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Cultural Elites | The Next Unreached People Group
WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE WILBERFORCE?
Wilberforce and his network of friends are a model of how Christians can and should engage culture. But since the his time – alas – serious Christians have fallen far from that high-water mark of cultural engagement. So how has this happened? And how might we return?
First of all, how we got to where we are today has everything to do with the split that we have already mentioned, when the fed-up and embattled Christian “Fundamentalists” of the 1920s split from those who were advocates of the theologically liberal “Social Gospel”. Since then, tragically, the rift has grown, further feeding the unbiblical tendency of serious Christians to be anti-cultural, anti-intellectual, and anti-elitist.
Christians have always struggled with how much they should be separate from the wider culture. It’s a crucial balance to strike. It’s tempting to mock those who today or in the past have separated themselves entirely, but often they’ve done so with good reasons, such as a desire to preserve their faith, to keep the secular or pagan culture from destroying it. Of course that’s why God called the Israelites to be separate from the pagan cultures around them. Another good reason has to do with wanting to protect one’s children from harm. Nonetheless, in the last century, Christians on the whole have pulled back too much from the wider culture, retreating when they ought to have advanced, or at the least, held their ground and fought.
As we’ve said, Wilberforce struck the balance between engaging culture and being separate from it particularly well. He was ardently evangelistic, always thinking of ways to bring those he knew to think about the state of their souls, and he wrote a bestselling book whose sole purpose was evangelistic. He spent endless hours reading Scriptures and praying, and led his family in devotions twice daily. But he never came across as a dour moralist; all who met him thought him winsome and full of joy. There was a great wit behind his eyes, as his friends knew best, and a creative engagement with people that did not reduce those people to ciphers, nor their eternal salvation to a dull project. Madame de Stael, who was probably the most esteemed society hostess of her time wanted desperately to meet Wilberforce and worked hard at finally getting him to accept an invitation to one of her parties. Afterward she reckoned him not only the most religious man in all of Europe, but the wittiest. But Wilberforce was not indiscriminate in mixing socially, and shortly after he came to faith he resigned – in one day – from his five social clubs. And he spent most of his time with Claphamite friends.
It would be wise to look to him as a model, because the similarities between his world and ours today are striking. Wilberforce shows us that we mustn’t buy into the silly Hobson’s choice of being either “in the world” or “not of the world”. Christians with integrity need to figure out how to be both simultaneously. We cannot escape God’s command that we be holy, even as He is holy. Being hip may not by itself lead those we meet closer to Jesus. We may have to be authentic and courageous, too, and may have to take stands against things in our culture, risking unpopularity. Striking the right balance may be even more difficult than deciding whether to shave our heads or use mousse.
Of course in recent decades we’ve seen plenty of the opposite problem, of serious Christians – sometimes with hideous haircuts – being overly
-cultural. Often we have engaged the culture – if it can be called that – only for the purposes of evangelism. We’ve sometimes acted as though “getting everyone saved” was the only real project we should be involved in, as though that would solve all of the other, larger cultural issues. Perhaps if we led enough people to faith – the upsidedown McCulture, like a flipped kayak, would at some point suddenly right itself with a single Super-sized McSplash. But often we have not even cared about the culture at all. Many of us have thought that since the Lord would be returning around the year 1994–2000 at the
– what did it matter if everything was going to Sheol in a handbasket? This is the standard
which permits complaining about the culture, but not doing anything about it – besides, of course, rescuing people
it before it all burns.
This tack has the double disadvantage of being unbiblical
not working. Indeed, it has backfired badly, because without Christians involved in it, the culture only got worse. We demonized Jerry Lee Lewis and then watched him morph into Mick Jagger and then Johnny Rotten and then Marilyn Manson, who made us wish for the quaint days of Jerry Lee Lewis again. But at some point – perhaps just after the Rapture failed to occur on schedule in 2000 – some Christians got to thinking that maybe we
be involved in the culture, instead of, say, breeding red heifers, or trying to figure out the Hebrew spelling of Ahkmadinejad. So there is hope.
Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan where I live has long preached that New York Christians should love the city and its culture – because they are a part of it. They ought to be good stewards of it, citizens who make it a better place. Wilberforce and his friends had this attitude toward London. They knew it was not their true home, but they did what good they could there because ignoring their culture meant ignoring those trapped within it, including the suffering and the poor. God’s commands to them wouldn’t permit that. And somehow, by being a part of the mainstream culture of their day, and by being forced to live and work cheek-by-jowl with those who did not share their faith, their faith itself became more robust, relevant, and real. It had to be so, since the reforms they were trying to effect depended on their making their case in the public sphere. They had to be able to effectively communicate with those who didn’t initially share their views. If they had come across as merely odd religious fanatics, their success would have been seriously hurt.
It’s usually the case that Christians somehow become better Christians when they are engaged with the culture around them. We are forced to see ourselves as others see us, and to care about how others see us, since they are people to whom we wish to share the Gospel, among other things. But when we hide in a separate Christian subculture, with its own celebrities and music and “literature” and “Paintings” of Light
, we often lose the ability to communicate effectively with those who are outside. We begin speaking to ourselves, often with kitschy inside-the-camp aphorisms (“Commission: Possible!”) – and become less and less able to speak to those who are different from us. That, of course, is the enemy of evangelism. We grow more and more fearful and suspicious of those outside the camp, until we slowly begin to think of them as a hostile “other” whom we must destroy, rather than broken and exiled parts of our own selves, whom we are commanded by God to heal and restore. Within the plastic palisades of Fort Churchianity
, we will care little if the world outside perishes. We’ve put in our stock of Slim Jims and water purification tablets, and are content to wait for the Rapture, perhaps even gleefully wondering what all those fools who didn’t listen to us will say once they realize we were right and they were wrong. But what is that but a nerd’s revenge fantasy cast in religious imagery?
and love don’t mix. Could Jesus be gleeful to lose those he created to be with him for eternity? If we live among the lost, it’s harder for us to think of them cavalierly. It’s harder to demonize them, because if we live in the same culture that they do, they will look an awful lot like us. They will talk like us and dress like us, and but for God’s grace, they
Finally, having an us vs. them attitude toward the wider culture is unbiblical. Paul quoted pagan poets and philosophers to put his points across. He didn’t advocate their worldviews, but he took from them what was valuable, what was universally true, and he used it to point to the one who is Truth. And of course missionaries do the same, humbling themselves to learn languages and cultural folkways and customs, all that they might communicate the love of Jesus more effectively.
ALSO BY ERIC METAXAS
ALSO IN GOSPEL
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by Tim Willard
Embrace Restraint: Preparing for Lent
by Nancy Sleeth
The Hard Work of Silence
by Amena Brown
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