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Episode 126 | November 28, 2023

How Should Christians Engage with the Culture? with Christopher Watkin

How to analyze and critique culture through Scripture

What is culture anyway? Despite being a cultural commentary podcast, we’ve never quite teased out the seemingly-simple-yet-actually-complicated definition. So today, Patrick teams up with Christopher Watkin, author of Biblical Critical Theory, to define and make sense of “culture.” The two discuss what culture is (and what it isn’t) and what it looks like for Christians to engage with culture. Given that we’re all enculturated, what should we strive for: Should we be more monocultural? Or...

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Patrick Miller 1:01  

Have you ever read a book that you wish you would have read 10 years earlier or a book that you longed for, but knew didn't exist? That was exactly my experience reading biblical critical theory by Dr. Christopher watkyn. The book works its way through the entire biblical storyline, using it as a launching pad to analyze and critique culture. And so in many ways, this book brought together two of my greatest passions, biblical theology and cultural critique. And so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to Dr. Watkins on the podcast. And rather than trying to do the entire biblical storyline, in an hour long interview, I wanted to talk to him about something that we haven't really thoroughly discussed on the podcast. And that's a simple question, what is culture? Or maybe it's not as simple as you think? Let's hop in, I think you're going to find this discussion. incredibly fascinating. One word of warning. We did have some technical issues during the interview. So the audio quality might be glitchy here and there, but I think you'll still enjoy the interview.

Christopher Walken, it is a pleasure to have you on the show today. It's lovely to be with you, Patrick, thank you so much for the invitation. I absolutely, I have to say I am a bit of a fanboy of your book. So I'm a little bit nervous interviewing you right now. And I told you before this that if I was smart enough, this was the book that I would love to write. And I'm so grateful that someone who is smart enough to write it did all the hard work so I can avoid that, you know, years of toil. How many years by the way did you put into writing this book, it was just stated over long periods, I started off in about 2015. But I wasn't writing this book back then I was just writing a cultural overview, I think it was in my own mind. And then there were fallow periods where no publisher wanted to touch it, palace and my wife and I thought, Okay, well, this probably will never see the light of day. And then towards the end, there was a flurry of activity and it ballooned in size. And I did lots of work on it in the last year or so. Well, that's fantastic. Well, I do want to encourage everybody listening to pick up your book, biblical critical theory, you cover so much in this book, which we can really not even touch the tip of the iceberg. But I want to start with where you start in the book, which is culture. This is a podcast that's about culture. And you wrote a book about how the biblical story can serve as a launching pad for incisive cultural analysis. And so obviously, you know, I think this book was made for truth over tribe. And I'm happy to have you on here. But your book opens with a sticky question that I've spent two years of this podcast avoiding. I haven't actually answered this question at any point on the podcast, and it's this, what exactly is culture? So Chris, can you do the heavy lifting for me? Can you solve the problem and define culture once for all and truth over tribe? I certainly can't solve it once. And for all, let me try and help you and your listeners to be confused at a deeper level than you were previously. It's one of those words that if you look it up in a dictionary, you're gonna get about 10 pages of definitions. So it's like nature, I'm actually writing in my academic work on nature at the moment is so complicated, what it means and culture is similar. You've got two basic meanings, one way of looking at it, which is that there's quite a restricted sense of culture. And often we use the term high culture to talk about it, you know, so it's going to the theater and art galleries, and that's culture too. So that's a narrow sense. But that's not really the sense that I'm using in the book. There's a much broader sense, which is everything that human beings do. That is over and above what's given to them naturally. And again, that's complicated, but essentially, that is almost everything. So language would be part of that. Because language is, you know, the philosophers would say, technology, something that we've developed over time that how

Chris Watkin 5:00  

obsess to do things. It's a tool. It did include all of our tools, you know, from the simplest stone tools to, you know, whatever chat GPT whatever the pinnacle of technology today is all of that stuff, clothing, the spectacles that we're both wearing a part of culture, the fact that we build dwellings and living them as part of culture, but also not just objects, it's all our habits and ways of getting around the world and making sense of it. So the fact that in most Western countries, we sit on chairs to eat meals, we don't lay down or stand up, that's a cultural thing. You have to do it that way the Romans lay down, you know, he can do it. So why do you sit down? That's me curious. You know, the fact that we use cutlery, a knife and a fork, there's a whole, you know, history of cultural history of where to cut liquor. So all of this stuff, is culture. And therefore, it's a huge field to try and get your head around. You had on this a moment ago. But sometimes it seems like when we talk about culture, culture is everything. Is there anything that isn't culture? Well, it's usually opposed to the idea of nature. But as I said previously, that's an equally complex idea. So trying to find out what's natural and not cultural is really hard. Actually, there's this field that I'm no expert in. But I hear from people who are called epigenetics, which suggests that our genes can change, some have not huge wholesale changes, but some genetic variation can occur in response to the environment after we born. And so that means that not even our genetic endowment is utterly natural, and non cultural. So drawing the line between what's natural and cultural is not an easy thing to do. In your book, you use the example of figures as a way of talking about culture, can you explain what figures are and why you found them helpful as you've tried to define and understand culture? Absolutely, it's an attempt to try to do justice to all the different ways that were formed in society. So the world around us and the culture around us is really quite effectively catechizing.

