Engage the Culture? Don’t.

by Aaron D. Wolf

Do you engage the culture?  Are you culturally relevant?  If not, then how can you say that you believe in sharing the Gospel?  Or didn’t you know that “lost people matter to God”?

I hear this a great deal, in the broader evangelical world, and now more than ever it is making an appearance among Lutherans.  It’s a point of view that’s nothing to trifle with, because at its core is a bold accusation of sin.  And such an accusation brings with it a burden of guilt for faithful pastors and congregations who, by the standards of some unhelpful voices in the Church today, are less than culturally relevant.

Spoiler alert: I’m neither ordained nor called to the preaching ministry, but I do have the canonical authority to absolve sins that aren’t real.

You’ve heard the old maxim that “he who frames the question wins the debate.”  Well, what we’re dealing with here is the wrong set of questions.  Yet we keep asking them because, I think, there is great confusion as to what exactly we mean by “culture.”  This confusion is nothing new, but as with all things that burble out of our dying civilization, it inevitably crept into the Church, disguised as an undeniable truth that we dare not contradict.

The ancients and medievals did not speak of culture the way we do.  For them, culture meant cultivation, a term that had to do with farming (agri-culture!).  As with all such words, it was lent to abstraction, and so they naturally went from the cultivation of crops to the cultivation of gods.  Hence, the Cult of Athena, the Cult of Apollo: the means or methods of propitiating a deity in order to reap certain rewards or benefits.  Call it “your best life now.”  (For further reading, check out the Large Catechism’s explanation of the First Commandment.)

What we now refer to as culture was properly called civilization, a catch-all for a distinct set of social institutions that reflect the values of a people.  Culture is only a means to an end, and that end is civilization.  Every society has means by which it teaches people what’s important, what it considers to be good.  There is no art for art’s sake; culture always conveys something.

I won’t bore you with all the details, but suffice it to say that the confusion of culture and civilization was somewhat deliberate and involved philosophers with names like Spengler.  Kultur was “becoming,” which meant change and development and creativity and life, und zivilisation was mere “being,” which meant stagnation and death.  (One recalls the oxymoronic term “dead orthodoxy.”)  An ever-evolving society and “progress” are the fruit, so it was argued, of Kultur.  This mode of thought came to dominate intellectual circles, and, by the mid-20th century, H. Richard Neibuhr, in his highly influential book Christ and Culture, would simply say that culture is what we used to call civilization.

Lost in the dust of all of this confusion is a fact: The Church is a civilization unto herself.  Her members belong to a city whose builder and maker is God.  Of course, in this life we are also citizens of the earthly city or kingdom, what Luther calls God’s “Kingdom of the Left Hand,” and these two kingdoms, the right and the left, interact, no matter what fictional “wall of separation” we dream up.  But they remain distinct.  And obviously, the Church has her own “values” or “virtues,” those things she wants to cultivate in her citizens—in a word, the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.  If that’s the end, then the means are Word and Sacrament.

Presumably, then, what we would desire as Christians would be for all men to “engage”—that is, participate in or interact with—our culture.

Given these realities, what could we possibly mean by saying that the Church needs to “engage the culture”?  Culture of what?  Our Western and American civilization has become an anti-civilization that cultures or cultivates barbarism.  The spiritus mundi has its own agenda and its own means by which to accomplish it.  Is there wisdom to be found in it that the Church does not already possess?  (“Surely some revelation is at hand,” says the poet.)  We must know what the words mean: To engage the culture is to participate in the cult of barbarism.

Yes, but didn’t St. Paul engage the culture?  Was he not “all things to all men”?  Certainly, Paul wished to eliminate every obstacle to Christ, but the defining word in the famous 1 Corinthians 9 passage is weakness—as in “to the weak I became weak.”  The Apostle to the Gentiles restrained his enjoyment of the freedom he had in Christ, by Whom he was made “free from all,” for the sake of weak sinners in need of the Gospel.  The weakness of those to whom Paul was bringing his “culture of preaching” (as a wise man once put it) was the product of sinful culture, the cults of Judaism and paganism.  Paul did not validate these cults by refusing to eat meat that was not kosher or offered to idols.  Quite the contrary: He refrained from suggesting to the ignorant that Christians “engage” what is unclean or diabolical.  And what was “culturally relevant” to these dear souls was not their error but the forgiveness of sins, which freed them from the constraints of a false understanding of the good (touch not, taste not).

Paul confronted and defied “the culture” and the false values it cultivated, as do you, faithful pastor and flock when you attend to the Word and Sacraments, the culture of preaching, the mercy of Christ.  What else can I say to you, then, but ego absolvo te?

Aaron D. Wolf is a member of the LCMS and associate editor of Chronicles.

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