How to Engage Culture as a Christian

Peter Armstrong | OnFaith Voices By on

Richard Niebuhr’s seminal work Christ and Culture was the most-discussed book during my time as a student at Fuller Seminary. It showed up on nearly every class reading list and was a constant source of conversation — for good reason. In it, Niebuhr provides both a description of and prescription for followers of Jesus to engage their culture.

Years later, I still find myself looking back to Niebuhr’s words, particularly being a pastor in New York City, a place full of art and culture. That’s one of the reasons I love doing ministry here — not just because I can engage the art, but also the artists. I try to take the time to listen to their work and identify the questions and longings behind it.

But we need to be reminded that we bring our Christian worldview with us when we enter the doors of a museum and a concert hall. If we are to live out the “Christ transforming culture” model that Niebuhr espouses, we have to be fully engaged. We have to reflect deeply. We have to ask hard questions, even of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Lately I’ve been reflecting on three pieces of “Christian art.” The forthcoming record Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, Lecrae’s new record Anomaly and the recently released film Left Behind. Stay with me, and I’ll show you how each one has something to teach us about how Christians should engage art.

We need to look for signs of the Kingdom in every song.

On a recent Wednesday night at the 92nd Street Y, longtime Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis interviewed Aretha Franklin about her forthcoming album. It was the first public preview, and I was placed on the guest list because of a connection I have to Mr. DeCurtis. After the interview, the audience was invited to submit questions. I asked Aretha what affect growing up in the church had on her career.

She told stories of traveling around with her father, the Rev. Dr. C.L. Franklin. They would tour city auditoriums — she would sing and Dr. Franklin would preach. Gospel music has always been in her veins. She told us how she learned how to truly believe in a song, how to sing it as though souls were at stake. She said she never left the church, but that at the age of 18, she decided she wanted to sing all kinds of music. I don’t know all the intricacies of her journey, but she implied that while she never left the church, the church left her.

When we engage the arts, we must remember that the church has a long history of supporting those on “our team” and excluding those who are not. Aretha has had an incredible career — named the greatest singer of all time by Rolling Stone — but too often Christians have stayed in our silos and missed out. We are much better off when we look for signs of the Kingdom in every song that is sung.

People listen to the gospel if they respect the messenger.

Which brings me to Lecrae, the Christian hip-hop artist who’s had a particularly good past few weeks. His album Anomaly debuted on September 23 and was the best-selling record in the country. It was the first time an album topped the Billboard 200 and the Gospel Albums chart. I recently bought the album and listened to it a number a times. It is good art. The production is incredible. It is mixed well. The lyrics are at times poignant, at times challenging. Lecrae raps about issues ranging from abortion to abuse to immigration, all interesting aspects of our culture that we are called to engage.

But he also does something that you’re not supposed to do in our current cultural climate: he evangelizes. In “Messengers” he raps the following:

How will the people know if we don’t tell ’em?
If we fail ’em
They’re stumbling in the dark
But the light is what we carry
Don’t have to wonder your purpose
Or what you’re here for
Reflect [God’s] image
And show the world what He cares for.

I was shocked — in a good way — when this album premiered at #1. It must be, in part, because he has earned the right to be heard. He’s an incredibly talented artist. You don’t sell hundreds of thousands of records to other Reformed Christians. It’s clear that Lecrae is reaching across demographic, ethnic, and religious lines. People are listening to the gospel because they respect the messenger.

There’s a time to be discerning toward “Christian art.”

And then we come to the new film starring Nicholas Cage, Left Behind. Across my social media platforms, I’ve seen some friends who are curious and excited to view it. I’ve seen others who are dismayed and confused. One went so far as to say, “I have found being a Christian at times confusing, compelling, challenging, awkward, even tragic — but I have never found it so thoroughly embarrassing.”

Not having seen the film, I hesitate to comment on it. But knowing the reckless theology that went into the books, I’d urge you to vote with your dollar and pass it up. Just as there is a time to reject the darkness of our culture, there is a time to be discerning toward our brothers and sisters. When Christians hear about a Christian film, they naturally want to support it. My mentor once called the Left Behind book series, “Everything wrong with American Christianity.” I’ll be saving my money for the Aretha Franklin record, and I hope you will too.

Taking Niebuhr’s models seriously, even 63 years later, gives us opportunities to engage the culture in constructive ways. There’s a time to repent and learn, a time to celebrate, and a time to reject. All of this is part of our role as stewards and producers of culture. These are some of the most important questions we wrestle with as urban Christians.

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OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.

  • bakabomb

    Back in the day, we made a point of taking our youth group to see movies that were panned by orthodox pastors: first “The Life of Brian” and then “The Last Temptation of Christ”. Yes, we also went to “The Passion of the Christ”. In every instance, the experience provoked vigorous discussions afterward that challenged and rewarded us.

    I’ve been a pipe organist for decades and also played keyboard in a heavy-metal Christian band. Nothing is more subjective than art, and I never thought much of the notion of people insisting on passing it through a theological filter before rendering a judgment on it.

    In just a few weeks we’ll have the opportunity to compare and contrast the artistic merits of “Left Behind” and “The Good Lie”. I’m looking forward to that discussion, and so is our young folks’ group.

  • maggie galalgher

    Oh gee, telling people not to see a film you haven’t seen. Really? What is that but the same weird exclusionary model? I have seen it. It’s not bad and its not great. I think it’s important to encourage Christians to make art and I expect frankly most art will be mediocre. Even the greatest novelist in the world usually wrote mediocre novels too.

    Left Behind is a solid B movie. Be not afraid, go ahead and see it. if the idea appeals. I’m a Catholic so the theological intricacies we are rejecting in rejecting left behind novels (which I have not read) kind of leave me behind. The movie suggests strongly the Bible is real, there is a God, human love is real but we often fail in it and poses (at the end) the problem of building community as civilization collapses. I will say I will go see the next one and expect to enjoy it and think about some real stuff as a result. Not bad.

  • maggie galalgher

    But if you want to see a really fine Christian film, see Calvary.

  • Michael C

    As people move up the social scale, they tend to make culture their religion, the classic case being the devotees of opera composer Richard Wagner, who referred to Wagner as “the Master,” with him gladly cultivating the cult around himself and his music. The high-end churches today are pretty much the same. Following a Sunday service at an upper-crust Episcopal church, you’re more likely to hear a discussion about the choir’s rendition of Mozart’s Gloria than about the sermon – if anyone even remembered the sermon.