In 1998, at the age of 24, I left the United States for the first time in order to become a university English instructor in Tatarstan, a predominantly Muslim republic in a Central Asian corner of Russia. I had never traveled farther west than San Antonio, farther north than the tip of Maine, farther east than Nags Head (North Carolina), or farther south than Miami. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of cultural wedgies the next two years were for me?
My first week in the country, for example, I was introduced to a special drink called “kuhmis,” which my buddies told me “will taste a lot like an American milkshake.” And truly, it was white and frothy just like a vanilla milkshake. But it turns out that it was white and frothy because it was fermented mare’s milk. At some point in history, an entrepreneur had decided to milk a horse, allow the milk to rot, and then bottle it as a delicacy. Later that week, I also was served fish gelatin for breakfast.
But before long — culinary oddities aside — I was immersed in a cultural context that was a mixture of Eastern European and Central Asian, and which had been shaped in various ways in the past by Sunni Islam and Soviet communism, and more recently by global capitalism and postmodernism. These religious and ideological influences shaped everything in the culture, including the arts, sciences, politics, economics, education, entertainment, family life and even sports competitions. I found myself wondering what it would look like for me to live a faithfully Christian life in that particular context.
I wrote Every Square Inch as a little introduction for Christians who wish to live faithfully in their cultural contexts. It shows how all of life matters to God, and how every Christian can serve powerfully as a representative of Christ, even if he or she is not an international missionary or a pastor. It is meant to show that God cares not only about the goings-on within the four walls of a church building but also about the goings on in every corner of society and culture.
God wants us to take seriously our interactions in the arts (music, literature, cinema, architecture, interior décor, culinary arts), the natural sciences (biology, physics, chemistry), the social sciences (psychology, sociology), the public square (journalism, politics, economics, law), the academy (schools, universities, seminaries), sports and competition, and homemaking. Every dimension of our lives relates in some way to Christ and can in some manner be directed toward him.
God wants us to live every aspect of our lives in a way that is shaped by our belief that Christ is Lord.
Theology and Culture
In the space of two years in Russia, I began to realize even more fully the deep and resonant effects of religion upon culture, and vice versa. I was living in a social and cultural context that had been almost entirely devoid of evangelical gospel influence for generations. Conversations with many of my students revealed a deep skepticism about whether God existed, whether life had any meaning, and whether there are any moral absolutes. The institutions of this country — including its government, businesses, marriages and schools — reflected this deep sense of loss, this sense that its people could no longer believe in a God who endowed their lives with meaning and purpose or who gave moral law by which all people and institutions should abide.
During this time, I began to read books by Christian thinkers such as Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer and C. S. Lewis. (On my journey to Russia, I carried one suitcase of clothes and four suitcases of books.) What I read changed my life.
Abraham Kuyper lived in 19th-century Holland and served as prime minister of the Netherlands, founded a Christian university, started a newspaper and wrote influential books on theology, art, science and many other topics. His deepest convictions might be summed up in one sentence: Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and because of that fact, every aspect of our lives should be affected by the fact we are Christians.
If Christ is Lord, he is Lord over our work and our leisure, our families and friendships, our goings-on inside the four walls of a church building and outside those walls. He is not just the Lord over certain “religious” things, but Lord over art, science, politics, economics, education and homemaking.
Kuyper gave me my first insight into the fact that Jesus Christ is relevant to every dimension of society and culture, and that for this reason we should allow our Christianity to shape absolutely everything we do.
Francis Schaeffer was an American who lived in Switzerland during the middle of the 20th century. He and his wife, Edith, were known for starting a retreat center — L’Abri — which ministered especially to skeptics and freethinkers, and to those who were hurting spiritually.
Schaeffer was known for teaching that the Christian worldview — and it alone — could undergird the full range of human life. What a person believed about Jesus Christ affected that person spiritually, morally, rationally, aesthetically and relationally. What a society believed about Jesus Christ affected that society in all of its doings — economic, political, ecological and so forth. Francis and Edith’s ministry to seekers and skeptics took place in their own home (L’Abri was founded in their cottage) over dinnertime conversations, evening Q&A sessions and walks in the Swiss Alps.
From the Schaeffers’ ministry, I learned not only that Christ is Lord but that he is love. Their way of showing his lordship over all things involved showing his love to all people.
C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis was a British professor and writer who taught at Oxford and Cambridge during the middle part of the 20th century. In the scholarly world, he was known for his expertise in medieval literature. In the more popular realm, he was known as the professor who gave radio talks about Christianity during World War II and who wrote popular science fiction, children’s fiction and Christian apologetics.
In the years after his death in 1963, he would gain the stature of being one of the most influential Christians of the modern world. His writings remain on the bestsellers lists and continue in their own way to shape the world in which we live.
From Lewis’ life, I learned the powerful effect of Christians shaping their vocations in light of Christ’s lordship. Lewis was not a pastor or a missionary. He had a “secular” vocation as a literature vocation, and it was precisely in that vocation that he was able to speak about Christ and allow his Christian belief to shape his life and work.
As I read books by and about these three men, I began to find the answers to questions I had been asking for most of my life. Does my Christian belief “hold water” in the real world? Does it make sense out there in the real world of art and science, of politics and economics? Does my Christianity have any impact on my life other than church attendance, personal devotions and sexual ethics? How does my Christianity matter to my work and my leisure, to my community and political involvement?
From Kuyper, Schaeffer, and Lewis, I began to learn just how it is that Christ is Lord over everything, how Christianity matters for every aspect of life. I began to see how Christianity is relevant to every dimension of culture (arts, sciences, public square, the academy, etc.) and to all of our human vocations (not only family and church, but also workplace and community). As Christians, God wants us to live every aspect of our lives in a way that is shaped by our belief that Christ is Lord.
Aside from my conversion, that was probably the most profound spiritual awakening I have ever had, even to this day. In the years since then, I have slowly but steadily built upon the conviction that the Christian mission includes the outworking of the gospel in every dimension of a given culture, in every human vocation and across the fabric of human existence. Though I’ve read it or heard it quoted hundreds of times, I am still struck by Kuyper’s claim:
Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square in ch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’
In Pro Rege, Kuyper writes,
The Son [of God] is not to be excluded from anything. You cannot point to any natural realm or star or comet or even descend into the depth of the earth, but it is related to Christ, not I some unimportant tangential way, but directly.
God calls us to obey him and witness to him with the totality of our lives.
This article originally published on Jan. 11, 2017. It is a modified excerpt from Dr. Ashford’s book, Every Square Inch.
 Kuyper spoke these words during his inaugural address at the Free University of Amsterdam, which he founded. His remarks can be found in Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.
 From an excerpt translated by Jan Boer, You Can Do Greater Things than Christ (Nigeria: Jos, 1991).