Engaging the What? (VII)
The Abstract Name with No Unity
In the last installment, a couple of weeks ago, we took a look peek at what Herman Bavinck called the “circles of culture.” By way of brief review, Bavinck designated this definition of culture in this way: “Culture in the broadest sense…includes all the labor which human power expends on nature.” This “nature,” in turn, has a twofold aspect: “[I]t 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. 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.”
We might find ourselves in disagreement with some of Bavinck’s particulars, but this explanation far exceeds anything offered by the PCA’s byFaith (why do they spell it this way?) magazine and at least gives us a working definition of what “engaging the culture” entails. Moreover, we need to keep in mind that Bavinck was intimately involved in the rise of Neo-Calvinism in the Netherlands in his time and spent a great deal of time as a churchman, theologian, and political statesman analyzing the phenomenon of culture and giving a biblical response to it. This constitutes a great advantage for us as we read him because we are dealing with a biblical scholar of almost unsurpassed quality. He not only theorized about the application of what Scripture says in the culture, but he was actively involved in a great deal of “hands on” work.
So what are we dealing with, according to Bavinck, when we discuss the culture and how to engage it? It’s his contention that “modern culture is an abstract name for many phenomena, and forms no unity at all. Not only are there innumerable factors which have contributed to its development, but it is also in the highest degree divided in itself.” He goes on to say, “everywhere, and in all domains, in politics, social economy, art, science, morals, instruction, education, there are parties, tendencies, and schools which stand in opposition to one another; the realms of justice and culture, church and state, faith and science, capital and labor, nomism and antinomism, combat each other, and proceed on different principles.”
Politics, for example, mans that when Christians “engage” culture, they ought to have a particular biblical platform in mind. When I say this, I’m not attempting to dictate that Christians vote Republican, Democrat, Independent, or Green. It does mean, however, that the platform of the party must coincide with biblical principles. Therefore, it should not be acceptable to any Christian if his or her political party contains an acceptance of abortion on demand or embraces the homosexual lifestyle as a viable alternative to the traditional family. This is just as much a part of engaging culture as an art exhibit or a jazz quartet
This being the case, we must be very guarded and circumspect when we admonish others to engage “the” culture. In a very real sense, “the” culture does not exist. We ought not to give the impression that we are talking about a monolithic entity that is easily understood and dealt with. In point of fact, just the opposite is the case. Culture is in flux and consists “of an extensive group of various phenomena” that remains unfinished. When we, therefore, encourage others to “engage the culture” we need to be fully cognizant that “nobody can say whither modern culture will lead us; one can surmise, guess, speculate, but there is no certainty at all.” This appears to be a more realistic approach rather than rushing headlong into some type of cultural engagement where the Christian is ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the task and gets mauled by culture or, worse, absorbed by it.
In other words, once we start walking down this path, we have no certitude where we will end up. This ought to pose a real complication for pastors who continue to urge their respective congregations to engage culture. Surely, at the very least a candid warning should be issued. Our time is rife with lack of biblical knowledge. It would seem more prudent to provide a solid biblical foundation for life, to help others develop a biblical life and worldview regarding God, man, society, knowledge, truth, and ethics, and to give some clear-cut guidelines what we mean when we encourage others to engage culture. I’ve heard the phrase, “engage [the] culture,” but not the explanation, and the latter is desperately needed. When Bavinck asks the question: “Who is blind to the defects which attach to our modern culture or to the dangers to which it exposes us?” he expects a sentient answer. Unfortunately, those today who could provide a satisfactory reason or satisfactory reasons to Bavinck’s questions would be few and far between, which makes the wholesale encouragement to “engage the culture” so dangerous to the 21st century Christian.
For far too many today are indeed blind to cultures defects. Discernment among many modern Christians is in the toilet as is their knowledge of the contents of Scripture, their prayer life, and their use of the means of grace. How many Christians today watch material that is spiritually unhealthy on TV, at the movies, or on HBO that is quasi-pornographic, if not downright pornographic? Culture is not neutral. It is not some entity that is in equilibrium neither favoring nor demeaning Christianity. Culture is sinful and having atheist painters and composers at the opening of your PCA church plant does not make you the sharpest knife in the drawer or the wisest church planter or pastor. Bavinck notes that “There are phenomena upon which a very different estimate is placed by many of our contemporaries from that placed upon them by the gospel of Christ.”
The question that demands an answer, therefore, is: How many modern Christians are able to make that distinction? In 1994, David Wells published a book entitled God in the Wasteland. He reminded us that “Until modernity was ushered into our world, cultures were always local. They were, by definition, sets of meanings and morals, beliefs and habits that arose in specific contexts of history and religion, a people’s social organization and place in the world.” Now, he argues, culture “must be able to be present everywhere while denying ownership to anyone in particular. It can be exclusive to no one…And its thinness reduces life to clichés—the same clichés everywhere, served up with the same fast food, the same music, the same blue jeans and T-shirts, the same movies, the same consumer impulses, the same news. It is a generic culture, this culture of the television age, of asphalt, advertising, uniformity, and waste. And those who feed on it, those who live by it, become generic people who also are thin, who stretch far and wide and belong nowhere in particular. They are, in the deepest sense, the ‘homeless’ of our modern world.” In his 1998 book, Losing our Virtue, Wells warned of dangerous evangelical “dalliances with culture.” Those encounters or dalliances became increasingly treacherous as churches became more and more enamored of “the community church” idea. There was a common thread or element that made modern churches particularly susceptible to the deleterious aspects of culture that was concentrated in the fact that modern churches were, in general, “all operating off methodologies for succeeding in which that success requires little or no theology.”Far too many modern Christians are bereft of biblical knowledge, insight, maturity, discretion, and discernment. Having been fed a steady diet of “you don’t need any theology” or “theology is for those who waste their time in cemetery,” modern Christians are now encouraged to rush out and engage the culture. How? With what? The short answer is: with precious little. If Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren are the best modern Christianity can do, with their non-existent exegesis and horrible principles of interpretation, then the solution to the problem of sin—oops! There’s that word we don’t like to use again!—is to rush out and buy an electric car and have our houses fitted for wind and solar energy. By the way, do Mr. Obama, Ms. Pelosi, Ms. Clinton, Mr. Kerry, Mr. Kennedy, or any governing authorities touting wind and solar energy have those devices in their homes? Nope. None of them do, and they never will. Neither do ole Bri and Wallis. But it sounds so good to tell others to do it, doesn’t it? It is kind of like “engaging the culture.”
 Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, (Henry Dosker; Nicholas Steffens; & Geerhardus Vos [trans.]), (
 Ibid., 249.
 Ibid., 251.
 Ibid. Emphasis added.
 Ibid., 252.
 Ibid., 253.
 David Wells, God in the Wasteland, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 9-10. Emphasis added.
 David Wells, Losing Our Virtue, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 33.
 David Wells, Above All Earthy P’wers, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 265.
 Cemetery here serves as a pejorative term for seminary.
Labels: Bavinck and the Culture