The Bible and Cultural Discipleship
Fallen, but created: this world is not unsalvageable.
Looking For The Admirable Light Of Truth
During the Ming dynasty in ancient China, talented people created "eggshell pottery"— paper-thin porcelain vases, delicately crafted with intricate designs. This was over a millennium before the birth of Christ, and was itself a continuation of what was long-standing artistic tradition in Chinese culture.
What does God think of those pots and vases? Or what interest does he take in the even more ancient cave drawings recently discovered in Australia? What is God's basic attitude toward French impressionist paintings and Wagner's operas? Or, for that matter, how does he assess films produced in Vancouver and Korean soap operas?
I have wrestled with these kinds of questions for most of my adult life. Like many other Christians who believe in the reality of heaven and hell, I struggle often with the question of whether all people who have not consciously accepted Christ, especially "those who have never heard the Gospel," will be cast into "the outer darkness" for all eternity. But I have also spent a lot of time thinking about the fate of what non-Christians have accomplished in producing commendable works of culture.
I was an English major as an undergraduate, and —in some cases, intensely enjoying— well-written prose and poetry by non-Christian writers. Then I went on in my studies to graduate work in philosophy in a secular university environment, specializing in ethics and political thought, where I seldom decided for or against a specific viewpoint simply on the basis of whether the person setting it forth was a Christian.
In all of this, I did find solid support in my positive evaluation of the work of non- Christians from Christian thinkers who have addressed such questions. John Calvin is a good case in point. Even though the great Reformer had established himself as a defender of the doctrine of the "total depravity" of fallen humanity, he managed on many occasions to express appreciation for the contributions of non-Christian thinkers. Before his evangelical conversion, Calvin had studied law, and he never lost his respect for the ideas he had gleaned from the writings of various Greek and Roman writers, especially Seneca. There is an "admirable light of truth shining" in the thoughts of pagan thinkers, Calvin argued in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. And this means, he said, that "the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness," can still be "clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts." Indeed, he insisted, to refuse to accept the truth produced by such minds is "to dishonour the Spirit of God."
That kind of affirmation of the intellectual contributions made by thinkers beyond the boundaries of the Christian community has been encouraging to me throughout my own career as a Christian scholar. And it has pointed me to a larger perspective, in which God approves of worthy ideas wherever they show up, but he also takes delight in good things that happen in various cultural expressions and products. And if we grieve the Spirit when we ignore the truth to be found in non-Christian writings, surely we also grieve him when we refuse to acknowledge the presence of beauty and goodness beyond the boundaries of the Christian community.
A Biblical Case For Loving The World
Again, I have long found that vision very exciting and encouraging. The problem is, however, that there are many Christians who see these things very differently. And this isn't just in those circles where we encounter a rather naïve rejection of anything that smacks of "worldliness." There are quite sophisticated systems of Christian thought that set forth perspectives on culture other than the culture- affirming outlook generated by my own kind of Reformed perspective.
In the final analysis, of course, the argument comes down to the question of biblical teaching. Does the Bible encourage us to participate actively in cultural activity—art, business, entertainment, sports, education, and much more—in a way that genuinely engages the larger cultural contexts in which we find ourselves, by both contributing to and learning from what is going on beyond the scope of the believing community?
To make a case for this culture-affirming perspective in ways that commend it to other Christians, we have to address directly the aspects of the biblical message that seem to warn against any compromises with the cultural settings in which we find ourselves. An obvious case in point is I John 2:15, where the Apostle John told the early Christians that they ought not to "love the world or the things in the world." Indeed, Jesus himself is recorded as warning his disciples that since they are "not of the world" they should not be surprised if "the world hates you" (John 15:19).
So we can certainly find condemnations of "worldliness" in the Bible, even from Jesus himself. And when "the world" is referred to in that manner, it means the general patterns of life that have become corrupted by our shared rebellion against the Living God. To love the world in that sense is to be attached to those things that are, from the perspective of Christ's kingdom, transitory and illusionary; it is to adopt the values of the sinful social order.
But there also are times in the Bible where the word "world" actually has a very positive meaning— so much so that we should try very hard to love the world. Indeed, in this sense God himself is a lover of the world, as is made clear in that simplest of all biblical summaries of the gospel: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). The Greek word for world here is cosmos, referring to the created order. To be sure, this creation is presently distorted by sin and rebellion, but it is not unsalvageable. Thus, Jesus came "not to condemn the world, but that the world [cosmos] might be saved through him" (John 3:7). The creator God who judged his creation to be "very good" at its beginnings (Genesis 1:31) has reaffirmed its fundamental worth by sending his Son to renew it.
This is the sense of "world"—the good creation, which shines through in its original splendor, even in the midst of our fallenness— that has inspired those of us who take seriously the "cultural mandate" of Genesis 1, where God commands the first humans to cultivate and develop the good creation. In his book The Calvinistic Concept of Culture, a classic of sorts in Dutch Calvinist circles, Henry Van Til contends that human cultural activity, "that activity of man, the image-bearer of God, by which he fulfills the creation mandate to cultivate the earth, to have dominion over it and to subdue it," is not an incidental feature of our created nature. Rather, "it is an expression of man's essential being as created in the image of God, and since man is essentially a religious being, it is expressive of his relationship to God, that is, of his religion."
