It was my privilege to spend the last week at my alma mater, Trinity International University, in Bannockburn, IL. As I was driving onto campus I was struck by the fact that I first arrived at Trinity in August of 1983, a few months shy of 40 years ago! I was 23 years old. I couldn’t help but think of how much had changed. For example, I lived in the single dorm quadrangle, four buildings arranged in a square with a central courtyard. That quad was always bustling with activity. However, for the past decade, those buildings are condemned. They are used by the local fire department for training exercises. I visited with a friend, Brad. We were neighbors in Quad 1. I was an M.Div. student, Brad was doing a two-year MA program. Brad is now Dr. Brad. We visited in his office at Trinity College. Brad is a history professor with decades of tenure under his belt. We swapped stories about our adult children. So much has changed.
The Theology Conference was a deep dive into the first statement of the EFCA Statement of Faith concerning the doctrine of God. Imagine spending four days from 8 am to 5 pm discussing the Trinity and the attributes of God at a graduate school level. I forgot what it was like for my brain to hurt! However, amid all of the discussions of the bible’s greatest mysteries, one of the breakout sessions dealt with something incredibly practical… something that effects all of us – cultural change. The changes I observed at my old dorms were nothing in comparison to the changes that have occurred in the last 40 years in our world. Our culture has changed. Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer introduced me to a new phrase… and you all know how I love picking up new words and phrases – a “social imaginary.” A social imaginary is defined as: the set of imagined ideas, practices, orientations, values and so on that binds a society together. Think of it as the rules of a game or the operating system of a computer. Dr. Vanhoozer made an observation that is undeniably true.
We are under a new secular social imaginary. It’s more subtle than a set of ideas. It’s the assumed story… The Bible used to be the operating system of the church. It was the lens through which we saw the world but has become only an interesting object within it.
Dr. Vanhoozer also defined a word that I did not think needed definition. What is culture? Did you know that the word culture comes from the Latin cultura which means “to cultivate.” Cultures grow things. In fact, Vanhoozer defined culture as “the petri dish of the human spirit.” Culture creates social scripts, defining our notions of good and evil, right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, proper and improper. So if our culture is following the programming code of a secular worldview, that means that we are increasingly disoriented in our own society. Culture orients us, however if we reject the new programming, it has the opposite effect. We find ourselves confused and frustrated.
So, what’s the practical point? In order to be effective witnesses for Jesus, we need to learn how to interpret two things, our Bibles and our Culture. We know something about how to read, study and apply God’s Word. That’s what we do in church and throughout the week in our home devotional times. But are we as adept at reading our culture? How do we sift through all competing voices and agendas and make sense of our world. Dr. Vanhoozer gave a practical tool… follow the money. Look at the multi-billion-dollar industries. What do they tell us?
- Video games are a 217-billion-dollar industry. We all know what they are. But what do they tell us? The power of mythic stories. People feel trapped in the mundane. They want to feel like they are part of a great adventure. They create avatars who are magically empowered warriors who are attractive, talented and respected.
- Another huge industry is dystopian fiction. Think of books like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” They teach us about another mythic battle… the battle against “the system” where the little person, trapped in a world of horrors, sticks it to the man and we all cheer. Dystopian novels remind us that there is a declining confidence in institutions. Let’s remember, the church is an institution!
- Of course, one of the biggest industries is Hollywood. Just last year the film industry made 100 billion dollars. One of the most popular genres of movies in the past few decades are the Zombie films about “The Walking Dead.” These films pose one of the most important of questions. What does it mean to be human? But they also approach the question in a context of death.
- Two more. How about the Health and Wellness industry? In 2023 this segment of the market is valued at 5.3 trillion dollars! And how about cosmetics? Near 20 billion dollars. What can we learn here? People want to live forever and they want to look good!
So, let’s see if we can read our culture and build a bridge back God and His Word.
- The Bible contains in its pages, the greatest of all myths because it’s true. That was the argument that J.R.R. Tolkien used to lead C.S. Lewis to faith in God and ultimately to embrace the gospel of Christ!
- The Bible recognizes that the “system” is messed up. It is filled with epic tales of people like Moses who was called by God to deliver his people from slavery, and prophets like Zechariah the son of Jehoida and John the Baptist who rebuked kings and paid with their lives but ultimately blessed and inspired God’s people.
- And if you like “the walking dead”, the Bible has many such accounts, the son of the widow of Nain, Lazarus, the boys raised by Elijah and Elisha… there’s even the account of a dead man thrown into the prophet Elisha’s grave who is resurrected when his corpse lands on Elisha’s bones. But these are not brainless brain eating zombies. They were raised to life and Jesus walked out of the grave and offers salvation to us, a salvation which includes the hope of a resurrection body.
- And if aging and wellness is your concern, that resurrection body will never get sick and never age! Finally, something better than Olay Regenerist and Balance of Nature!
There are two temptations we face. One is the temptation to withdraw from culture, to constantly criticize this “crazy” world. Lord knows, I fall into this pit again and again. The second is the temptation to accommodate this secular culture and play by its rules. But there is a third path. We can learn to study our culture and look for ways to build bridges to the gospel. It’s what Paul did in Athens on Mars Hill in Acts 17. To a bunch of pagan Greek philosophers surrounded by idols of their gods, Paul took notice of one idol dedicated to “the Unknown God” and proceeded to tell them about the God they didn’t know. He quoted their poets… which means he read their pagan literature! Paul studied the Greek culture of His day and built a bridge to Jesus. How do we rewrite the secular social imaginary? One soul at a time!
Great article! It sounds like good missionary training too!
This article was very informative and added to my understanding, particularly of our culture. Hopefully I can pass some of this along to my friends.