CDs and threw his arms wide open to any and every bit of envelope-pushing secular culture he could ﬁnd. He started smoking—ﬁrst cloves, then cigarettes, then pot—and especially relished lighting up when he was around more conservative fellow graduates of his evangelical college. He got drunk at any party where liquor was on hand. He learned to cuss with the best of them. No outside observer would have ever guessed that Lance—painfully desperate to distance himself from his legalistic youth—was a follower of Jesus Christ.
But scriptural silence about the particularities of twentyﬁrst-century media habits is no reason to just throw up one’s hands and indulge in an “anything goes” free-for-all. Rather, it’s an invitation to think about the gray areas more deeply, to wrestle with them based on what Scripture does say and what we’ve come to know about the calling of Christians in this world. The gray areas matter. Christians have a tendency to approach secular culture from one of two opposite extremes. On one extreme you have Christians (like Lee) who separate from it completely, opting instead to hide away in an alternative “Christian culture.” They fear the corrupting inﬂuences of the secular realm and, out of fear (some of it well-founded), try to regulate it through legalism or else avoid it completely. The other extreme (the Lance type of Christian) emphasizes “arms wide open” Christian liberty and exercises little discernment in what, if anything, is unsuitable for Christian consumption. This approach—pretty widespread among my generation of millennial Christians—tends to overcompensate for the stiﬂing excesses of “hands off!” legalism but in the end is just as problematic for its uncritical embrace of things that are hardly worthy or edifying for the Christian life. In the introduction to the fantastic book Everyday Theology, theologian Kevin Vanhoozer writes, We must therefore do all that we can to resist two opposing temptations, each equally dangerous inasmuch as each compromises the integrity of the church’s mission. The ﬁrst is an uncritical acceptance of and fascination with the newfound religiosity and spirituality of popular culture. The second is to write off popular culture as one more symptom of sinful rebellion.1
In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis has plenty to say about “using” versus “receiving” art and culture. Using art, says Lewis, deprives us of the true beneﬁts we might enjoy if only we relinquished our insistence on control. “We are so busy doing things with the work,” says Lewis, “that we give it too little chance to work on us. . . . ‘Using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it.”2 Tragically, culture is frequently relegated to the “facilitates, brightens, relieves, palliates” realm. We use alcohol to soothe our nerves or to numb our pain, food to satiate hunger, movies to titillate, fashion to make a point, and so on. But is there more in culture to appreciate beyond these surface-level satiations? What can be discovered about the world, about the beauty of creation, if we dare go deeper into the gray? It’s a risk, going deeper—to plunge into the depths, the complexity, the potentially hazardous ocean of culture. But there are so many treasures to be found.
15 Books on Christians and Culture Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (1941) Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (1951) Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (1973) Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (1980) Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic (1980) Jeremy Begbie, Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts (2000) Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (2001) Robert K. Johnson, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (2000) William D. Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Pop Culture (2007) Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman, eds., Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (2007) D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (2008) Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (2008) James K. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Kingdom Formation (2009) Makoto Fujimura, Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture (2009) David O. Taylor, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (2010)
as an ingredient listing of consumer tastes and preferences. Regrettable though it may be, consumerism has become the front line of our witness, the outer layer of identity. Therefore, in this fast-paced, consumerism-as-social-mediaidentity world, we as Christians must be more intentional about being present, active, and critical in our consumer choices. People are watching. We are observed, processed, known through our consumptive habits. What message are we sending? We should also be passionate about engaging culture well because we want to know God more through his creation. We should live our consumer lives with the overarching goal of wanting to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8), understanding that God speaks to us everywhere—in food and drink, in melodies and rhythms, in the multiplex and the church sanctuary, on the beach or atop a mountain. Indeed, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1). We should be better consumers because at the end of the day, the very activity of consuming is an extravagant gift of God. We don’t deserve it. But we have it nonetheless. So let’s make the most of it.
Ways We Cheapen Consumption • By consuming solely to satiate temporary desires • By consuming as a means of escaping our lives, fleeing problems • By consuming too quickly • By consuming primarily as a status-marking activity • By consuming as a means of rebellion • By overindulging • By amassing “stuff” just to have more • By discarding things when bored with them
lend themselves to immediate and easy understanding. It takes time, effort, the development of taste, and a patient sensibility to get the most out of culture. Cultured Christians recognize the global impact of healthy, thoughtful consumption. They consider factors such as sustainability, fair trade, and the origins of the products they consume. Beyond trendiness, they take time to learn what “grass fed” actually means and why “locally grown” may be a good thing. Cultured Christians don’t separate the realm of culture from the realm of faith. They don’t pit their Christianity in opposition to culture or understand their faith as being uninformed or uninﬂuenced by culture. They avoid looking at things in terms of sacred/secular dichotomies, recognizing that common grace lends dignity to all manner of cultural activity—even while they recognize that common grace isn’t the same as saving grace. Cultured Christians recognize that there are good things within culture that, when recklessly received or abused, can become evil, but that in moderation, these things can still be good. For cultured Christians, moderation is key—moderation not in the sense of compromise or lukewarm tepidness but in the sense of knowing that the best of things often comes in small doses. Cultured Christians are not pendulum people. They aren’t always reacting against some bad iteration of the faith by going too far in the other direction. They embrace the stasis of the middle—the pendulum at rest—because it is in that nonreactive space where a true, deep, rewarding appreciation of culture can occur.
now is not what we were made for, that the world as it is only offers glimpses of the world as it is meant to be (and will be again, in the new creation). But within the bittersweet, keenly felt absences of the heart lies a stirring hope—an inkling that our present and future pleasures are linked, that the experience of great-tasting food, transcendent music, or beautiful images now is but a practice for our future enjoyments. As C. S. Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory, At present, if we are reborn in Christ, the spirit in us lives directly on God; but the mind and, still more, the body receives life from Him at a thousand removes—through our ancestors, through our food, through the elements. The faint, far-off results of those energies which God’s creative rapture implanted in matter when He made the world are what we now call physical pleasures; and even thus ﬁltered, they are too much for our present management. What would it be to taste at the fountainhead that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating? Yet that, I believe, is what lies before us. The whole man is to drink joy from the fountain of joy.4
the time to really dig in and do the work of being the best consumers of culture we can be, it will not only enhance our faith and witness but also glorify God. He’s the source of everything good, after all, and he makes everything good taste, sound, look, and feel all the more magniﬁcent.
Are we consuming food in a manner worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ? That may sound like a silly question, and indeed, for many of us the whole notion of food as a spiritual discipline or missional activity might be a new idea. But if we are talking about being cultured Christians—believers who receive culture well and consume things in a healthy and mature manner—we should not neglect a discussion of food. Food is the ultimate in global pop culture. Every day, across the world, billions of people eat. Each person receives food as sustenance, but sometimes also as a meaningful pleasure. They receive it around tables, with friends, after a long day of work, as part of festivals or celebrations. They taste it and savor it, satiating not only their physical body but their emotional and spiritual being. Food brings us pleasure, sometimes even joy. How can we get the most out of food? Is there a biblical approach to food? Why does food simultaneously bring about such pleasure and such stress, and what does a healthy approach to consuming it look like? The following two chapters ask those questions, ﬁrst by looking at biblical themes related to food and then by applying them to our modern world.
Dinners like this can be worshipful experiences. In community, with hours and hours of conversation and exquisite cuisine, how can our thoughts not orient us toward God in thanksgiving for friends, creativity, and the fact that he gave us tongues to taste and not just stomachs to ﬁll?