I know well most of the contributors to this new book, Christians in Culture. I have sat in their classes, ministered alongside them in the local church, and had one-on-one lunches with them. One of them I even went to a bachelor party with! (Don’t worry, it was to see Shrek 2 in the theater the night before his brother’s wedding.)
Even still, this work is important enough that I can lay that aside and try to evaluate the material honestly while helping get the word out about this new book published by Welch College, the college of the Free Will Baptist denomination. Of which I am proudly a part.
I will go through selected chapters and give some comments that will hopefully whet people’s appetite for the content. And then give a critique at the end, that truly isn’t about the book itself.
Chapter 1: Reflections on Christian Cultural Engagement (J. Matthew Pinson)
I found this quote by Pinson on page 9 to be apt and important in 2023 America: “The early churches were much more conservative than we are. Their worship services were simple, reverent, unadorned, and singularly un-multi-sensory, in a time when, on their way to church, they might walk past all manner of multi-sensory entertainment…”
I unashamedly advocate that American church worship services aim for simplicity because it often feels like the “production” is what is being used to draw people in. So, I agree with Pinson (and the early church) here.
Pinson does acknowledge, as we see in Acts 17, that the early church used cultural references to teach people. But as he repeatedly states, the church culture of Acts and the decades afterward challenged the secular culture and wasn’t like it at all. This message is desperately needed because churches often try to replicate whatever is popular in the world to draw people to an event instead of a person.
Chapter 2: The Influence of Ideas (Christopher Talbot)
On pages 26-28, Talbot references fellow contributor Darrell Holley’s “Five Bad Boys of Modernism”. Which is brilliant and crucial to the thesis of the book to me.
I truly believe the vast majority of what is wrong with America regarding family, sex, marriage, and gender can be traced back to what the five men–Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Darwin, and Wellhausen–taught. Though none are American, their ideas over the last several decades have not only gained steam in this country, they have become a freight train of cultural influence. And Genesis 1 and 2 have been obliterated by these men, and their adherents to the present. I teach on these five men periodically at my church. I teach their ideas regularly as false doctrine.
You cannot understand the present without history and Talbot does a masterful job here explaining their ideas and philosophies and how they have produced an army of Americans who do not know their right hand from their left.
Chapter 3: The Classical Conservative Tradition (Matthew Steven Bracey)
I adore this quote from Bracey on page 42: “Conservativism’s recognition that all human beings are different in certain respects has great implications for its vision of justice. That is, conservatives do not conflate equality with justice or inequality with injustice.”
This is a very countercultural statement at this moment in American history. Yet it is true and valuable. There are numerous reasons why inequalities exist and not all are justice issues. Things like free will must be considered. Yet the last several years, and notably the last three, the opposite view has dominated all of the powerful American institutions of culture like Hollywood, search engines, mainstream media, university classes, etc.
Kudos to Bracey for having the courage to explain this.
Chapter 4: Creation, Sin, and Renewal (Matthew McAffee)
I know of no one more qualified to give an interpretation and commentary of creation in Genesis than McAffee. Which he competently gives. Yet there is one quote on page 64 that I passionately want to highlight in this chapter: “It is all too common to hear people talk about heaven as an escape from the material world. In this way of thinking, death means the destruction of the physical, evil body in exchange for one’s spiritual existence in heaven. Creation becomes an evil that must be overcome in order to achieve true spiritual healing.”
We have written about this several times on Rambling Ever On before. Our physical bodies are of utmost importance. The material world is supremely important. We err significantly by not teaching this. One thing that stands out in McAffee’s exposition, however, is that he concludes this with “This [Platoism and the like] is irreconcilable with Genesis 1-2.” Taking it back to the original account of all creation, his source material for this chapter, is magnificent.
Chapter 6; The Principles of Christian Critical Tradition (E. Darrell Holley)
I had high hopes for this chapter, as Holley is a legendary professor at my alma mater and understands culture well. And my hopes were exceeded. A few quotes stuck out to me about Christians and art, that are crucial foundations to why Rambling Ever On continues to exist:
Page 99: “In the Christian view, the work [of art] does not have to maintain its value alone; it is an outgrowth of man’s basic creativeness, an aspect of his God-given humanity, and therefore has value. A work of art has value as a work of creativity. Because art is a result of man’s creativity, it is, as Hegel said, ‘of a spiritual nature.'”
Page 102: “The principle of truth in art certainly does not prohibit fiction or fantasy. Even when dealing with an unreal situation, such as fantasy or science-fiction, the author is still obliged to present moral truth.”
Page 109: “Paul [In Philippians 4:8] insists that a work must not only exhibit truthfulness, seriousness, righteousness, and purity; it must also exhibit loveliness or beauty.”
If you are a regular reader of Rambling Ever On, you know these are our core values or common topics. We believe strongly that Christians bear out God’s image in their lives when they create and are creative. We write, in large part, to create and be creative instead of consuming. You’d also know that fantasy and fiction are some of our most beloved vices and make up a significant percentage of our articles. And we are not just limited to Narnia, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings. Lastly, our mission statement has long been “Finding truth, beauty, and joy in all of life.” Especially in works of art, that dominate American culture.
