How should Christians engage with culture? An Interview with Dan Strange
“Dan, I’m using an app which records our phone call – legally I have to ask if you’re ok with that.”
“Legally, I am,” came Dan’s wry response to my boring question. Within ten minutes the app had crashed and our phone call was cut off. Twice.
Earlier on I was celebrating our technological culture, in which you can download software to do just about whatever you want.
Now I was cursing it. After all, culture’s an elusive beast – a messy mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly.
That said, it set up our conversation well.
In it he encourages Christians to consider ‘cultural texts’ – things our culture has come up with, like Netflix, 24/7 gyms, Instagram, celebrity mags, the local pub, wedding fairs and the X-Factor.
He invites us to enter and explore the world that these creations present.
Where does it say hope can be found? In hundreds of likes? Or perhaps in a new body? What’s the worst-case scenario in this world? Being mediocre, or unhealthy, or animal-hating? Where are the areas of light and shade – ways it reveals or rejects God’s truth?
Ultimately, he invites his readers to see and explain how the gospel both connects with and confronts the world that any ‘cultural text’ presents us with.
And I wanted to probe him a bit further.
Q: Can a ‘cultural text’ ever be all bad?
In the back of my mind, I’m thinking: Is there any light in, say… Tinder, or Grand Theft Auto?
“Any ‘cultural text’ which Christians should avoid will be idolatrous. But idols are like parasites on the good. They take a good thing, remove God from it and repackage it as something else. So even the most depraved piece of culture will be some distortion of something good and God-given.”
So Tinder, for example, is a space where people are looking for connection and love. God designed us to do this. But casual hook-ups, or even long-term relationships, can never fill the God-sized relational hole in our lives.
Grand Theft Auto follows the pattern of God’s world in how it offers reward for skill and savviness. But this twisted and perverted virtual world offers rewards for skilled robbery and rape.
The stories that cultural texts like Tinder or Grand Theft Auto tell are twisted accounts of God’s design for wholeness and human flourishing. They are works of dark fiction.
But, Dan continues: “In every cultural product, there’s some suppressed truth, some traces of grace – no matter how twisted it’s become, no matter how deeply it’s been buried.”
To engage in culture well, we have do the digging. And sometimes it’ll mean digging deep.
Q: Can a ‘cultural text’ ever be all good?
Think, shiny, clean-shaven Christian musician, pumping out another Christian-country album, whose proceeds feed the poor. But Dan was equally sceptical.
“The problem with some Christian cultures is that they’re sentimental. Christian sub-culture has to demonstrate that we live in a groaning world.”
The world isn’t shiny (or clean-shaven, for that matter). And nor are we. Even good cultural texts which tell a true story about the world will still be describing a world that’s broken.
“Any cultural text which acts like we’re in the new heavens and the new earth now is fake.”
Q: How can we engage with culture without sinning?
Tough question. Dan treads carefully.
Speaking about Christians playing fast and loose with the sins that our culture celebrates, he quotes John Piper.
“We can’t thrust the spear back into Jesus’ side, as if his death doesn’t matter. By engaging with culture, we must never encourage anything which leads Christians to sin.”
It reminded me of the time I wanted to write an article on Love Island. By episode two I had to decide which I loved more – cultural engagement or the Lord Jesus Christ.
“But if we think of our non-Christian friends as people who are stuck in quicksand, pulling them out might sometimes involve the possibility of getting our legs splattered.”
It’s a nice metaphor. Ultimately, Dan’s aim in his book is to equip everyday Christians with the tools to engage the culture their non-Christian friends are consuming. So that they’d see that Jesus is what they’re looking for.
No, we shouldn’t sin. Our consciences can help us, but they’re not infallible guides. Wisdom should be applied. But here is our opportunity to connect the true story of Jesus with the fiction people are consuming.
The stakes are high; they’re eternal.
“After all, the world isn’t going to become less sinful if we lock ourselves up at home. We need to engage it for the glory of God and for the sake of lost people. Like the apostle Paul in Athens in Acts 17, we are to walk around and look carefully at our culture’s objects of worship.”
Q: Are there any idols lying behind many, or most, of our culture in the UK?
I had a few ideas in my head as I asked the question – money, sex, power? All of which Strange name-checked. He had a few thoughts about our national sentimentality – a lesser well-known member of our cultural idols.
But what he said next really made me sit up.
“While all this is true, it’s also true that we take for granted how great an influence our Christian heritage has had, and continues to have, on our culture in the UK.”
He asked if I remembered the Sepp Blatter case from a few years back. I did – the corruption and bribery on the inside of football’s international governing body.
“Wasn’t it interesting how the British journalists were up-in-arms about the scandal? That doesn’t come from nowhere.”
He’s right. It comes from a system of ethics which owe far more to the God of the Bible than to anything else.
“While they’re blurry, and getting blurrier, these are the glasses through which we still read cultural moments like this – and this is something we need to point out. It’s an encouragement.”
It is. It was also encouraging in itself to hear a leading figure speak so highly of cultural engagement. When many Christians down-play culture, Strange’s language was liberating.
At one point, he encourages Christians to “go explore the world.” Isn’t this also what God himself calls us to do in the opening chapter of his word? (Genesis 1:28-29)
What more encouragement do we need?