Everyday being shaped, to think and to act in particular ways. And figures is a way to try and work out what all those different ways are.

Because sometimes I think we can choose one of those ways are a small number of them, and think that that's the only thing that really matters. So, you know, for the longest time in Christian circles, the idea of worldview often meant that we are formed primarily and foundationally by ideas, it's the ideas in your head that shape you, and then everything else is downstream of that. And then there was, I think, quite helpfully, a push back against that. And there was a suggestion that not it's our habits that are fundamental, and ideas are downstream of habits. And I'm not sure that either of those quite captured the complexity of the way that were formed. And so figures is an attempt to broaden that field. And so a figure is something that patterns of rhythms, your way of being in the world. So, you know, we've already talked in this conversation about chairs, we sit on chairs, and that has a certain meaning for us, either I'm about to eat a meal, or I'm not just passing through here, I'm going to stay a little while or I'm tired, or whatever it is, but that has a certain sense. And so chairs are one of the objects that pattern on rhythm, our daily experiences. So objects are one group of figures. But there's also ways that we think of space and time, that shape our experience as well. So for example, you know, the 24/7 always on society, is one way of thinking about time, or the idea of a Sabbath rest every seven days is a different way of thinking about time. And both of those ways of living in the world, temporally rhythm are experience, holy space is a normal space, as always, all space, the same, would be one very different way of thinking about space. But there's also what I call in the book, the structure of reality, that's a different set of figures. So in other words, is space just the same however far you go in any direction? Or are there different, if you like levels of reality, different realms? So you know, Christ will talk about the Kingdom of God, for example, as being something that can be manifest in this world, but is not completely contained within the world. And you know, the Bible talks about heaven and so far, and that's a different way of thinking about the structure of reality. Another category of figures is relationships. You know, the way we relate to each other, and the way different cultures relate slightly differently to each other, again, patterns and rhythms of experience. So you've got all of these different things, all combining to shape you as

Patrick Miller 10:00  

The person and to give you a certain set of assumptions and expectations and hopes and dreams and fears in the world that you wouldn't have if you'd be shaped in a different way. That's what figures out. In the book you talk about figures as this is that notice, you've used the example of a chair. But when I see a chair, I say, Well, this the chair, is that a place to sit? When I see a chair, I do not think this is my kids think this is a ladder. And I'm going to climb on top of it and get somewhere this is a patent as to culture. And I have to navigate my world that way, and not just with the objects that are around me. But in the relationships that I have, for example, I see myself as a father to my children, and there's this is that newness to it that culture has given me my own understanding of what it means to be a dad. And so I find this really helpful, like you said, because it doesn't locate culture in a single thing, whether that's habits or the mind, but it's trying to be a bit more complex, or like you said, you're just helping us to be a bit more confused in a good way. One of the things, or I think one of the challenges for a Christian taking culture seriously, is the fact that we are all enculturated. And so whether we believe that Christ should be against culture, or maybe Christ should be ruling over culture, or maybe Christ should be accommodating to culture, in any of those orientations, we are a de facto suggesting that Christ is somehow outside of culture, he's other to culture. And I think the implicit assumption is that if we do what Christ does, we can share in his outside harness, around cultural engagement. In other words we can become and culture and so I want to start here. Would you say that it is Christ outside of culture? Or is Christ in culture at it? It's a brilliant question. By the way, you know, we could go on for hours about this. Let's try and hit some of the main points quickly. For the sake of your listeners, patience. Let's start with the Bible. How has God chosen to reveal himself? Well, he could have done it anyway, couldn't be like, you know, he's God, he could have revealed Himself through a list of abstract propositions. You know, he could have said, the first thing you need to know about my essence is this. And then, you know, point B, point C, he didn't. And I think we need to ask ourselves a question why, given that he could have revealed himself anyway, he's revealed himself through his interactions with a particular people group, overwhelmingly, the Hebrew nation, and then the church. And he's revealed Himself through a particular culture. So God chooses Abraham, in Genesis 12. And a lot of modern atheists have a huge problem with that, because that's, like so parochial, that's so specific, you know, if your god you should be universal, you should be speaking to everybody, but he doesn't. And then when the Lord of the universe himself becomes human, he becomes a first century Palestinian, Jewish male, carpenter's son. And again, you know, there's a passage in Richard Dawkins somewhere where he just rips this to shreds. He says, how narrow, you know that the God of the universe should do this particular thing. It's just not worthy of a god. But it is the modus operandi of the God of the Bible, he speaks through and in culture, but wonderfully, he doesn't simply speak in and through one narrow culture. So for example, there are other world religions where really, you got to become part of a particular culture to belong, you've got to learn a particular language. And you can sort of translate the scriptures, but it's not a proper translation, you've got to learn the original language, you got to become part of the original culture, dress in a certain way, and suffer. That's really not the case with Christianity at all. Our fundamental, sacred text is multilingual. You know, there's two main languages, and then a little couple of bonus chapters in the Old Testament that have been Aramaic. And so the idea of the Translate ability of God's revealing himself cross culturally is hard wired into the Bible. And so I think that means that we've got two things that we need to avoid. The first one is thinking that to become Christian, is to be monocultural. And that we should all be gravitating towards some sort of cultural sweetspot, that we should all look the same and think the same, and live the same. And the other thing is to think that the gospel as you were suggesting in the question, Patrick, is somehow a cultural that the ideal is to sort of bleach out all the culture. And then we've got the pure gospel, because I don't think either of those reflects what the Bible is doing. So in the book, I talk about the Bible and the wonderful gospel message of what Christ has done as being trans cultural, by which I'm trying to get at the idea that he's never outside of culture, but he's not locked into one culture. And this is a point that's made by Tim Keller in other