So this chapter was an avalanche of edifying material.
Chapter 7: The Arts and Entertainment (Matthew Steven Bracey)
This chapter was one I had circled in my mind when I picked up the book. It continues the thoughts of the last chapter beautifully.
This thought from page 121 especially caught my attention: “Consequently, as we watch movies and television programs, for example, we should pay attention to their acting and characters, cinematography, dialogue, direction, editing, images and symbols, plot, pace, production design, screenplay, score, script, special effects, and tone.”
I appreciated this because as a Christian, I do not just care about a movie or TV show’s content. I desire excellence in all these ways. An abundance of what we have written about on this site is about these other aspects of art. This is infamously why much of art produced by Christians is panned. The message is great. The other aspects are often lacking or poor.
I also deeply appreciate Bracey citing John Calvin on page 116 about Paul quoting a pagan prophet in Titus 1:12. Saying that we should not reject God’s truth even if it comes from pagan sources. So much of what I quote as a preacher is modern art and not from Christians. Yet just by God’s common grace in their lives, works like Rocky and Seinfeld still manage to communicate truth in a medium rife with lies. Entertainment is a very redeemable part of culture.
Chapter 12: Christianity and Science (Ian Hawkins)
First, I needed Hawkins’ nuanced explanation of the Galileo story and how and why the church reacted to him as it did. Because a lot of that was new information to me. There is more to that story than is often told and it is not precise to say the church was “anti-science” during those days. Hawkins is persuasive here with arguments from historical fact.
I also respect his attempt to explain and comment on young vs. old earth arguments. Because this can be a fiery debate in the church, and yet he takes a balanced, measured, and thoughtful approach. He does argue for Young Earth based on the Genesis interpretive framework but does so briefly and with no ax to grind1.
Lastly, I echo what Hawkins claims at the end of the chapter about how when Christians abstain from science education out of some misplaced sense of faith instead of science it creates a vacuum where secular thought comes in and dominates. Christians should not avoid scientific knowledge. It is not at odds with Scripture in the least, even though many things in the Bible lie outside of what we typically understand as science (like miracles). We lose ground in culture this way.
Chapter 15: Sports and Recreation (Greg Ketteman and Gregory Fawbush)
On page 278, one pointed and yet vital question that Ketteman and Fawbush ask about excellence in sports is “What price has been paid for this achievement? At what point does the Christian’s pursuit of excellence in sports compromise his or her commitment to Christ’s Gospel and church?”
This is a fantastic question because sports clearly become an idol to some Christians. And it’s not because many start out with nefarious intentions. It’s because they want to be good at whatever God has skilled them to do. Which is noble in some way. But at some point, it can cross a line to idolatry.
I will say this as well: The authors are talking about participating in sports. But even as a fan of sports, I can tell you there is no way I can be as passionate about my teams now that I have a growing pastoral ministry and two small children as I did before. I used to follow the Chicago Cubs closely. Now I barely know half the players.
That is not to judge anyone for their sports knowledge. I have been an encyclopedia for much of my life. It’s just to say that sports have to take a back seat to God’s priorities in our lives. Often, they do not. Sports wreck people’s morality like few things in American culture.
I deeply regret not being able to cover every one of the 15 chapters. Each one is meaty, well-written, and relevant to our daily lives. Bracey’s chapter on Labor and Vocation and Talbot’s chapter on Technology and Innovation were the last two to be cut from this review. But I desired to keep this at 2,000 words instead of 4,000.
In closing, I’ll say the only critique I have is really more about the state of Christianity in American culture and not about the book itself. Each author is quite educated, well read and strives to use scholarship as a weapon in spiritual warfare. Sadly, it feels like a lot of Christians consider this type of material too weighty. It should not be. We should long for teachings like these. We should be willing to learn new words and ideas and read slowly and carefully if need be.
So, I actually laud the authors for not dumbing the material down. No doubt I still think it’s quite readable for the average Christian. But I have enough experience at pastoring to know that when you start getting into deep waters on any biblical topic, some lose interest.
Nevertheless, I give this book my full, enthusiastic recommendation. Five stars out of five. I’m proud to be Free Will Baptist and a Welch alumnus as I read it, but it’s a gift for the whole kingdom. Christians will need to navigate culture until Jesus comes back and we need tools like these.
Table of Contents
- I am curious if some of the interpretive issues, like animal disease before sin entered the world, that he cites as problems with an Old Earth would be resolved based on Dr. John Sailhamer’s view in Genesis Unbound. I do not know enough to say either way, but I know that the book argues all of the creative acts from Genesis 1:1 took place over a long period of time, and I would assume this would not necessitate animal death and the like to have occurred before sin. But I may be wrong. I’d love to discuss this with Dr. Hawkins. Perhaps at our next bachelor party! ↩