How to Engage Culture like Augustine of Hippo

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Augustine of Hippo was an early Christian theologian and philosopher who lived during the later years of the Roman Empire. One of his most famous books was titled City of God, and it reveals to us some lessons about Christianity and culture. [1]

Augustine wrote City of God just as the Alarics and the Goths were attacking Rome. The Roman intellectuals and common people scrambled to interpret this event, to make sense of it, in much the same way that Americans scrambled to make sense of the 9/11 attack. Many Romans concluded that the real reason for Rome’s fall was not the Alarics and the Goths, but the Roman gods who were taking revenge because the Roman people had embraced Christianity.

As Curtis Chang has noted, the Roman intellectuals’ interpretation of Rome’s fall was political, religious and philosophical. [2]

  • It was political, arguing that the Romans had abandoned their founding story (Romulus and Remus) in favor of the biblical story of the world.
  • It was also religious, arguing that the Romans had abandoned their gods in favor of Christ.
  • Finally, it was philosophical, arguing that the Romans had rejected Plato’s philosophy in favor of the Christian belief that God came down to earth, took on a human body and was crucified and rose from the dead so that we could be reconciled to God.

On the backdrop of these three arguments, Augustine received a letter from Marcellius, a Christian who was well known among the culturally powerful and elite, asking for help in answering the Roman intellectuals.

Augustine responded to Marcellinus with a letter that is now published in the form of a 1,000-page book, City of God. He argued that the Roman intellectuals’ interpretation was wrong, and that all three of their arguments — political, religious and philosophical — were wrong. Augustine was well prepared to respond to them; he already had taken the time to understand their political, religious and philosophical beliefs and was able to respond immediately and compellingly.

His basic move was to point out that the Romans were not at the center of the universe. God, through his Son, Christ, is at the center! He showed how the story of Rome’s rise to power was really only one small story in the midst of a much larger story of God creating the world and then responding to the world’s sin by sending his Son to save us. He explained that Rome (the greatest city in the world at that time) wasn’t even an eternal city. There were only two eternal cities, which he called the “city of God” and the “city of man.”

Each city has a basic love — either God or idols. Each city is symbolized in the Bible by an earthly city — Jerusalem and Babylon. Each city has a telos or end goals — eternal life or eternal death. In making his argument, Augustine not only drew upon his deep knowledge of the Bible and Christian theology, but also used Roman literature, philosophy, politics and history to make his points. He referred to their great authors and celebrities and quoted them favorably when possible, but he also showed how they fell short of Christian truth.

  • Significantly, he argued that Rome was an unjust city politically. This was a particularly biting argument, because Romans viewed their city as being founded upon just laws. But Augustine showed that all of their talk about justice and law served only to conceal what they really loved, which was dominating other people.
  • He unmasked their religious pretensions, showing that the Romans had never really believed in their gods; even their best religious historians didn’t believe in the gods.
  • He unmasked their philosophical shortcomings, showing how the deficiencies in Plato’s philosophy could be made up for only by Christianity.
Augustine interpreted the Bible masterfully and interpret his cultural context skillfully.

What can we learn from Augustine? Four significant lessons stand out:

  1. Be ready.
    Augustine was ready when the challenge came. He had spent a lifetime reading and learning, and he was prepared to give a compelling answer when one was needed.
  2. Think critically about culture.
    He was able to recognize both the good and bad in Roman culture, and to use both the good and the bad aspects to help him point to Christ.
  3. Connect the Bible to culture.
    Augustine was able to interpret the Bible masterfully and interpret his cultural context skillfully. As a result, he could diagnose Rome’s disease and use the Bible as a surgeon’s scalpel to lay bare the disease for all to see.
  4. Use your creative abilities.
    He wrote City of God with such power and beauty that it has become an enduring component of culture.

In other words, Augustine was a culture maker.

In what ways do Augustine’s insights on cultural engagement challenge you in your everyday activities?

This post is a modified excerpt of Dr. Ashford’s new book, Every Square InchLearn More>>

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[1] The best abridged edition for contemporary readers is Augustine, City of God, ed. Vernon J. Bourke, trans. Gerald Walsh, Demetrius Zema, Grace Monahan, and Daniel Honan (New York: Image, 1958).

[2] Curtis Chang, Engaging Unbelief: A Captivating Strategy from Augustine and Aquinas (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 200), 66-93.

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Bruce Ashford

Bruce Riley Ashford is the author or co-author of six books, including 'The Gospel of Our King' (Baker, 2019), 'Letters to an American Christian' (B&H, 2018), 'One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics' (B&H, 2015), and 'Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians' (Lexham, 2015).

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