Chris Watkin 15:00  

It's an it's a glorious point about the gospel. I think it's something that we should really treasure as Chris. It's that to become a Christian say from a sub Saharan African context is not to become less African is certainly not to become Western, it shouldn't be. Christianity is not a Western religion. The Bible is not written by Western people, but it is to become a fully fulfilled, blossoming Sub Saharan African. And for me as an English person to embrace Christ is not to renounce my Englishness. But it is to see the fulfillment of the core values, that being creationist and so the Bible is gloriously transcultural, not locked into any particular cultural manifestation. And just one final thing, we see that in the history of the church, like most world, religions have sort of a home base, geographically, there's a part of the world that they call home more than any other, but not really Christianity. So it starts off in the Middle East, you've got a very strong North African presence in the early centuries of the church. For a while the center of world Christianity was in Europe, and then it sort of drifted a little towards the US. And now it's probably somewhere between Korea and some African countries. And no doubt in the future. If Christ doesn't return, it'll change again, there's no natural, constant geographical home for Christianity, which I think is something that as Christians, we should be incredibly thankful for. And praise God for this is for everybody. And it doesn't force everyone into one particular moment. I think this is where I find myself, sometimes getting confused, which is, I can conceptualize, although not in any perfect way, the idea of God in eternity outside of time and space, and all of these other enculturated things. But of course, I haven't come to know Him in that space. You know, I've come to know Him, as you said, in this grand sweep this grand redemptive story that begins in the Middle East and spreads slowly across Europe. And so I can't know him in that way. And yet, to get to the heart of the question, it does make me wonder I mean, at the fundamental bottom of it is Christ and culture rated? Is the answer to that. Yes. But I can't know him that way. Or is the answer to that? Well, no, because he's been incarnate. And so he's lived in cycles, I don't know, cut this Gordian knot. Let's see if we can make sense of it. We can try and make sense of it. As far as the Bible sheds light on I think, eventually, we're going to have to wait until we see God face to face to dot all the i's and cross all the t's and get the answers to all the questions that we might want to ask. But I think one really helpful passage to go to, is Revelation seven, because that is so to speak, outside time, it is after the final judgement, and is that passage where every tongue, tribe or nation are gathered around the throne in heaven, praising God with one voice. And I think one of the things that we get from that passage is that particular human cultures are not obliterated. When we see God face to face in eternity. There's something of the tongues tribes and nations that remains distinctive at that point, and therefore, that that distinctiveness is not in and of itself, evil. There's no doubt aspects of all cultures that need to be rebuked and corrected by God. And, you know, I'm not suggesting that the cultures will simply pass into the new heavens and the new earth exactly as they are now. But nevertheless, there still seems to be a distinctiveness at that point. And I think that's instructive about, you know, this idea that in order to experience a purely I need to sort of get outside or beyond culture, I'm not sure that that's what that passage is suggesting. But there is a sense to sort of build a bit of the jigsaw on the other side, there is a sense that no single culture is going to exhaustively capture the richness of God, you know, so one classic example would be in Western cultures tend to be rather, individualistic, and other cultures tend to be rather communal. And there's a sense in which in the New Testament, both the individual and the community are incredibly important. So you don't want to ditch the individual. And you don't want to ditch the communal either. And so every culture needs, complimenting and correcting. But I don't think that means that we ought to just, you know, throw the cultural baby out with the bathwater, and say, I need to get beyond all culture in order to experience God in an immediate way. Well, and perhaps that urge and desire in myself is a very enculturated

