Mark Driscoll is at it again. Some of you might remember early this year when he railed against the film Avatar, proclaiming it “the most demonic, satanic film I’ve ever seen.” This assertion was crazy, of course, but it wasn’t the most disturbing aspect of the sermon in which it was delivered. Just before his tirade against Avatar he tells his congregation, “The world tempts you to sin, to use people, to disobey God, to live for your own glory instead of his own, to be a consumer instead of generous, that’s the world system.” And then, after the Avatar rant, to prove his hipness and insistence that he loves film and story, he says, “I’ve got two home theater systems. I’ve got three Tivos, all right, I am not against technology and the arts.”
Many people picked up on the real issue here: inconsistency. That is why it was not a surprise when Driscoll once again fell into the trap of his own fundamentalism. On November 29, he posted the following status on Facebook: “It’s a Jay-Z soundtrack kind of day. Watched his NY show this weekend—I know he says bowling words but man the guy is a genius.” In the intervening week and a half, this post received over 400 comments, which, if you’re interested, Matthew Paul Turner highlights at his blog. Turner also definitively pinpoints the problem with Driscoll’s post, it’s not that he likes Jay-Z (although, in my younger days as a self-proclaimed “hip-hop purist” I may have taken issue with this) but that it is patently inconsistent to claim devil worship in a film like Avatar and then praise Jay-Z as a genius.
In an attempt to answer this controversy, Driscoll posted an overly verbose and, ultimately, dead-end explanation. His defense comes in the form of an off-the-cuff sermon about how Christians should engage culture. He begins with the question, “Are you a missionary?” and answers for himself claiming, “I consider myself a missionary in culture…I find it a good thing to be aware of what is going on in culture in general as well as in music in particular.” Then, he goes on to brag about the size of his iTunes library.
What follows for the next few paragraphs are some pat lines about “engaging culture,” and what this looks like in his family’s home in relation to his children’s viewing habits. He then brings out two distinct views that evangelicals have traditionally held about how to be “missionaries in their culture”: syncretism and sectarianism. Syncretists go too far, he claims, blindly embracing all that culture has to offer. Sectarians, on the other hand, create subcultures to further alienate themselves from what they perceive to be sin. He writes, “The general concern of sectarians is that to be in culture is to be in sin.”
This goes on much longer with him calling for “unity, not uniformity” and exposing the flaws in “garbage in, garbage out” theology. For many people who grew up in evangelical churches, this should all sound very familiar. We all know people who fall into the syncretist or sectarian camps. The problem with all of this, however, is that it’s based on a faulty premise. All this talk about engaging culture and being missionaries to your culture is a contradiction of terms, and, I believe, is why evangelicals tend to lose sight of the value of art and creativity and why, now, they’re desperately trying to get it back. But as long as this reclaiming of culture is done under the auspices that we have to somehow engage with culture, it’s a long way off.
So, what’s the problem with this view? It has become so pervasive to talk about culture as some thing that Christians are outside of and that we need to interface with, that we miss the obvious: we are a part of culture. Culture is not a freestanding institution that we plug into, rather it is something we create, shape, and move. Certainly there are things about our culture that we don’t like, but we don’t fix culture by creating subcultures, or by engaging culture, but by living inside culture: making art, writing words, playing songs.
A recent post on the Gospel Coalition’s blog entitled “Artists Build the Church,” by Kristen Scharold, shows just how ingrained this misunderstanding is. Scharold tells of a church in Chicago called The Line whose worship leader is also an “artist-in-residence.” Certainly it is a wonderful thing for an artist to have a patron that allows him to create art, but it is also another example of evangelicals reinventing the wheel. Just as a lot of evangelical theology (until recently) tended to ignore the two thousand years of church history that preceded it, so too does this movement to bring art into the church forget that art has always been a part of the church. And, that is because the church is a major part of culture.
This is why I bristle at statements like this, found in the mission statement of an online Christian magazine: “We oppose our culture, not out of juvenile nonconformity, but out of acceptance of the fact that Christianity is countercultural to a world populated by the half-hearted, the double-minded, and unbelievers.”
We can’t oppose culture! We are culture! Again, there should be things about our culture that we don’t like or want to be a part of, but it is our culture, and we can have a hand in guiding its direction. But this will not happen as long as we pretend that culture is somehow outside of us. This has all kinds of implications for how we actually participate in our culture. Questions about what movies we should watch or what songs we should listen to become a lot more muddled in light of this, but that’s life. It is actually the false dichotomies we set up – Jay-Z: good; Avatar: bad – that get us into trouble. Operating on the faulty premise that we exist outside culture and are charged with engaging it leads to this kind of inconsistency.
Missionaries go to different cultures and, often, their greatest challenge is fitting in to the culture and thus gaining the trust of its participants. There are countless stories of this attempt to engage other cultures going horribly wrong, and egregious acts being committed in the guise of missions. The same is true when Christians imagine that we must engage our own culture. We become hostile outsiders.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is editor of Patrol and author of Not Your Mother's Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Follow Fitz on Twitter.
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