Christians and Culture: A Proposal image

Christians and Culture: A Proposal

Two days ago, I looked at the thorny question of how Christians should think about, and engage with, culture, and explained that the four approaches sketched by Tim Keller in Center Church were extremely helpful. I know they blur important distinctions - all categories do that - and that they produce some unlikely bedfellows (Crouch and Rushdoony, Hybels and Maclaren, and so on). But their usefulness, in my view, outweighs these objections, and I was encouraged to read that Jonathan Leeman, in his superb (and in places, robustly critical) review for 9Marks, agrees that this is the highlight of the whole book. Today, I'm going to sketch Keller's constructive proposal, which I find extremely helpful, even if amusingly and almost self-parodyingly centrist.

First, a quick summary. Keller describes the four main models for Christian engagement as follows. Transformationists aim to see a Christian worldview permeate, influence and transform all of culture. The Relevance model looks to learn from the world and be shaped by the insights and developments of the culture. Counterculturalists understand the church as a direct, prophetic challenge to worldly powers. And the Two Kingdoms model sees believers as citizens of the common kingdom (with all humanity) as well as of the redemptive kingdom (with the church), with different responsibilities in each. Again, notwithstanding his conflation of very different groups into big categories, his overview is extremely helpful, and similar to the frameworks used by Niebuhr, Carson and Hunter. For Keller, all four approaches have some great strengths, but all have substantial weaknesses as well, when held up against the scriptural material.
The differences between the four approaches, he argues, essentially amount to the answers they give to two questions. Firstly, should we be pessimistic or optimistic about the possibility of cultural change? And secondly, is the current culture redeemable and full of common grace, or fundamentally fallen and lacking common grace? Your answers put you in one of four places:
- If you are very optimistic about cultural change, and believe culture is mostly good, you will probably use the Relevance model (seeker-sensitives, emergents, mainliners, liberation theologians).
- If you are very optimistic about cultural change, and believe culture is mostly fallen, you will probably use the Transformationist model (neo-Calvinists, the Religious Right, theonomists, reconstructionists).
- If you are very pessimistic about cultural change, and believe culture is mostly fallen, you will probably be a Counterculturalist (neo-Anabaptists, New Monastics, Anabaptists, the Amish).
- If you are very pessimistic about cultural change, and believe culture is mostly good, you will probably subscribe to the Two Kingdoms model (whether in its Lutheran or Calvinist version).
So where is Keller on those two questions? And the answer, obviously, is: in the centre. (I can’t bring myself to spell it wrongly). There are reasons to be hopeful about cultural change, but also to be cautious. There are strong signs of common grace in society, but strong indications that it is lacking as well. So Keller proposes sitting in the middle of both axes, with a realistic view of cultural change, and a realistic view of the fallenness and redeemability of the world. However, although that sounds almost exasperatingly synthetic and potentially half-baked, he does not leave it there. He goes on to explain the major strengths of each view, and what we need to make sure we learn from them, in order to retain a sense of biblical balance.
From Transformationists, he argues, we need to learn the importance of distinctive worldview: doing all of life in a distinctively Christian manner. Many Christians who work in politics, arts, academia and the media can feel ignored, misunderstood or even abandoned by the church, largely because leaders may not know how to equip them to do their jobs in a Christian way. This, in the group of churches I am a part of, has been the focus of the Everything conference in the last few years. The earth is the Lord’s, we are rightly reminded, and everything in it.
From the Relevants, we need to learn the importance of doing acts of justice and mercy for the common good. Christian engagement with the world has often been perceived (sometimes rightly!) as a “strings attached” deal: we’ll give you food, shelter, education or healthcare, so long as you convert to Christianity. Relevants are a provocation in that they seek to bless people materially whether they respond to the gospel or not. No doubt this can go too far, and it sometimes has, but the primacy of the love-command in the teaching of Jesus is incontestable.
From Counterculturalists, we can learn that the church is intended to be a contrast community and a sign of the future kingdom. Jesus’ approach, they rightly contend, was not to launch people out to overthrow the empire, or reengineer the cultural institutions. Rather, he formed a community in which the kingdom of God could be seen, and not merely talked about, to show people what it looked like. The individualism of much of the Western church is helpfully challenged by the more communitarian focus in this model.
And from the Two Kingdoms approach, we can learn the importance of pursuing humble excellence in our secular work in a way that can be seen by everyone. Our vocations, in this view, carry great dignity, irrespective of whether they are potentially culturally transformative (writing plays, editing newspapers, making films, debating policy) or not (cleaning windows, fixing pipes, filing medical records, selling dental supplies). In this model, all work is good, and can be done in a God-honouring way. Yet at the same time, the unique role of the church in preaching, discipling and administering the sacraments is preserved.
I find that assessment extremely helpful, to be honest. Of course, there are areas where, in an effort to be completely even-handed, I think Keller skews things somewhat; I am not sure we need the Relevants to pursue mercy or justice, nor the Two Kingdoms model to work with excellence, for example. His decision not to engage with the question of pacifism, violence and the state, while understandable, does leave something of an elephant in the room when it comes to vocation, and I’d be fascinated to hear how his “Center” approach would work in a binary situation (“should a Christian ever kill people?” being an obvious example). Nonetheless, his analysis is thoughtful and well-written, his key chart is astonishingly clear and helpful, and his basic point - that there is a middle ground that incorporates the best of all the approaches - seems intuitively correct. It’s certainly helped me navigate the cultural-political fog.
For the detail, the logical argument, some good illustrations and (as I say) a killer chart, you’ll have to get the book. But failing that, you may just want to consider his different models, and how they can help you think through your engagement with the culture. When you’re done, with any luck, you should know what you’re supposed to do about gay marriage.


Andrew is now on Twitter as @AJWTheology

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