Are we engaging the culture or just ranting?
Some Christians are not engaging unbelievers, they are only reacting to what is wrong and what they don’t like.
The idea of engaging the culture, according to the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement, is “to speak wisdom in a confused age, to offer. . . true Christian hope that is Christological in its foundation.” Underlying the approach of engaging the culture is the belief that Scripture is sufficient for and relevant to all life and cultural issues.
Coupled with the apologetic movement in recent decades has been the technological advances in media and the relative ease at which one can obtain resources and publish apologetical works. Where the primary means of promulgating the Christian message used to be the written and spoken word, today Christians have a variety of effective means to spread the Christian message: television, radio, print (in all its various forms), websites, and (most recently and significantly) social media (including blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more). We live in a day and age where Christians (particularly in Western culture) are blessed with an abundance of riches in resources and media.
Though we have an abundance of excellent apologetics resources at our fingertips, there is a sense in which “cultural engagement” has devolved into polemical defensive reactions, and nowhere is this clearer than in the daily social media interactions.
Social media serves as a platform from which Christians engage the culture. Numerous forums exist in which Christians interact with those of other faiths, with non-religious persons and atheists, and with other Christians. In addition to the various forums, one’s own status update serves as a means to interact with the news of the day. One can easily provide their own commentary on current issues, tagging friends and well-known personalities as a means to engage in dialogue. The availability and ease of social media has allowed Christians outside of the academy to engage in apologetics.
Personal rants and other fallacious approaches
The efforts of Carl F. H. Henry and other evangelical leaders on engaging the culture is still bearing much fruit. However, some (or much?) of what is intended today to be engaging the culture comes off as just personal rants, ad hominem attacks, and parry-and-thrust attacks. That is, some Christians are not engaging unbelievers, they are only defensively reacting to what is wrong (perceived or actual), what they don’t like, and what they find offensive. Again, nowhere is this more evident than in the world of social media.
“Some Christians are not engaging unbelievers, they are only reacting to what is wrong and what they don’t like.”
Take, for instance, President Obama’s “bathroom directive” for public schools. This is, indeed, an issue that Christians must address, as it undermines the essential nature of gender identity. However, if one scrolls through the various social media sites or blogs, a large majority of responses by those opposed to Obama’s directive are not instances of engaging the culture. Rather, they are just the ventings of (rightfully) angry individuals or the expressions of one’s opinion.
For instance, a Facebook status claiming: “I can’t believe what Obama is doing! This is not a Christian nation anymore!” is one’s mere personal ranting. A blog post calling into question and blasting Obama’s (and liberals’ in general) character in not a way to engage the culture-shifting decision on transgender bathrooms. Such an approach would be an ad hominem attack. Finally, a “parry-and-thrust attack” approach consists of something like the Newsboys’ God’s Not Dead – a song in response to the claim that God is dead (a claim originating with Nietzsche, and carried on by the New Atheists). Their chorus partly goes: “God’s not dead, He’s surely alive. He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion.”
The Newsboys are correct – God is certainly not dead. However, their appeal to personal experience alone as a means of countering the claim that God is dead does not answer the claim made against Christianity. Rather, it just states what they believe in contradistinction to atheists. That is, it’s more of a “You believe A, but you’re wrong. I believe B,” where you parry the opponents charge, and thrust with your own. Surely, this approach is better than the previous two mentioned two mentioned, but it does not address the real issues at hand. It merely draws the battle lines. Finally, the reactionary approach addresses cultural issues at more of an emotional level rather than calling on both sides to reason.
Social media is reactionary by nature
The reactionary approach that is so common in social media is not limited to internet-based media, but the ease of access and use makes social media the ideal platform for defensive reactions to cultural issues. One reason for this is that social media is–in its nature–reactionary. However, reactionary appeals do little in engaging the culture. Entailed in “engagement” is dialogue, expounding on ideas, supporting assertions, refuting false claims, and counter-arguing. The idea is that the parties involved get beyond the surface issues to the underlying issues.
Further, “engagement” entails teleology–there is a purpose and end to a Christian’s engaging the culture. That purpose and end is to lead another to truth and ultimately the gospel of Jesus Christ. Today, though, we see more reaction than engagement. Little time is spent considering the issue at hand and its root problems. The issue is taken at face value while the “responder” takes a dogmatic stance against the perceived issue, setting up a dichotomy between his view and an opposing view.
Moving beyond emotion
In summary, engaging the culture in particular (and apologetics in general) goes beyond the emotional reaction and the mere expression of one’s opinion on an issue. Addressing cultural issues may also involve one’s emotions, but they do not dictate nor direct the dialogue. Finally, when one wants to address cultural issues that intersect with Biblical truth, they should carefully critique ideas and events; it is a concerted effort to shed light on and remove error in order to proclaim and uphold truth. Cultural engagement is reflective, thoughtful, careful, and attentive to the end of proclaiming the truth.
“Cultural engagement is reflective, thoughtful, careful, and attentive to the end of proclaiming the truth.”
I recognize that the nature of social media (and media in general) is not a setting favorable to concentrated and intentional interaction. Because of how quickly news and events change, the temptation is to respond just as quickly in order to stay current. Doing so lends itself to being more reactionary rather than truly engaging the culture. However, if we are to address cultural issues as envisioned by the likes of Carl F. H. Henry, there may be times where one camps out on an issue in order to provide thoughtful and meaningful interaction. There may be other times where one withholds expressing an opinion (or making a dogmatic claim) until they obtain more information. Whatever the situation, the proclivity of today’s defensive reactions does little by way of engaging the culture “to speak wisdom in a confused age, to offer…’true Christian hope that is Christological in its foundation.”
J. Daniel McDonald, Ph.D., serves as adjunct professor of Christian Worldview and Apologetics at Boyce College.