Leader Influences: Christianity and Culture

In this issue of Southern Seminary Magazine, we ask prominent leaders, “What book most influenced your thinking about cultural engagement?”

Steve Gaines

President, Southern Baptist Convention; Senior pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee

JOHN C. LENNOX, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford and emeritus fellow in mathematics and philosophy of science at Green Templeton College, is an evangelistic Christian apologist who has successfully debated renowned atheists like Richard Dawkins.

In his recent book, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism, Lennox challenges Christians to live faithfully for Christ in our increasingly pagan culture. Using the well-known biblical narrative regarding the four Hebrew youths — Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah — Lennox explains how modern believers can share Christ effectively, even at the highest levels of government. Daniel and his friends did not regard their faith in God merely as a private matter. Rather, they maintained a strong public witness for the Lord in an idolatrous, pluralistic society.

Lennox’s book has been a tremendous encouragement to me because it reminds me that I can still give a positive, polite, intelligent, appealing, persuasive witness for Jesus Christ in our culture that has turned against Christianity. My faith in Jesus causes me to pray to him privately in my prayer closet. But my faith in Christ also thrusts me into the public arena to openly proclaiming the gospel. I am to peacefully, politely, persuasively, and powerfully go Against the Flow, just as Daniel and his friends did in ancient Babylon.

Mohler office

R. Albert Mohler Jr.

President, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

THE BOOK THAT FOREVER CHANGED my understanding of the church and culture is The City of God by Augustine. I first read it by assignment in class, but the book quickly became fundamental to the framing of my entire worldview and theological framework. Augustine stood as the Roman Empire was collapsing, and he helped the church to understand the crucial difference between the City of Man, which is temporal, and the City of God, which is eternal. Augustine’s great achievement was to explain that the Christian is by God’s will a citizen of both cities and is in both cities to seek the glory of God. Central to his worldview is the gospel of Christ, which alone explains how any citizen of the City of Man can become a citizen of the City of God. To truly do God’s will in both cities, one temporarily and the other eternally, is Augustine’s great concern. Augustine understood that each of these cities was driven by a central love. In the City of Man, the highest love is love of man. In the City of God, love of God reigns supreme. The fact that he was able to see so clearly and to stand so confidently as Rome was falling should serve as a great example to Christians in our own generation. Every good book on Christianity and culture is just a footnote to Augustine’s The City of God.

Mark Coppenger

Professor of Christian apologetics

THOUGH DEGENERATE MODERNS by Roman Catholic zealot E. Michael Jones isn’t the best book I’ve read on cultural engagement, its impact on my thinking at the time I read it was particularly powerful. The subtitle, Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior, tells the tale. Jones argued that a range of ruinous ideologies were hatched by people trying to excuse and normalize their sin, like Margaret Mead and Alfred Kinsey. He overreaches when he blames the Protestant Reformation on Luther’s desire to have a wife. But his broader point is well taken, that ideologues will go to great lengths to rationalize their perversities. (Paul Johnson makes much the same point in Intellectuals, where he skewers such undesirables as Rousseau, Marx, Brecht, and Sartre). I now add “Consequences have ideas” to the old saw “Ideas have consequences.” That is to say, we often serve the Old Deluder with ingenious but specious justifications for waywardness.

“Jones argued that a range of ruinous ideologies were hatched by people trying to excuse and normalize their sin … That is to say, we often serve the Old Deluder with ingenious but specious justifications for waywardness.”

Juan Sanchez

Juan R. Sanchez

Senior pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church, Austin, Texas; Assistant professor of Christian theology at SBTS

MY THINKING ON CULTURE and cultural engagement has been shaped over time through various readings, personal conversations, and listening to lectures. But if I had to point to just one book, it would be James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Hunter challenges what Christians have previously thought about culture and cultural engagement: “defensive against,” “relevance to,” or “purity from” culture. He argues that such approaches do not and cannot work. Admittedly, we need only look around us to see that Hunter is right. Instead, Hunter proposes that Christians live in “faithful presence within” culture, that is, the church being the church wherever God has placed us. As Christians living together in local assemblies, we are embassies of the kingdom of heaven here on earth, displaying the glories of our King and his kingdom to the world around us.

Jarvis Williams

Jarvis Williams

Associate professor of New Testament interpretation

THERE’S NOT ONE BOOK, but numerous books. The most important book that’s influenced my thinking on cultural engagement is the Greek New Testament. A book that has helped my thinking on race is Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s An Introduction to Critical Race Theory. I don’t agree with much in the latter book, but I’ve learned much from this book about race and racism. Delgado’s book on critical race theory will help readers understand race and racism as social constructs. The book also defines important terms such as privilege, micro-aggression, etc. The book also discusses how racism is both individual and systemic. There are many things about the book with which I disagree and reject, one of which is the far left and postmodern ideological postures of the authors. However, readers will learn much from the perspective of a minority lawyer about what people are talking about in the culture when they discuss race and racism.

Mike Cosper

Mike Cosper

Founder and director, The Harbor Institute of Faith & Culture at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky

THE BOOK THAT FIRST EXPANDED my mind about cultural engagement was David Dark’s Everyday Apocalypse. Dark explores Flannery O’Connor, Radiohead, The Simpsons, U2, and many other writers, musicians, and stories. In each one, he looks for ways that they point to something bigger than themselves, some way that they reach for the sacred and the transcendent. For me, it made Ecclesiastes 3:11 clear — that eternity is in the hearts of men, and they are searching the world, telling stories, and making art that tries to make sense of it.

Bryan Loritts

Bryan Loritts

Lead pastor at Abundant Life Christian Fellowship, Mountain View, California; President of The Kainos Movement

I READ THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOM X back in the ’90s and that just awakened some things in me. Now obviously I don’t agree with where he’s coming from but what he’s reacting to, he put language to it. So the fact that the church wasn’t culturally engaged and the Nation of Islam did offer him something by way of cultural engagement birthed in me to say, “I want to be a part of a church that is culturally engaged.” Taylor Branch’s three-part series on the Civil Rights Movement is the definitive thing — churches involved in the Civil Rights Movement are the model of cultural engagement — so that was huge. But I didn’t sit down and go, “I’m going to read a cultural engagement book”; I just read topics that I liked and along the way I stumbled onto, “Huh, this is the power of when the church is culturally engaged.”

Dan Hyun

Lead pastor at The Village Church, Baltimore, Maryland

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.’S Strength to Love. My knowledge of Dr. King’s legacy was realistically comprised of some lines from “I Have a Dream,” “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and the same few quotes that are posted on social media every year on MLK Day. And as culturally impactful as those works are, this collection of his sermons challenged me with a much deeper and nuanced picture of Dr. King’s biblical vision of how followers of Christ are required to respond in the midst of racial segregation. This book revealed to me more than any other how the work of reconciliation and cultural engagement requires a courageous leader with prophetic vision to stand for convictions which may make him unpopular with mainstream thought but will allow him to stand with integrity before God in biblical obedience.

“This book revealed to me … how the work of reconciliation and cultural engagement requires a courageous leader with prophetic vision to stand for convictions which may make him unpopular … but will allow him to stand with integrity before God in biblical obedience.”