Furthermore, human cultural activity is not completely displeasing to God, even when carried out by unrepentent sinners. Our present cultural situation is not one of a total obliteration of God's original designs. H. Richard Niebuhr is eloquent on this point when he states what I take to be one of the most important insights of his great book, Christ and Culture. Because of sin, Niebuhr says, our "culture is all corrupted order rather than order for corruption . . . It is perverted good, not evil; or it is evil as perversion and not as badness of being."
But That's Speculation!
I find all of that convincing. But throughout my years of setting forth various aspects of this perspective, I have continued to run into intelligent Christians who were not convinced. These thoughts came across to them as somewhat speculative, as picking up on a few biblical concepts and constructing a rather abstract theology of culture that seems somewhat removed from the actual biblical text. Can we really get as much mileage as we Reformed types want out of a reference in Genesis to "have dominion"? And how much cultural theology can we hope to derive from the fact that God sent the Son into the world to redeem "the cosmos"?
My main dialogue partner on such matters was the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. We debated these matters on several campuses, and on one of those occasions a person from the audience posed this question to Yoder: "What, in the most basic sense," the questioner asked, "is the real issue between you and Mouw?" Yoder's answer was for me memorable. On questions of culture, he observed, "Mouw wants to say, ‘Fallen, but created,' and I want to say, ‘Created, but fallen.'"
That does get at a basic issue. The question is not whether or not God cares about the processes and products of cultural activity, but whether our fallen condition has so corrupted God's original intentions for human life that apart from redemption nothing much good can happen in the realm of culture.
I decided, in the 1970s, to address this question directly by paying close attention to some biblical passages. I decided to focus specifically on verses dealing with the "end time." When the Bible talks about the new creation, the glorious future that is promised to all who have put their faith in Jesus Christ, is there anything that would encourage us to think that God does not see all that has happened in human culture throughout history as a waste of effort?
I took my initial hint in writing my book When the Kings Come Marching In from the final two chapters of the Bible, which points to the glorious future that God promises to us. In Revelation 21, the Apostle is given a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, with "the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband." Among the many details that the Apostle provides is this one: that "the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it . . . they shall bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations" (Revelation 21:25-26).
This passing mention is in fact an echoing of a similar reference in Isaiah 60, where some more detail is provided. The ancient prophet foresees a transformed Jerusalem in which "the glory of the Lord has risen" (verse 1). Into this City will come "the wealth of the nations," accompanied by a procession of "kings to the brightness of your risings" (verses 3 and 11). The "wealth" includes camels from other countries, transporting precious metals (verse 6). Flocks of sheep from what are now the Muslim lands also make their appearance (v. 7). The much-acclaimed woods from the trees of Lebanon— used there to decorate pagan temples—will now be used to beautify the worship of the true God (verse 13). The "ships of Tarshish," vessels carrying the products and materials from many national cultures, will bring their cargo into the City (verse 9). And all of this will now serve the purpose of bringing glory to the Lord.
Working With A Promise
The greatest promise for our future as believers is, of course, the gathering in of followers of the Lamb from many tribes and nations. But this too is an important gathering-in. That which took place as cultural development outside of the boundaries of the believing community will also be claimed for the Kingdom. This expectation is grounded in a fundamental biblical claim: All authority and expertise in the universe comes from a sovereign God who holds all people accountable for how they use his gifts. This includes the gifts that are on display in sculpture, music, painting, drama, scholarly production, family life, and the rituals of our communal life, as well as in political governance and economic activity. It all belongs to God—"the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and all who dwell therein" (Psalm 24:1). People may not know that they are exercising gifts for which they are accountable to the Giver, but the Lord will conduct a final accounting. The "wealth of the nations," the cultural "honour and glory" of the peoples of the earth—all of this will be gathered in at the end-time. And God alone will be glorified in that day.
Once we acknowledge that basic biblical claim, that God is the sovereign Ruler over all things, we cannot help but also acknowledge the practical implications. God cares about art, athletics, education, business, politics, entertainment. All that has been accomplished in human history in promoting beauty, goodness, justice, stewardship—even that which has flourished in contexts where the name of Jesus has not been lifted up—all of this will be revealed in the end-time as counting toward the coming of his Kingdom. To be sure, much of it will need a final cleansing, a purging of all that falls short of the full glorifying of God. But it will be gathered in.
And what God cares about in the broader human community, he also cares about in a special way in the efforts of those who acknowledge his rule in our own lives. The great missionary- theologian Lesslie Newbigin put it well:
We can commit ourselves without reserve to all the secular work our shared humanity requires of us, knowing that nothing we do in itself is good enough to form part of that heavenly city's building, knowing that everything—from our most secret prayers to our most public political acts—is part of that sin-stained human nature that must go down into the valley of death and judgment, and yet knowing that as we offer it up to the Father in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, it is safe with him and—purged in fire—it will find its place in the holy city at the end.
Is that "speculative"? Well, maybe a little bit—but only a little bit. It is certainly enough to convince us that God cares deeply—and widely—about such things as goodness and beauty. Which means that we must care deeply about such things also!