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The Church’s Cultural IQ

After reading Andy Crouch’s Culture Making several years ago, I had this sinking feeling that Christians are way behind the eight ball regarding cultural engagement. “When it comes to cultural creativity,” Crouch writes, “innocence is not a virtue.” Innocence is a polite way to put it. In many sectors of the Church, “culture innocence” is better described as naiveté, if not downright ineptitude.  Or as Crouch puts it,

Cultural creativity requires cultural maturity.

Which means that “cultural immaturity” is one of the greatest threats to meaningful, lasting Christian art. So when it comes to culture, Christians can’t afford a low IQ.

But nowadays, suggesting that the Church is “culturally unsavvy,” that Christians have replaced real art with kitsch, gets you charged with being a snob and an elitist.

So much for attempting to raise the Church’s cultural IQ.

The release of the film version of the DaVinci Code sent many Christians dithering. Protests and boycotts were organized. Nevertheless, there were some voices of reason. Like this article in the L.A. Times, entitled Vatican Officials Grappling with Da Vinci Code:

Father John Wauck, an American priest with the Opus Dei prelature, said “The Da Vinci Code” was laughable from start to finish, a comedy of errors that “defies serious reading.” But the impact of the story is something else altogether. Wauck believes that the popular appeal of the book underscores the failure of the organized church to adequately educate its followers

“The cultural phenomenon is very important and must be taken seriously,” Wauck said. “It shows our ignorance over art, history, theology, scripture… and that’s not Dan Brown’s fault, that’s our fault, the fault of the church, of priests and parents who aren’t teaching the truth.” (Emphasis mine)

One of the reasons films and books like The DaVinci Code create such a big stir in the Church is because so many professing Christians are so ignorant and uninformed about their beliefs. Or as Wauck puts it “…the popular appeal of the book underscores the failure of the organized church to adequately educate its followers.”

From my experience, the average Bible-believing Christian is ill-prepared to defend his or her beliefs in the marketplace of ideas, we are not “adequately educated” to impact culture. Sadly, the American Church is ignorant about “art, history, theology, scripture… and that’s not Dan Brown’s fault, that’s our fault.”

Thus, even more difficult than raising the Church’s cultural IQ is convincing the average Christian they need to be more “culturally savvy.”

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Erica January 31, 2012, 9:06 AM

    I recently left a church where if someone is speaking a different language(other than tongues) you will be frowned upon and pretty much called evil. My family left the church because indiviudality was beginning to be replaced with whatever “Bishop says” or whoever has more money has more freedome of speech, etc.

    I also know of family members who are very out of touch culturally and judge any art, history, or theological argument they hear, evil. My husband and I are totally in sync when it comes our beliefs. We both embrace knowledge because we love God with more than just our souls but with our hearts and minds as well. I have learned so much in the past few years that my faith in the Lord has actually increased instead of decrease.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Jan Lazo-Davis January 31, 2012, 9:14 AM

    You’ve hit a subject near and dear to my heart!!! Great Blog!!!

    Christians sit on the sidelines, in an attempt to be pure, and they only end up getting run over and losing control over the entire debate of where our culture is going. When I first started to vote many Christians I knew did not vote because it they did not want to “sully their hands or minds” with such dirtiness as politics.

    Most Christians I know don’t want to even begin a civil conversation with a person who lives counter culture to the “Christian Way of Life.” For example, they look down on someone who has multiple tattoos, and heaven forbid they should speak to someone who has made a choice to break the taboo about sex and become a homosexual.

    How can we, as Christians, be salt and light in a dark world when we are afraid to live in the world? When we hide our heads in the “Christian Way of Life” and refuse to live in the “World” where our ministry should be.

    Many times I have been faced with someone who asks me if I am a Christian and when I say yes, they have nothing else to do with me for fear I will judge them. I usually never bring up the subject. It is their asking me that starts this conversation.

  • Jill January 31, 2012, 9:58 AM

    Sadly, most people are “ill-prepared to defend his or her beliefs in the marketplace of ideas”. This is not simply true of Christians. And, by the way, I have to tell you a little secret. There are denominations that place more emphasis on historical understanding, philosophy, ideas, etc. But I would have to add that those are the more stodgy churches. Oh, and to be fair, I spent most of my childhood in public schools, where a classical education was not possible. When I transferred to a private Christian school, I was blown away by the level of ideas and philosophy they were debating. So is this a problem with Christianity, or our society at large? A classical education has always been available for those who are willing to pay for it (as in, my family paid for the expensive private education). Now, it’s available for free, but it must be worked for.