Patrick Miller 19:40  

and desire because there is something in Western culture that wants to move beyond the concrete and the this worldly nature of things into you know, abstract knowledge. And I do think that's part of the drive to say, well, who is Christ outside of culture, but I also think you said something rather lovely there. That makes me think of what CS Lewis described when he was talking about friends.

and how when a friend passed away, he didn't just lose that friend, he lost the friends that he was friends with with that person. Because when that person was with a different friend, they drew something out of them that he himself couldn't draw out. And it seems to be that's very much the case in our relationship with God that to know Him in my culture is to know aspects of his personality, and his personhood, but to get to know him, alongside my brothers and sisters in Christ in China, or Kenya, or wherever it may be is to discover things about him that I couldn't see simply on my own. I think the other part of the drive to try to discover this unincorporated Christ is because that's what we want for ourselves. You mentioned the worldview movement earlier. And I think this was often the drive behind. And I really appreciate the worldview movement. So I'm not trying to attack it, it was part of how I became a Christian. So I have a deep love for it. But it did seem as though you had Christians who were critiquing and analyzing culture from what they seem to imagine as a objective outside perspective. So can you speak to I mean, is it possible for Christians to engage culture in a objective unincorporated way? So really profound? And really helpful question, isn't it? Because the lots riding on the answer?

Chris Watkin 21:11  

I suspect that it's not a yes, no answer. But it's the degree to which that is possible. So again, let's start off with the two extremes and then work towards the middle. So on one extreme, you would have the position that everybody's culture is absolute for them, there's no way of getting outside your culture are completely trapped. And therefore you cannot say a word about someone else's culture, because you've got no idea about it. And anything you say, will be just so shaped by your own culture, that it'll be meanings. So that's one extreme.

The other extreme is to say that we can take off and put on culture like a coat. And then when I want to, I can set my own culture aside, I can assume this, God's eye view, over culture I can become if you like the referee or the umpire in the match, rather than one of the players. And I can judge with perfect transparency, where everybody else is getting everything. We know that to caricatures. But I think they capture two tendencies, towards which answers to this question can trend and two tendencies that I would suggest we want to try and avoid. And I think the way not to fall into either of those, and to keep a healthy, rich, biblical approach to this is to be constantly challenging our own assumptions, through coming face to face with cultural expressions that are not our own. And a lot of that is just embodied in the Bible. Like for us living in the 21st century, either in the US or in Australia, in the UK, the Bible is not our book, in the sense that it's not written out of the cultural bubble that we're part of. And therefore, when I read the Bible, I'm brushing up against different ways of looking at the world, and therefore, light is being shown in my own blind spots. And if I'm reading it carefully, I'm always being challenged about you know, what aspects of the way you think the world is, are coming directly out of God's Word. And what are you bundling in with that, as part of your culture that you hadn't realized is not there in the Bible, you're just so used to it that you're reading it. But you can do that in other ways, as well. Now, CS Lewis has that wonderful essay, doesn't he about reading old books. And his argument is that if you only read books that are written within your cultural bubble, and in your period of history, then they're all going to share your blind spots and your hopes and your dreams, you're never going to be able to examine those because they just take him for granted. But he read old books, people will have different blind spots to you. And they might be very obvious to you, because they're not yours. And you might think, you know, how could they possibly think that way. But they will also shine a light on your blind spots, because they're coming at things from a different position to us. So that's one really helpful way to be questioning and expanding, and just making sure that we're not bundling up cultural assumptions with the gospel, and therefore putting a stumbling block in people's ways. Now, other ways to do it as well. Having friendships and reading books, by Christians from different cultural backgrounds is really, really helpful. And you know, being part of church congregations with people from different cultural backgrounds is really, really helpful as well. But none of this is a sort of silver bullet. You can't say tick, tick, tick, I've done those things. Therefore, now, I'm making no assumptions. You never get that you're suggesting that we need to be in this almost discursive, circular dance between our culture and of course, the cultural world of the Bible, allowing it both to confront our cultural world and to console it, allowing it to challenge it, and in some senses, complete it and fulfill it, but you have to allow both to be happening at once. I think one of my big fears I'm just going to be honest, even doing a podcast like this is that well, I know this will happen. Well, let me be clear, no one's ever gonna

