“Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.”
So said Andrew Fletcher, an 18th-century Scottish politician (who was himself paraphrasing the 5th-century Greek philosopher Damon of Athens). He went on to observe, “We find that most of the ancient legislators thought that they could not well reform the manners of any city without the help of a lyric, and sometimes of a dramatic poet.”
In Plato’s Republic, in which he casts a vision for the utopian state, he spends just one paragraph on money and economics and nearly forty pages on music and what we might call “matters of the heart.”
We do not live in ancient Greece or 18th-century Scotland, but the underlying wisdom of these ancient legislators remains unchanged: Politics is downstream of culture.
This statement goes against some of today’s conventional wisdom. Many people see culture as imitating rather than dictating contemporary politics. Today’s arts certainly reflect contemporary politics, and there is undoubtedly a chicken-and-egg scenario at work.
At the same time, take any controversial or progressive agenda frequenting today’s political discussion, and you will inevitably find it espoused in arts and entertainment that predate it. Hollywood and the creative arts were shaping public opinions on sexuality, immigration, and gender identity long before laws were passed on the issues or politicians recognized the cultural currency they could gain by espousing popular views from the campaign trail.
In a simplified sense, politics is a reflection of a culture’s beliefs and values, not the catalyst for them. A politician is accountable to people who are largely shaped by their culture. And the arts shape and cultivate that culture. Politics establishes laws, but culture influences hearts.
Why does this matter for Christians? Because it is not just politics that is downstream of culture. Arguably everything is downstream of culture. Each time we enter into the world as representatives of Jesus, we engage with people whose worldview, values, and governing philosophies have been relentlessly influenced by the culture.
Evangelism is downstream of culture. Or perhaps it’s better to say the stream is culture. As “fishers of men,” we toss in our fishing line and wait for the current to bring us a catch. By the time those fish reach us, they have been marinating in the cultural stream, letting it sink into their pores and work its way toward their heart. Thus, Christians have a vested interest in understanding the cultural stream. Let’s look at three reasons why culture matters.
- Understanding culture allows Christians to reach more people with the Gospel.
In order to communicate the Gospel effectively, it is often important to understand the conflicting narratives rooted in an unbeliever’s life. Only Jesus saves, and the Holy Spirit can burst through any intellectual or emotional barrier. But the fact that such power belongs to God alone does not excuse us from responsibility. Churches offer evangelism training not because pastors lack faith in God’s saving power but because they desire to equip and prepare people for the task. A superficial spirituality (“It’s not about me; it’s all about God! I just show up and let Him do the rest!”) can actually justify laziness. After all, if it’s not about us, then we might as well binge Netflix every evening instead of wasting time on meaningless study or practice.
- Understanding culture helps Christians better comprehend the world they’re called to reach.
If you want to know what the culture will look like in 15 years, just look at what pop culture is pushing today. The arts and entertainment industries normalize and popularize ideologies. The LGBTQ debate is a good example. Whereas sitcoms portraying a married couple waking up in the same bed was once shocking and progressive, now the sight of same-sex couples kissing on a children’s TV show is commonplace. Cultural norms have obviously shifted, and much of the change is due to the entertainment industry’s desensitization process. Ideologies presented through the medium of well-crafted entertainment will always be more persuasive than a fiery lecture or sermon.
It was partially for this reason that author C. S. Lewis was motivated to infuse his fantasy novels with Christian themes and allegory. He was not necessarily trying to convert child readers. Rather, he wanted to normalize spiritual truth so that when those readers encountered similar truth as adults, they were already familiar with the beliefs. Which brings us to….
- Understanding culture helps Christians know how to contribute to it.
Christian entertainment has long been a cultural punching bag for both unbelievers and Christians. It is no secret that many faith-based films leave much to be desired. I don’t want to further dunk on these films (and in the last few years, this unfortunate narrative has started to change). But besides inexperience or low budgets, one reason Christian films have often failed is simply because they are out of touch with the culture.
I define culture as the arena in which society’s governing and orienting narratives are established, debated, and spread. Culture is a hub for ideas, an ongoing dialogue in which contrasting worldviews are shared, debated, and challenged. Christians have much to contribute to these discussions. But Christian art is often like children who interrupt their parents not to join the conversation but to hijack it and talk about something that interests only them. If Christians want to contribute to the cultural conversations in meaningful ways, we must first listen to what is already being said.