“Engage the culture.”
It’s what Christians are continually being told we need to do more. We need to look to our culture and use it creatively to reach our lost friends, family members and society at large. After all, if we can make music as catchy as what’s on the radio or movies as spectacular as Hollywood’s, then we will have won the culture wars; people will come for the party, but stay for the substance. At least that’s been the theory. Unfortunately, this has only lead to “Christian culture” being a stuffy, retooled version of styles that used to be trendy. Christians need to stop thinking in terms of engaging an already-existing culture and start thinking in terms of creating culture.
By trying to emulate what secular culture provides us with, we come across as hackneyed copycats. When we take what the world has produced and just change the words or themes, we come across as unimaginative or, worse, charlatans. Additionally, even if we could reproduce secular culture in a purely Christian way, it takes time to do so. By the time we have caught up and “Christianized” a portion of popular culture, we are too late and the fad has passed, so we look behind the times. Examples of this sort of copycat culture abound. Whether it’s GodTube (a Christian YouTube alternative), Faithbook (the Facebook copycat), or the myriad of cheaply made and poorly acted “Christian” movies, they all can give Christians a bad name. They leave us looking uninspired and unoriginal – which is not at all a good representation of the almighty God we serve.
So why do we keep beating this dead horse? Why not try another route? Unfortunately, our actions betray one of our deepest and even subconscious beliefs: we don’t trust in the power of the gospel. We feel that, although we believe in the gospel and in the Bible, others won’t unless we make it “more appealing.” We hope that by making ourselves look and sound more like the world, they will listen to us and be saved. However, the gospel is what they need, and seeing what Christians are really like through the culture we create is a simple way of spreading that gospel. We don’t need to put on these masks to appear like the world; we need to create our culture without worrying about what the world may think.
Culture is what happens when we come into contact with God’s creation and cultivate it – whether in music, film, politics or other spheres of life. Instead of looking to the cultivation of the world and mimicking it, we need to sow our own seeds and reap a culture that is all our own, one that is inspired by our walk with Christ and our faith in Him. When we do this, we will have a vibrant, creative, light-giving culture influenced by our faith that will be noticeably different from the secular culture of today. It may not be what the other kids are doing, but that’s what will make us unique, which is what God asks of us (2 Cor. 6:17, Rom. 12:2). When the Israelites were told to build a temple for God, they did not look to surrounding nations and simply one-up them. They created a temple that matched the specifications God laid out for them. They made something entirely new, and that’s how we can approach the idea of culture.
J.R.R. Tolkien did this excellently. This Catholic author wrote about a fantasy world which he created in painstakingly vivid detail. In that world, good characters abided by Christian moral values, evil characters did not. From romance, to action, to interpersonal relationships, the themes were all, at their core, influenced by Christ and his gospel. Tolkien didn’t copy what others were doing; he created a Christian artifact of culture, in the fullest sense of the term. No one else was writing about elves, hobbits or magical rings, and yet what he did resonated and has influenced secular culture even today. He turned the tables; instead of Christians trying to emulate the world, the world has tried to emulate this Christian.
While there are a few Christians creating culture in the public sphere—like, for example, Twenty-One Pilots—there simply aren’t enough. If we can focus our efforts on creating culture by encouraging creativity and the arts among our congregations and in our homes, perhaps Christians will have the capacity to create truthful, beautiful, grace-filled culture again. Until then, our cultural copycats will continue to be resigned to the B-list.
Tami Gomez is a part of the Center for Faith and Culture’s mentorship program.