Patrick Miller 25:00  

had to go back in the past and listen to these episodes and talk about my particular way of engaging culture. But if they were, they would listen to this. And they would say, ah, that podcast is such an artifact of its own cultural moment. Here's all the ways that truth overdrive was enculturated. By its early 21st, century millou. And I see this across the board, it's easy to see another it's hard to see in yourself. And one of the ways I see this most prevalently is that you see a lot of people who just like you are trying to use the Bible as a tool for cultural analysis. But I think the most common way gets used is in the form of cherry picking or proof texting, to show how the Bible agrees with your particular cultural context. I think, for example, the way at least here in the States, the Christian nationalist manosphere, has a tendency to lock in on passages about the Canaanite conquest, passages about being strong and courageous passages that are casting aspersions on the idolatry of Babylon. It's a see our approach, our kind of aggressive, masculine, muscular approach to culture is biblical, and they have lots of texts to prove it. So if you were talking to someone who said, Hey, I've got a biblical approach to culture, and here's what it looks like. And that's what they lay out in front of you. How would you respond? But would you critique that way of using the Bible? Let me go back, first of all, to what you said at the beginning of that question about, you know, if people are back at truth of a tribe, what would they say? I think the question to us back to those people is what are you expecting? Like, what do you want? You want something that's made within a particular cultural context not to reflect that context? And what do you want it to reflect? You want it to reflect your context? That will be unreasonable? And I think, again, it's, you're always pushing one way or another? And so the question, I think you're pushing back and saying, Well, you know, God didn't do that. Did he? God revealed Himself within a particular cultural context Christ was using in his parables are examples from their everyday life that are not ours. Like was that a mistake? Did he do that incorrectly? I don't think we will be quick to say that he did do that incorrectly. So in that sense, there's nothing wrong about being within and showing the assumptions of a particular culture that's being human. That's what it is to be a creature. The question is what we do with that. And I think one thing that we're trying to do very imperfectly, and no doubt people 30 years hence, will look back and cringe or what we're saying. But what we're trying to do is take account of that, and not just let our assumptions fly under the radar, or unexamined, but be open to the possibility that we're freighting in a lot of cultural assumptions with the way we're understanding the Bible. But not letting that paralyzes either saying, Okay, well, let's open the Bible. And let's, you know, allow God as the speaking out, who, as Calvin says, has accommodated himself to human language to speak. And let's not assume that He's incapable of that. And let's assume that he's capable of challenging our cultural assumptions through His Word, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because not to assume that would be to have a very small God who himself is culturally trapped. That doesn't mean we're going to do it perfectly. But it does mean that critique that Oh, you're just, you know, within a particular culture, I think he's quite a superficial one.

Chris Watkin 28:07  

Now, having answered the question that you didn't quite ask him, he answered the one that you, you did ask, there are different ways to handle the Bible, and the one that you're putting your finger on, I think is a danger for all of us that we cherry pick those verses, that seem most to agree with what we already think. And then we fly the flag for those verses, and we sort of brushed under the carpet, the verses that are quite inconvenient for a particular view. But I think one way to try and get around that is to try to not simply parachute into particular passages, but to let the whole sweep of the biblical story have its say, in shaping our view. And this is one reason I think the Bible overviews incredibly important and formative they certainly were for me, in our Christian walk, because you learn the overall shape of the biblical story, not just the passages that are particularly popular in your Christian subculture. But you know, the whole creation, fall redemption, consummation shape of the Bible. And then as you go deeper, you know, the little wisdom, literature and mood and so forth from what Richard Volcom called side chapels on that story, as well that inform and enrich our understanding of that stuff. And this is what Augustine does brilliantly in the city of God. So I think I would say, the single most powerful example of Christian cultural engagement and critique outside the Bible in the history of the Christian church, and one of the reasons it's so powerful, is that he takes this biblical theological approach, he takes the whole Bible story, and critiques Rome through that story. And in telling the story of the Bible in the second half of the City of God, right from Adam and Eve and the angels all the way through to the new creation. So he tells the Bible story, but in doing that, he shows that he

Can tell Rome about itself, he can tell the story of Rome better than Rome can tell its own story. So in a sense he to use a term from John Milbank. He out narrates Rome says, I understand you better than you understand yourself, because I understand you within this biblical framework. And I think one of the main ways to avoid just cherry picking the verses that confirm what we already think, is to use this biblical theological approach and to let the Bible so to speak, set its own table, put its own emphasis on so you're not just picking those verses that you know, talk about courage, whatever you were mentioning a moment ago, but you're letting the Bible strike its own emphasis. So what the Bible speaks most about, you will put most emphasis on and what the Bible passes over relatively briefly, you will pass over relatively briefly. And that's a really important guardrail against remaking the Bible in our own image.

