“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
An early theologian named Tertullian asked this question in the 2nd century, and it continues to echo today. At the time, Jerusalem was the center of the religious world, and Athens was the epicenter for culture and the arts. A modern paraphrase might be, “What has Hollywood to do with the Bible Belt?” Or, more broadly, what does the realm of entertainment and the arts have to do with the Church and the Christian faith?
For Tertullian—and many Christians since—the answer was nothing. A great chasm exists between the two worlds and the wider the better. While the Church must be ever vigilant to avoid Hollywoodization, this aggressively combative posture is not only short-sighted but also unbiblical.
Christians are called to be culture changers, and they cannot accomplish their goal from the outside looking in.
In the World
What did Jesus mean when He commissioned His followers to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:16)? One obvious meaning is “to the ends of the earth.” But does that interpretation encompass all He meant? A “nation” is far more than a geographical categorization. When we speak of America, we reference more than the landmass sandwiched between Canada and Mexico. We are referring to a mindset, culture, and way of life. We say, “I’m proud to be an American,” not because there is anything special about the dirt but because we value freedom and liberty.
When Jesus uttered a commissioning prayer for His disciples, He said to His heavenly Father, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). God the Father sent Jesus to take the Kingdom of God to the very heart of the existing culture. While never sacrificing the truth of His divine nature, Christ willingly recontextualized Himself, leaving the glory of heaven to take human form.
Earlier in that same prayer, Jesus said, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Soldiers don’t need protection while on home leave. They need protection while serving on the front lines. Jesus never intended for His followers to isolate themselves from the world. In fact, He sent them right into the heart of the culture to be salt and light in places that desperately needed more of both.
Setting the Scene
As Christians, we sometimes think of our evangelistic calling in a solely individualistic sense. We spend years fostering a relationship and then, when the time is right, we share the Good News of the Gospel and ask for a response. During an age when organized religion is viewed with increased skepticism (if not outright hostility), this method remains a powerful and effective way to communicate the hope that we have in Christ.
At the same time, the Church should not turn a blind eye to the influence the larger culture has in framing and directing these personal evangelistic conversations. Christians have a tendency to be reactionary, standing downstream of culture and waiting for any fish to navigate through the perilous rapids of pop culture and society before we attempt to engage as “fishers of men.” But by the time the fish arrive, their minds are already filled with conflicting worldviews and beliefs. Consider the following:
Last year Star Wars featured its first lesbian kiss, The Marvel Cinematic Universe included its first openly gay character and revealed that Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie will be the first LBGTQ hero in the upcoming film Thor: Love and Thunder. Not to miss the boat of the ongoing sexual revolution, the sexual identity of Harry Potter’s bearded mentor Dumbledore is slated to continue playing a key role in the upcoming Fantastic Beasts sequels. Taylor Swift added to the conversation with her award-winning song “You Need to Calm Down,” which painted anyone who upholds a traditional view of marriage as angry, outdated, and dim-witted bigots.
Rapper Eminem surprised the world by unexpectedly dropping his new album Music to Be Murdered By, using his first single to take a firm stance on the issue of gun rights. At the Golden Globes, actress Michelle Williams used her acceptance speech to praise the beautiful freedom of having an abortion and was met with cheers and happy tears. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women altered the ending of Alcott’s beloved novel for a more feminist portrayal, star-studded Bombshell probed issues of toxic masculinity and the #MeToo movement, controversial Joker sparked countless questions about society, mental health, and authority, and the Oscar nominations triggered countless clickbait headlines on racism and sexism. In the athletic realm, superstar NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers spoke out against religion in a recent podcast.
Shaping the Culture That Shapes Us
All of these examples, and many others, paint the cultural canvas in which we live. As Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” People are shaped—for better or worse—by the world around them. The Church can be vigilant at keeping the world’s influence at bay, but they cannot—or at least, should not—keep people at bay; and any time Christians relate to people, they come face to face with the influence of the world.
We may not want to keep up with what is happening in pop culture because “it’s not really our thing,” but let’s not forget that the Christian life involves more than just us. For Christians to fulfill their commission to be “in the world,” we need to do more than merely exist. If existing as physical beings on planet Earth was all that mattered, Jesus would not need to send us into the world.
As Christians, we have a role to play in influencing the culture that is shaping both us and the people we are called to reach with the Gospel. It is time for the Church to go beyond just condemning or bemoaning the culture and to start working toward changing it.