of risk. It cost John his head, and King was gunned down. But King’s voice was heard because he drew deeply from the Bible as he addressed the conscience of the American people for their good, as well as the good of African-Americans. He didn’t represent a special interest group, and he never took a bitter or angry tone. He spoke as one who loved even those who opposed him, but without letting them off the hook. He was, as Pierre says, “aggressively gracious” rather than Pharisaically judgmental.

Finally, “exile prophets” (Ezekiel, and in the Civil Rights movement, Pierre mentions James Baldwin)[100] are those prophets who speak mostly to the community in exile. Ezekiel’s job was not to confront the mainstream cultural powers-that-be. Rather, he was called to stir the marginalised people up to faithfulness, to love, and to wisdom in a difficult time.

MLO: Hmmmm. So you have in mind something more, erm, pointed than simply being faithful to God and working for the common good where we are.

Turnau: Pointed, and generative (as Fujimura defines it).[101] Not just argumentative, but something self-giving, generous of spirit, embracing and vulnerable. Something that opens a path to conversation and reconciliation.

As important as faithful practice is, there are times when we need to intentionally speak up prophetically, imaginatively, for the common good (as God defines it, biblically) whether in court, in the wilderness, or in exile. These three levels of prophetic witness could come through any number of media: direct verbal address (speeches, interviews, sermons), but also more indirect and creative ways as well (song, image, story, film, game). Because we believe in God’s common grace, that God is still active in the world restraining sin, preserving truth and goodness, allowing beauty to take root and flower, we are still called to bring our faith to bear on what we do in the cultural arena. The cultural mandate as a prophetic witness still stands.[102] Our faithful presence within culture should be marked with a “holy impatience” to see the flourishing of Kingdom shalom spread throughout culture through our cultural works,[103] even as we take the long view, our sight stretching to future generations.[104]

MLO: Sounds risky. It’s seems as though it would be awfully easy to fall into triumphalism once again. What’s the end-game?

Turnau: Not theocracy, certainly. But certainly a society in which our cultural idolatries and self-destructive tendencies are softened, blunted. Culturally-active believers should serve as leaven to lighten things for everyone. Perhaps all these prophetic elements could work together to change the cultural narrative somewhat, or at least add a new leitmotif, a new voice to the conversation. And that could have a marked impact on restructuring the imaginary landscape.

MLO: I’ll have to think more on this.

Turnau: Well, do it in the next scene. This shoot’s on a tight schedule.

[End Part One – Begin Intermission Music].