Bring on the Robots: Gregory Thornbury on Cultural Engagement

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In Christian circles we often hear one of two things regarding the ever-changing culture. Some say we should batten down the hatches and endure this hopeless culture until the Lord returns. Others view culture as an outside force that we are looking in on, trying to strategize how to jump in and out of for the sake of ministry.

But what if culture is something different altogether? What if you are not looking in from the outside but already in the midst of culture?

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary recently hosted Gregory A. Thornbury, president of King’s College in New York City, during the Carver-Barnes Lecture Series. Thornbury gave two lectures over a span of two days on this topic of culture.

While Thornbury said he was all for cultural engagement and figuring out good ways to share the gospel, he made a point that many of us seem to forget. Culture is not an out-there thing we are trying to figure out. We are instead “suffused” in culture in our every-day lives.

Consider this thought from Thornbury:

When people say, ‘I want to engage culture,’ sometimes I want to say, ‘Guess what, too late, culture has already engaged you. You are soaking in it.’ To pretend that you are outside of it and that it’s something that you can sort of bomb in and engage piously and triumphantly is maybe not going to get you much of a hearing with people who are a part of culture.

So what would Thornbury suggest for Christians who genuinely want to spread the message of Christ in today’s culture? He offered a few insights into our role as shepherds in our culture — and how we can be better at this role — in his lecture, “Cain, Abel and Kanye.

Culture has already engaged you. You are soaking in it.

1. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice because he made the most of his culture.

Why did God accept Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s? Some believers say Abel’s sacrifice was a prefiguration of the sacrificial system. Others say God knew the condition of Cain’s heart. Thornbury, however, presented a different understanding based off of research into rabbinic and historical Jewish commentaries.

Cain and Abel were profoundly aware of the curse of Adam. The ground is cursed. What’s going on here is that Cain merely accepts the curse as a given. He’s working to toil the ground. Abel on the other hand knows how to deploy sheep…If you actually know what sheep are good for, they are excellent for toiling the ground and eating up the thorns and thistles and they keep a pasture fertilized so you have a much bigger crop.

According to this argument, Abel didn’t just grudgingly accept his lot in life but instead used technology to fulfill his responsibilities. Thornbury explains,

He refuses just to accept the bad news of the curse of the fall. He figures out a way to fulfill the cultural mandate, the creation mandate by employing sheep as a new technology.

This, in turn, introduces shepherding as a theme in how to rule God’s people:

For the rest of scripture, the shepherd motif is the thing that is lifted up and valued by God as the way to rule. Abel sits back and watches the sheep work.

So what God values about Abel’s sacrifice is not that he preferred lamb to vegetables but that Abel figured out a way to expand the kingdom.

2. An anti-technology mindset hinders gospel witness.

Many in evangelical circles have a negative perspective on technological and economic development. They wring their hands and blame technology for propelling us closer to the apocalypse. Thornbury asks a different question:

Why can’t we say as Abel did that there is a way for us to work smarter and less and better and at the same time try to conform the soul to objective reality? So what I want to say to you is—bring on the robots! Let’s be open to these sorts of things.

By shunning what is good about technological innovation and cultural enhancement, Christians miss the opportunity to engage with people in the culture:

People who adopt this anti-shepherd motif can find themselves in all kinds of sticky situations and oppose themselves to good aspects of culture that might actually lead people to thinking about the creation mandate and the cultural mandate in the book of Genesis.

So let’s appreciate what’s good about our culture—technology, the arts, all of it. Let’s support and engage people as we experience and enjoy the good things about the culture we all share. These steps could provide an open door for the gospel.

3. We should emulate Kanye West’s cultural advancement.

Stick with us here.

As Thornbury said many times in his lecture: “This is just a thought experiment.”

What many people know about Kanye West comes from his Twitter tirades or his infamous interruption of Taylor Swift at the MTV music awards. However, Thornbury presented another side of the famous musician who (as it turns out) is constantly developing and learning, trying his best to be innovative in our culture.

Here is someone who is absolutely obsessed with developing different brands, starting new businesses or giving back to his community…and on and on it goes to where you step back and you realize there may be a reason why the Art Institute of Chicago would want to give an honorary doctorate to Kanye West for this insights into the future of the arts.

Thornbury points us to the driving force behind what Kanye seeks to accomplish:

If you go back and look at his acceptance speech, the Twitter Kanye fades into the background and he talks in a much more humble manner about his intense desire to learn everything and do everything he can possibly do while he is still alive.

So what does Kanye have to do with evangelical Christianity?

Thornbury went from talking about Kanye to giving examples of Protestants in history who developed the infrastructure of the economy we live in, people who felt obligated to take the talents God has given them and do as much as they could for the world. In light of this, Thornbury asked:

Do we have people like that on our team right now?…My concern and my worry is that maybe this deep wonderful mysterious doctrine of grace that we love and is absolutely fundamental to the gospel…could it be that the insistence on grace has taken away that drive to actually engage and develop culture.

Could it be that the insistence on grace has taken away that drive to actually engage & develop culture?

Take a moment to ponder that statement. Like Thornbury said, it was just a thought experiment—something to help us think outside our normal boxes of cultural engagement. How might this affect the way you seek to share the truth of the gospel with those around you? How might your strategy change to expand your reach to more people in our culture?

These are good questions to ask and will generate many different answers. One thing we can remember: In our quest to reach this culture for the glory of God, let’s not forget to be stewards of the gifts and talents He has given us. Let’s appreciate the world He has created. Bring on the robots, and let’s not shy away from glorifying God through our innovations.

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Harper McKay

Harper McKay is a news and information specialist at Southeastern Seminary. She enjoys writing, editing and telling stories about what God is doing around the world. Harper and her husband live in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where they attend seminary.

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