    • Heather Day Gilbert January 31, 2012, 12:38 PM

      I agree with you, Jill, and with Mike. True, plenty of other NON-Christians have no idea how to defend what they believe. However, having grown up in Christian church/school/college, I know how people can turn a blind eye and go inward. The BEST schools (classical education ranks way up there, you’re right!) know how to debate things that are relevant, without caving in b/c they might not have all the answers (WHO DOES?).

      We’ve definitely made the conscious decision to discuss heavier topics w/our kids and have them learn logical reasoning on things. It’s definitely a major reason why I married my husband–he listens to my off-the-wall questions about the Bible, and doesn’t run the other way. Instead, he’s read through it enough times and reasoned things out, so we have some of the best conversations. And we’re willing to have those conversations w/our kids. Sending them out to be salt and light–in the world but not OF the world.

  • Jay DiNitto January 31, 2012, 10:26 AM

    Alvin Plantinga wrote something related to this. There’s a tendency for Christians to be viewed as culturally inept (for whatever reasons), and this is partially because of the anti-academic streak in the western Church. Secular learning is seen as puffing up the self rather than glorifying God.

    So we have generations of Christians who, in terms of philosophy, never cracked open a book by Nietzsche, Hume, Aquinas, Socrates, Kant. Foundational stuff. They’re just reading Lewis and Boenhoffer. It’s not a mystery, then, why some of us can’t defend against someone with a rigorous philosophical background.

    Plantinga, though, said those things were irrelevant because Christians can have legitimate reasons to believe without being learned even if it’s not perceived as such.

  • Julian Walker January 31, 2012, 11:47 AM

    I was waiting for Mike to talk about something like this. Not too long ago, back in high school, I attended a Christian school that shunned film and secular music. According to the rules, you were not allowed to talk about films inside the school nor were you allowed to listen to secular music while at home. I saw this kinda of attitude towards popular culture very limiting. Like living in a bubble.

    I could not engage any of the students in conversations about film or music outside of sacred music because so many of them had no clue as to what I was talking about. The teachers were even worse. One pastor told me that Christians should not go to the movie theater because giving your money to the box office allows Hollywood to make more R-rated film and pornographic films.

    • Shawna Williams January 31, 2012, 12:47 PM

      I had a similar issue in our Co Op trying to teach about ancient cultures: Egyptian and Greek. There was concern over allowing the kids to read about Greek mythology or the beliefs of the Egyptian afterlife. This same issue came up when we planned a trip to the historical museum to see the ancient cultural exhibits that were touring at the time.

  • Shawna Williams January 31, 2012, 12:35 PM

    Oh my… This is a subject that has occupied a good percentage of my mind for well over a year. We homeschool, but I think maybe we chose to do it for different reasons than many of the families in our support group. I never wanted to hide my kids or keep them unaware. I did want to give them a degree of shelter in the face of peer pressure, but one they could walk out from under, or back to, as they needed.

    Anyhow, the past few years as many of the kids in our group have entered the teen years (mine included) a sort of paranoia has swept over the group and many of the families have turned on each other in the name of “purity”. The families labeled as “bad” have been cut off, become the topic of gossip over things such as kids wearing too much black or shirts with skulls on them, boys with hair too long (which is in style right now), girls wearing dresses above the knees or jeans with tears, boys and girls going on dates (with their parent’s approval), holding hands, reading or watching fantasy or scifi, or anything with so much as a hint of “impure” content, or the possibility of leading the mind to think “impure” thoughts as determined by the resident “purity” police. Many cultural qualities fall into this list. The group took to spying on each other through facebook, so if a teenager so much as used the word “crap” in a post, or one of their friends did, an “impurity” alarm got sent out to all the other families (except the kid’s parents). We’ve had a few families who chose to put their kids in public school for reasons ranging from financial, health, or just because they felt it was the right thing for their kids. The result to them is that many of their kids’ friends within the homeschool group, some who they’ve grown up with, aren’t allowed to associate with them anymore. I’ve been very troubled by the affect this attitude has had on some of our teenagers, that in this already vunerable time of life as so many kids search for acceptance, within this group of Christians they’ve been shunned instead of loved. I’d like to say that this is just a local thing, but I’ve seen this attitude in other communities and churches as well.

