Christianity and culture: balancing attack and defence

Jun 11, 2019 by

A review of ‘Plugged In’ by Daniel Strange, by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.

In England the football season has ended; cricket is in full swing with the World Cup currently being contested; Wimbledon is just around the corner. These and other sports have many things in common, not least the need to balance defence and attack. Sport is a (theoretically) friendly imitation of more serious pursuits such as politics and war, and here again the same principle applies. In all cases, success depends on being able to preserve one’s assets against enemy assault, while at the same time knowing when and how to go forward, take territory, score goals, runs, points, and hopefully win, mindful that a draw is better than a defeat.

Is this relevant to Christian life and ministry? Most orthodox Christians would agree that there must be an aim to win individuals, communities and society over from allegiances to wrong thinking and false gods to Christ. The result matters.  But just as there are differences between football managers and batsmen in their approach, so it is with Christian leaders: some emphasise defence, countering threats and preventing defeat, while others focus on attack, pressing to win. Some read the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy and focus entirely on liberation and entering the promised land, others notice first the threats to God’s people from disobedience, idolatry and hostile nations. Some read the New Testament very aware of the warnings about false teaching, sinful behaviour and spiritual powers and principalities, while others are primarily encouraged by the love of Christ compelling us towards gospel preaching, church planting and good works.

This partly depends on personality and life experience; also on spiritual gifts and flaws. The more naturally pessimistic person may need to be challenged to have faith, like Joshua and Caleb not like the ten who said “it can’t be done”. But also as in any sport there needs to be a realistic assessment of the strength and strategy of the enemy. Many prophets down the years have confidently and complacently assured God’s people of continued peace, security, even growth, without appreciating the power of Babylon, Rome, Goths, Vikings, Nazis, Communists, Islam, or how God’s sovereignty can be reconciled with these apparent disasters for the church.

Should the church be optimistic, and press for growth in contemporary Western culture? In a new book called ‘Plugged In’Dan Strange argues that we should. Strange lectures and is on the leadership team of Oak Hill College, at which conservative evangelicals train for ordained ministry in Church of England and other denominations. He begins his book by giving a helpful overview of the meaning of ‘culture’ from several perspectives. All Christians should be interested in this: we all live in a culture, not in a bubble; we are called to be distinctive disciples, rather than those who blend in with our surroundings; we are called to reach those who believe in the culture’s myths and idols with the gospel of Christ, rather than simply criticising it.

In the chapter ‘the story of culture’, Strange outlines the biblical gospel message. Adam and Eve were called to be builders of culture, and this remains the divine mandate to humanity. But sin causes culture to be corrupted, and this idolatrous and rebellious environment in turn begins to shape human beings. Christ came to save the world from ruin: not just individuals, but eventually to be enthroned as Lord over a new culture. In the meantime, “Christians are engaged in a cosmic culture clash, but the key to winning…is to know your opposition and have a strategy”. There it is – the military/sporting analogy – and the focus on attack rather than defence.

Strange uses a section from Romans 1 to explain the dynamic of how individuals, and the culture as a whole, suppresses knowledge of God and substitutes idols. This can make life difficult for Christians who are tempted to join in with destructive and dishonouring behaviour. How do we know what’s right and wrong? An extended worked example on what kind of TV programmes and films are appropriate for Christians to watch is used as a way of establishing biblical principles for engaging with culture without succumbing to its poison. That, perhaps, is ensuring a good defence. But then, going on the offensive means engaging positively with unbelievers on the ground of shared cultural references, like Paul did in Athens – what Strange calls “confront and connect”. The gospel subverts the wrong worldview of the culture, and then fulfils the God-given longings which the idols of the culture cannot satisfy.

So just as Paul entered the Athenians’ world, exploring their ideas and exposing their flaws before evangelising, so should we. An extended example of how this might work in engaging with people obsessed with football illustrates the point. The book closes with four short pieces adapted from student essays, applying some of these techniques to it has to be said somewhat oddball subjects.

And this is where the book ultimately disappoints after promising much. Having laid the theological groundwork very well about culture in rebellion against God, infected by evil, but redeemable, Strange curiously avoids the obvious examples of this in contemporary Western culture. He even takes the passage from Romans 1:18ff to explain what happens when a culture turns away from God, but completely ignores Paul’s example of how this plays out in practice in terms of sexual immorality and gender confusion. Given the all-consuming nature of the debate on sexuality in the church and the increasingly pervasive and controlling LGBT agenda in society, this seems like avoiding a rather large elephant in the room.

Perhaps Strange is very keen to avoid the caricature he sets up early in the book, of the critic who is “huffy, red-faced at finger-pointy at the culture…an ugly judgmentalism…a rant on morality”. but in doing so he gives the impression that while theologically he believes in the seriousness and pervasiveness of sin, in practice the church’s engagement with culture should so avoid any accusation of negativity that it will never critique or warn in ways that might provoke opposition or persecution, or offer a completely alternative cultural vision. ‘Plugged in’ provides a good theological and theoretical basis for Christian engagement with culture, and helpful guidelines to help Christians to evangelise their friends by finding a link between their interests and the gospel. But for me it does not take seriously enough the hold that certain powerful ideologies have on the culture and on all of our lives, and what the church needs to do to ‘name the powers’ and preserve its distinctive identity when under major threat.

Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option (summary here) gives a different, more negative analysis of the culture and a different solution: accept that for the moment, the opposition is much stronger than we are; create a strong defence to ensure the preservation of basic Christian faith and disciplines in local communities; prepare for persecution while continuing to reach out with the gospel in love; look forward to the eventual triumph of the lamb whether we see signs of it in our own day or not.

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