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Cultural Literacy for the Sake of Cultural Agency

I’m not a big culture guy. I don’t usually check the internet until after 11:00 am. Most movies are boring to me. Don’t ask me about any modern actors because I likely won’t know much. I’m usually the last of my friends to discover what’s going on in the world. In short, I don’t pay attention to trending events like most people.

Cultural Literacy for the Sake of Cultural Agency

This is me. Or, I should say, this was me. But now I’m different. Personally, I’d much rather be reading Calvin and commentaries than scanning the news to know what’s going on in Timbuktu. I love the life of the mind, I love reading, and I get replenished by being alone. Greatly influenced by Cal Newport’s famed book, Deep Work, setting aside time to do “deep work” is a priority of mine. As such, I don’t always know what’s going on in culture because I’m too busy focusing on my main tasks of the day. But as a local church pastor, however, I’m starting to become increasingly convinced of the need for cultural literacy, for the need to know the culture I inhabit. No, I don’t have to be an expert in cultural trends. But to be completely ignorant of what’s going on in the world when cultural influences are shaping my congregation undermines my effectiveness as a teacher, and hence the prerequisite for cultural literacy for the sake of cultural agency.

The idea of cultural literacy for the sake of Christian cultural agency derives from Kevin Vanhoozer who, in his book, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine, defines this pithy saying as “the ability to understand what’s happening in contemporary culture and how it affects us — for the sake of reclaiming Christian cultural agency: the ability to leave one’s mark on culture rather than passively submit to cultural conditioning” (xi, xii).

Vanhoozer unpacks this more in a book he co-authored, but this premise is also woven in throughout Doers and Hearers as well. Writes Vanhoozer: “I do not believe that culture is uniformly evil, but I do think that it is a powerful means of spiritual formation” (xiii). Vanhoozer continues: “. . . we fail to recognize how culture forms us not only by making explicit claims or value judgments (though it often does this too) but also subconsciously — for example, by creating pictures of the good life and conditioning us to think these pictures are ‘normal’” (xiii).

The secular culture conditions us to believe, feel, and think a certain way.  The gospel of pop culture conditions people to believe these lies are the normal way of living. The problem with this, of course, is that these ways are often contra to Christian teaching. On most days, church members are bombarded by subconscious advertising and comparison traps viewed both online and in real life. Christians are being catechized and conditioned by culture to various lies on money, beauty, freedom, sexuality, and more. So the task of the Christian leader is to understand how these lies are affecting God’s people, and how to interpret these lies in light of Scripture and doctrine.

So an abrupt formula may look like this:

1. Know the specific culture in which the people you minister to inhabit.
2. Know how your culture is conditioning these people.
3. Know how to communicate God’s truth in the light of this cultural conditioning.

But what does it mean to know your culture? By this, I’m not talking about checking Twitter every hour. By knowing your culture, I’m talking about knowing the fears, dreams, and idols of the people to whom you minister. Know about the specific lies they are being fed each day and how these lives are affecting the way they live. This will vary depending on where you live in the world.

Not too long ago, I asked a ministry leader about the idols of a particular U.S. city, and he said, “The same as everywhere, sex, drugs, and money.” Sorry, not helpful. Too broad. In order to preach and teach with situational specificity, you need to know the particular fears, struggles, and dreams of your people in the congregation, down to a micro-level.

For example, Palm Sunday. We celebrated that not too long ago. The big idea of Palm Sunday is that Jesus is King, and we must worship him. This is where we celebrate Jesus riding on a colt into Jerusalem to demonstrate his kingship. Here in the west, we don’t really have a concept of a King. We don’t know what it’s like to be under the reign of a king, but we do know what it’s like to be sold autonomy as an idol. You are you, you are free, you have choices, you can choose your own gender and the path to fulfillment is through expressive individualism. Ignore what everyone else thinks and be true to yourself. As you can see, the Christian message that Jesus is King works against this. Why?

It wasn’t the best insight in the book, but it sure helped me. In his book, Work, Dr. Dan Doriani says that job descriptions are associated with titles. I am, for example, a Christian, husband, father, pastor, writer, neighbor, brother, son, friend, and so on. Each title bears responsibility. As a Christian, my responsibility is to love God, obey God, attend church, etc. As a husband and father, to love my wife and kids. As a neighbor, to take out the trash and not park in my neighbor’s spot. You get the picture: titles have jobs. The same is true with Jesus being King — King is a title. And his job is to rule and reign, protect, defend, provide, etc. And our title, “creature” or “clay” or “slave,” is to worship the King. So practicing cultural literacy for the sake of cultural agency, we might say something like this: Although autonomy can be a gift well used, the Bible teaches that we were created for God’s glory, and it may sound like a paradox, but the path to true flourishing is not being true to yourself, but following Jesus Christ.

In his book, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller provides a broad overview on communicating in light of cultural literacy, which entails entering the culture to understand it, affirming the good it teaches, challenging the issues with it, then consoling it with the gospel. “Consoling it with the gospel” part is cultural agency.

Those who push back against this might say, “All this culture talk is nonsense. God is sovereign. We don’t need to know the culture well. Just preach the gospel and trust God to move.” But this wasn’t Paul’s approach, nor Jesus’. Paul knew about the idols on Mars Hill, and Jesus spoke with perfect accuracy as he told stories and interpreted the Old Testament in light of the struggles of his particular audience.

So we must practice cultural literacy for the sake of cultural agency. Notice Vanhoozer says “literacy” and not “World-class expert.” Nobody is asking you to know everything about the culture, but being well versed in the cultural conditioning of your particular ministry context will help you better know how to minister to the people of God.

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