Patrick Miller 30:56  

It sounds like what you're saying is, we need to let the biblical world as much as we can become our world. And we need to understand our world in the context of the biblical narrative, not the other way around, which is, of course, a huge temptation, because we all come to the Bible with pre configurations presuppositions about the way the world should be. And it's a big book. So you can find passages that will affirm just about anything he wants to personally affirm if you aren't reading with the grain of the story. But if you let the story like you said, Out, narrate out tell the story that you're currently living in, there may be some hope. One of my challenges, this is more pastoral, is even with the podcast, you know, I'll often get people who will write very nice, sincere emails challenging something that we said, and they'll maybe send a few Bible passages saying, See, the Bible contradicts what you're communicating and, you know, often go and look at the passage. And sometimes they're absolutely correct that I need to say, Hey, I got this one wrong. But other times the passage is out of context. And like you said, if it's read with the grain of the biblical narrative, it doesn't actually say what some of them might think it says on the surface, but I always have a challenge responding because it starts sounding very elitist as though you need to have an M div or a PhD, you need to really understand the full sweep of the Bible to engage culture deeply as a Christian. And so I think there's a populace critique of this particular position, which would say, Hey, I think the Bible is for everyone in the biblical narrative, and the biblical story can speak to anyone, and you're putting a lot of guardrails up, as he just said, that make it difficult for an everyday Christian to read the Bible and think about culture in the way that you've described. So what would you say? I mean, how can an everyday average Christian who doesn't have time to go to seminary, or read many fine leather bound books, avoid the cherry picking problem? How do we help shore up some of these weaknesses? Talking about ordinary and everyday Christians, I think there's a danger at its worst, that language buys into a very worldly view of things. So I wouldn't be surprised if when we get to heaven. But people who are sort of paraded and have the celebrations about them, are going to be the octogenarian grandmothers prayed for two hours every day, and nobody ever knew about it in their lives, you know, their star, sort of celebrity pastor has a seat in the back row cheering them on, you know, I think there's going to be an upside down to heaven, that should give us caution about the way in which that language of ordinary can be taken. And so you know, if we want to use a different vocabulary, we might have something like, you know, how should the sons and daughters of the King engage with these ideas if they haven't been to seminary, so I'm not sort of saying anything about that. It's just my sense of that language is I find it hard anyway, the way I use everyday Christian is certainly not with any casting down or looking down. I mean, as a pastor, I mean, I think of myself as an everyday Christian, as well. But I'm very aware of the fact that I've had this amazing opportunity to go to seminary to have an education that many Christians would love to have, they would just have a cash, if I could sit down my job and go do exactly what you did, I would love to do that with what God's called me to do. And I don't want to communicate a way of reading the Bible, or thinking about how we engage with culture, which as we already said, it's pretty much everything that implies to them, you need to be like me, you need to have my degrees need to have my knowledge to really do this. Well. I'm very fearful about that. So how would you respond to that kind of pastoral concern? If anyone sort of gets the impression that in order to live well as a Christian and to understand and critique the culture, you need a seminary degree, then you and I have very badly communicated. So let's let's try and

Chris Watkin 34:36  

try and make sure that that doesn't happen. I think any Christian who reads the Bible has all the tools that she or he needs, and at its simplest, but not at its most simplistic, so this is still really deep, very simple to express. The shape of the Bible story is creation and fall and redemption and consummation.

You don't even need to use those big words, you know, God made the world, human beings turned away from him, God is rescuing them. And He will judge the world and take his people to be with Him forever. And then sense that's the shape of our cultural critique. And that's the distinctive Christian way of reading culture. Now, for those people who want a book to go away meat on this, this is Herman diving in the roots of Western culture. And he says, all of the cultures that he's aware of have a binary way of understanding how the world works. So there are two principles of the ancient Greeks. It was form and matter. And then for the medieval period, it was nature and grace. And for us, its nature and freedom. Now, in a sense, that doesn't matter. But that's the philosophical background to this. And then he said that Christianity is really different and really weird, because it doesn't have just two terms that are in opposition to each other, but he has a story. And other views of the world don't have a story. Because there's nothing fundamental that changes over time. But for Christians, there is like with the fall, something fundamentally changed. And then with redemption, something fundamentally changes life is not the world is not the same place after these things. And that's really quite strange, in the context of different ways of looking at the world. And because Christians have a story, creation, fall redemption, they can look at the world in much subtler and more complex ways than other people. So for example, I can say that as a human being, I'm created in the image of God, and