    My worry is that in the effort to guard one’s purity, Christians forget to love, and in the process lose knowledge, lose insight, and are unable to discern what is truly pure and blameless. I think the Lord values a sincere and loving heart any day over a “technically” pure body. I’m certainly not saying that striving for physical/mental purity isn’t important, but love is the guiding factor. By placing heavier value on “technical” purity one ends up withholding love out of fear – fear of being tainted – and in the process becomes ineffective and dysfunctional in their ability to serve Christ. This same fear locks Christians into a mindset that learning is dangerous, whether it be about culture, science, etc… because it might taint our purity. I think this is confusing fear and faith. What sort of message does this send to the society in which we live and hope to influence?

  • Patrick Todoroff January 31, 2012, 1:11 PM

    Another good post, Mike. Very near and dear to my heart.

    The thought that ignorance somehow equates to sanctification has long plagued the Church, and it breeds a weird, cloistered contempt for the very world we are called to reach. I hate to say it but it’s little wonder we’re dismissed as tedious or irrelevant if we refuse to acquire proper sorting mechanisms and frames of reference to engage people where they’re at. God isn’t scared of knowledge. There’s no question He doesn’t have the answer to, and faux-piety and willful stupidity isn’t attractive or anointed.

    Recently though I’ve encountered an equal and the opposite error in some big-name ministries; something I call the TET Offensive: Talent, Emotion and Technology… with a smattering of WWJD. It’s relevance sans substance. I’m certainly not making a case for ignorance, but the pendulum can swing too far the other way. Regardless of our “awareness”, the strongest card we can play will always be our personal knowledge of Jesus and Grace.

  • Jennifer K. Hale January 31, 2012, 1:27 PM

    Love this post.
    I thank God that I was raised in a military family (we moved a lot) by devout followers of Christ who still saw the importance of exposing their kids to cultural experiences of all kinds. It shaped me and made me appreciate history, politics, culture and religion.

    I was a high school social studies teacher. I taught a Comparative Religions class in a public school in the Bible Belt and I put emphasis on getting those kids to understand how the various religious and cultural beliefs around the world are tied to history, politics, current events, etc. Every single day I had kids who openly admitted that they were learning more from my class about how the world worked than they ever had before. I was also grateful that I was able to use the class to teach the kids about the doctrine of Christianity; most of them didn’t even know the difference between Protestant and Catholic. Needless to say, I did a lot in that class and I have no doubt that God allowed me to teach it because of my passion for the subject matter.

    Since I left teaching to be a stay-at-home mom/writer full time, the Religions class at that school has been dissolved. It makes me sick.

    I now teach it through my church (a large Baptist church) and open it to the community. I have students of all ages, backgrounds, and denominations who are involved in my class not only to learn about other world religions, but also to deepen their understanding of Christianity and their own denominations. I think there’s nothing more important than being culturally aware of social and political movements within our own nation, as well as within others. If we don’t understand them–if we don’t educate ourselves–how can we share Christ with the world?

  • Jason Brown January 31, 2012, 1:34 PM

    I can definitely see that being true. My mother was raised in a strictly traditional Christian family (though the entirety of that family’s beliefs are basically frayed to too many different degrees), so she always found it weird and hard to believe that I would enjoy hard rock (or even heavy metal) more than CCM and want to learn things that went against what she had always thought to be true.
    When she asked me once why I would watch some program dealing with the Bible (it went against her traditional beliefs), I tried to tell her that Adrach, Meshach, and Abednego trained theirselves to be very learned in their cultural area, even if they didn’t agree with anything they learned, they at least knew what they were dealing with, and their knowledge was noticed. She still couldn’t understand it, so I ended up giving up the discussion. I still do what King Solomon did and pray for Biblical wisdom, though. Still finding that to be ever more important than Earthly riches.

  • Jan Lazo-Davis January 31, 2012, 2:16 PM

    I was raised Protestant. Two years ago I took the intro course, called RCIA, to learn how to be a Catholic. I did not feel God’s call to join the Catholic church, but found the teachings in the classes I took to be just as Biblical and non heretical as my Protestant upbringing. I do believe our religions do have heresy, I was not taught it in this class.

    I had to carefully tell my Protestant friends that I was weighing and measuring the teachings I was learning. They thought I had gone over to the dark side.

    How can we be faithful to the great commission if we are not open to learning and to loving others for simply who they are? How can we speak to anyone about religion if we can’t allow teachings and thoughts not similar to ours to come into our minds for evaluation?

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