Engaging the What? (V)
Culture in the Broadest Sense
In his Stone Lectureship series at Princeton, Herman Bavinck pointed out that “Culture in the broadest sense…includes all the labor which human power expends on nature.” In this sense, all of us participate in “engaging culture.” But Bavinck continues and qualifies his remarks in this manner: “But this nature is twofold: it includes not only the whole visible world of phenomena which is outside man, but also, in a wider sense, man himself; not his body alone, but his soul also.” This being the case, David Wells comments that “the issue that has emerged…is whether evangelicals will build their churches sola Scriptura or sola cultura.” That is to say, we can get so caught up in dealing with, engaging “the culture” as an objective entity containing art, music, literature, TV, movies, and the like, that we forget or neglect the ideational view of culture.
Wells’ question is all the more pressing in light of what he chronicles about the modern evangelical church abandoning biblical truth for other, edgier accoutrements such as drama and liturgical dance. Why has this phenomenon occurred in modern Christianity? No doubt, there are a number of valid reasons, but Wells puts his finger on the pulse when he asserts, “But the largest factor in this internal change, I think, was that evangelicalism began to be infested by the culture in which it was living.” It will be interesting to watch what transpires in the next while as our country and its economy go through some very difficult times. I say this because I’m convinced that the type of theology that has been prevalent in the United States since at least the mid-1970s can best be described as “soft.”
Along with the loss of masculinity among men in general, there has been a concomitant loss of masculine Christianity as well. I suppose we can blame part of it on feminism and political correctness, but in the final analysis the fault is ours. Far too many Christian leaders have been unwilling to stand in the gap for their respective congregations and have allowed a flood of unbiblical nonsense and claptrap to deluge their local congregations. Unwilling to stem the tide of a wide variety of unbiblical ideas and ideologies, they opened the spigots failing to realize that once you do that you cannot tell the water where to go.
Thinking that culture was something only external, the soul of the Christian and non-Christian alike was neglected. It was deemed chic to be acquainted with Renoir, van Gogh, and the one artist we insist on calling by his first name: Rembrandt (van Rijn), and we failed to take the spiritual dimensions of culture into account. It is one thing to know who these artists are, who Telemann, Corelli, Tartini, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Miles Davis are, but it is quite another thing to acknowledge up front that “The faculties and powers which man possesses have not been acquired by him, but are given to him by God; they are a gift of nature, and these gifts are a means for cultivating the external world, as well as an object which must be cultivated.”
In other words, there are two great circles of culture. To the first circle “belong all those activities of man for the production and distribution of material goods, such as agriculture, cattle-rearing, industry, and trade.” By and large, in the 21st century engagement of culture, the production and distribution aspect has been neglected. If, for example, pastors are concerned to “engage” the culture at this point, we might expect to find more writings on Presbyterian and Reformed social ethics and certainly a better and broader understanding of basic economic principles among those pastors. Unfortunately, few possess such understanding.
The second “circle” gets the lion’s share of the “engaging the culture” attention these days. It “includes all that labor whereby man realizes objectively his ideals of the true, the good, and the beautiful, by means of literature and science, justice and statecraft, works of beauty and art, and at the same time works out his own development and civilization.” While some truncated attempts are being made today in this area, it all seems so one-dimensional and stereotypic. If byFaith magazine is any indicator, church plants seem to believe that art exhibits, jazz quartets, and classical music will draw a crowd. Bavinck, on the other hand, wrote extensively on a much more comprehensive explanation of a biblical life and worldview.
In the recently translated work, Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, the interested reader will find articles on “Christian Principles and Social Relationships,” “On Inequality,” “”Trends in Pedagogy,” “Of Beauty and Aesthetics,” and “Ethics and Politics,” just to mention the most salient. That aside—but needing desperately to be addressed in our time—the questions that must be asked as we engage culture are: Whither culture? and What are our aims or goals as we engage culture and the culture despisers of Christianity?
Bavinck was convinced that “nobody can say whither modern culture will lead us; one can surmise, guess, speculate, but there is no certainty at all.” There might be voices of criticism with a view to where modern culture is heading or taking us. Concerned voices might be raised about the immorality of modern culture and its relativism, existentialism, postmodernism, and nihilism, but precisely where it’s heading—and taking many Christians in its maelstrom—is at best a crap shoot. Sure, there are “trends” and sign posts along the way, but the journey can be a lot more dangerous than one might think initially. Pastors need to warm their congregations to be quite circumspect when it comes to dabbling in some facets of modern culture. The Hollywood sub-culture is highly ideological and the medium contains a clear message.
The second question has to do with what we intend by engaging our culture. Are we prepared to present Christianity’s cultured despisers with the unvarnished truth or would we prefer to soft pedal it, not wishing to offend their sensitivities? At what point, if any, are we prepared to tell them what Presbyterians believe? This does not mean that we should be cultural Philistines, but it does mean that when we engage the culture, we should hold to the concept of the “antithesis” vis-à-vis the pagan and Christian notion of culture.
If pastors are hot to trot to get their congregations to engage culture, there had better be some industrial strength training and “accompanied confrontation” to ensure that the Christian does not get absorbed into the culture and ends up calling him or herself a Christian all the while living and acting like a raw pagan. This can be done, of course, but one does have to wonder how much time this would take away from more important gospel considerations. In Bavinck’s day, he could ask, “Who, for example, defends the materialistic tone, the mammonism, the alcoholism, the prostitution so prevalent these days?” Today, our answer could very well be: a number of people in Southern California, the majority of our politicians, along with a bevy of sundry actors, actresses, and hip-hop artists. Oh yeah, I left out the high school and college students.
Granted I’ve exaggerated somewhat, but the undeniable point is that we are not as adept as engaging the culture as we might think. There is a need for Christians to be more actively involved with culture and cultural matters, but there is also a danger in getting so involved in the culture that we end up looking, thinking, and acting like it. We certainly experienced that in the mega-church where the music tended to be purely secular with some sort of “Christian sauce” poured over it. It doesn’t make raucous music Christian by saying Jesus’ name every two or three words. By the same token, by having a jazz quartet play a Stan Getz selection prior to a worship service, by no means sanctifies the music.In our next installment, we’ll follow Bavinck further as he clearly lays out what this involvement—or, to use the modern term, “engagement”—with culture is.
 Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, (Henry Dosker; Nicholas Steffens; & Geerhardus Vos [trans.]), (
 David Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), p. 4.
 Ibid., 8.
 Bavinck, TPR, 249.
 Ibid., 250.
 Herman Bavinck, Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, (Harry Boonstra & Gerrit Sheeres [trans.]), (John Bolt [ed.]), (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). This work is a translation of Bavinck’s Verzamelde Opstellen op het gebied van godsdients en wetenschap, (Kampen: Kok, 1921).
 Bavinck, TPR, 252.
Labels: Bavinck and the Culture