all human beings are created in the image of God. And that means that we have a great dignity and a great worth in God's eyes. We're not nothing, we're not just modest. But we also know from Genesis three, that we've turned away from God, and cursed is the ground and so forth. And life, therefore, in this world at the moment is not as it should be. And it's messed up in all sorts of different ways. And even that relatively straightforward insight is just culturally the gift that never stops giving, because it helps you to understand how human beings are capable of such wonderful acts of self sacrificial love and care and so forth. But also how we're capable of you know, things like mass murder, and genocide. And it's really hard to get a way of understanding human beings that can account for both of those if you don't have a story, because what single principle can give you both, you know, someone who will die for someone they haven't met, because they want to save their life and give you a beautiful concerto and wonderful work of art. And also the death camps and child torture, and whatever it like, is really hard. That because the Bible is a story, creation, fall redemption, it allows you to account for human beings in a much richer way. And so that's just one example of how just starting on from these forwards creation, fall, redemption consummation, it gives you an incredibly rich way of engaging with culture, this beautiful, as I've thought about some of these questions around cultural engagement. One of the things that I've maybe personally found most troubling or challenging is the way in which I think sincere, well, meaning Christians can fully agree on the analysis of a particular issue facing our culture, and yet, engage with it act in reference to it in a way that is absolutely antithetical, we've gone down two different paths. So you know, for example, you can have two people who agree with a biblical critique of self expressive individualism in our culture, and both can agree that are warped to sex and gender ethics throughout much of America are a destructive articulation of that self expressive individualism. And we can agree about a whole array of ethical questions around LGBTQ identity and lifestyle and practice. And yet, how we think we should engage with LGBTQ people in our culture looks radically different. On the one side, you'll have someone that says, We need to actively resist this movement, we need to legislate against this movement, we need to do everything we can to stop this movement. And on the other hand, you have someone who would say, oh, no, and we have a really sorted history with LGBTQ people and the proper response is to love them into the kingdom and show them gentleness one side wants correction, the other side seems to want connection, because I do think there are sincere Christians on both sides who are well meant and their intentions with how they say we should engage. They agree on the analysis, they disagree on how we should engage. And so I'm just wondering, how do we sort these kinds of disagreements out because I think there are so many issues where this is exactly the case. I guess the

First thing is that we shouldn't be surprised that there's disagreement. Because as you say, it's one thing to sort of work out a series of principles or the way in which the Bible might be brought to bear on an issue, theoretically, but then to try and take those issues to a policy level, I think, is often really complex. And there's not one obvious way to do it. Now, I'm a theory person. So I'm outside my comfort zone with these policy issues. But I think one way to think about it might be just imagine as a thought experiment, that all Christians did end up agreeing perfectly on the fine details of policy in a particular area. Would that be a good and healthy thing or not? Well, I think given what the Bible says about who we are, and in these last days, that our own way of thinking about things is not perfect, that there would be a certain sense to be worrying situation. If there were no debate, if we weren't sharpening each other, and seeking to explore and refine the views that we had, I think you would probably think that there was something deficient about that. Now, of course, when we seek our face to face, I'm sure all these issues will become clear, in the same way that I don't think it's helpful as a Christian to say that there is only one

particular expression of an economic system that is utterly biblical, and all the other ones are utterly unbiblical. I think there's a wisdom call that comes when we think about how things work themselves out on the ground. And so perhaps the biblical category, to think about this is wisdom, rather than good and evil. So I'm not saying there isn't good and evil in the Bible to speak about those very clearly. But when it comes to thinking about how should principals work themselves out, you're in a complex society, like the one that we've got a plural society, most people in the society wouldn't call themselves Christian. So how should Christians behave in such a society? It's not a right and wrong call. It's a wisdom calm. And there's therefore room, as you were saying in the question for Christians who are convinced that the Bible is true, and seeking to work it out to come to different positions, and for that not to be, in itself a problem or a reason to attack people on the other side, because they don't agree with us. And it's a case, therefore, of seeking to understand which things are true and false things, and which things are wisdom things. And that's not always easy, you know, that can be quite hard to work out. So I'm not suggesting, you know, you sort of click your fingers, and all this becomes not a problem. There's a constant working through that's required. But I think, when we assume that everything to do with policy, must either be good or evil, I think we've gone beyond what the Bible would say. And we've missed that wonderful biblical category of wisdom that can really help us when it comes to working out how to live in a complex world. Oh, my fears with cultural engagement. Again, the difference between analysis and engagement, I don't know where the line is. But let's just say acting and engaging. We don't just live in a culture. I mean, we are acting within the places that we live. But I think one of my fears is that it often seems like Christians, myself included, are seeking some sort of modernist solution. Like, we want this one true, right? technique or methodology by which we can reliably engage culture. And, of course, whatever our end goal is, and our particular tradition that's going to shape the technique. So whether the end goal of your engagement is cultural transformation, you know, we're going to take back America for God or evangelism, we're going to save souls, or freedom from the state, you know, you're a libertarian, that's going to shape the technique we use and beyond that, whatever technique we use has a way of shaping the goal on its own. But I'm kind of wondering if we need a more postmodern approach to cultural engagement, one that embraces multiple postures that understands that we have to kind of live loosely to the powers. And so our engagement is always going to be ad hoc, or like you said, it's going to be driven by wisdom that when we're in this world, the song we're singing isn't sheet music, it's more improv in the moment. And you know, if that's right, I think it means churches have to be places where these kinds of apparent contradictions exist, where you have the prophetic voice calling the local school board to task and the wise advisor on the school board quietly working to change policy incrementally mean this to look like opposing forces, but they could be in the exact same church serving the exact same ends. Now when I talked about this, and I could give other examples like that where it seems like there's a parent opposition in the same church or in the same place. I do fear that this is just a thoroughly postmodern approach, which is, in fact an artifact of my own cultural moment that I'm rather drawn to relativism, whether or not I want to admit it is

is having multiple postures, postmodern? Or is there a different way of thinking about it? So as the beginning of what you said that you're using the language of technique and distancing yourself from it, and I just want to come back to that and say, I think that's right, I think the idea that there is a technique that we can employ to do this in a failsafe way of your time, is a rather modern way of thinking is the idea of method, you know, Descartes discourse on method, if we get the method right, then everything will fall into place. And I think the reason that, that perhaps doesn't really work in this area, is that we're talking about relationships. Culture is just a vast web of different relationships. And relationships don't work terribly well with the idea of single methods or techniques. So if I were to say to my wife, what is the technique that I should use to make our relationship work? Well, I'm not sure if he would warm to that.

Because they're complex, and they're shifting out their relationships, and they require more of us than a set of steps to go through to make them work. I'm not sure that I would say that we need to become postmodern though, I think what we need to become is more biblical in the following ways. As you are incredibly helpfully saying towards the end, the Bible has a whole folio of different ways to train it, you know, so your prophets stand up, and shout, and say everything that's wrong, and call people to change. And then in the wisdom literature, you've got much more of a sense often, of God's people working in the cracks of a culture, so to speak, of seeking to change what they can within their own little sphere of influence, and rolling with a lot of the rest of it. So think of Daniel, for example, in the court of Babylon, you know, he's not standing up prophetically denouncing as his main mode of cultural engagement, he's learning, it appears the culture of the Babylonians, which would have included their religion and their occult practices. And he's working within that system seeking to remain faithful to God, the book of Daniel would suggest that he is remaining faithful to God. And so there are these different models of cultural engagement within the Bible, you know, that Esther does her thing, she's extremely bold, risks her life at one point, so that all these different models, and I guess, if we want to be fully rounded, idli, biblical, as you were really helpfully saying, you're going to want all of those moments and all of those ways of engaging within the broad Christian Church, you're going to want your prophetic moments. And you're going to want your Daniel type moments, you're going to want your SD moments and not one of those, no single one of those should be the only lens through which we view cultural engagement. So if you're doing it this way, you're being faithful. And if you're doing it any other way, you're not being faithful, because that will be like taking scissors to the Bible and saying this bit of the Bible is helpful. And those are the bits of the Bible, are not helpful. And I think, ultimately, we see what this can look like, in Jesus. Because he plays the whole keyboard, he stands in front of the Pharisees, and he looks them in the eye. And, you know, he seems to basically shout at them for a while, and condemned them, and call them out in a really aggressive way, using really quite vivid language. That's Jesus sort of being a prophet. And then he engages with the woman at the well, who was messed up theologically, like, you know, he could test strips off her, he could really set her eye, but he's really gentle. And he doesn't go for the jugular. And he helps her you know, he's not affirming her in her misunderstanding, but he's very gently engaging with.

And I think our problem is that we often treat the woman at the well as if she were a Pharisee. And we often treat the Pharisees as if they were women at the well. In other words, we don't have that perfect pitch that Jesus had. And part of that is different temperaments. So I'm much more of a listener than a shouter. And therefore, I'm not Christ. Like, in that sense, I don't play the full key policy. And this is one of the reasons why and I love this in the question that you asked as well, you need the whole church to do this. So none of us have that full, you know, octave range that Jesus has in the way that he had. But some of us are better at the gentle kind, sort of walking alongside someone approach. Some of us are better at the shouting, all of his needs to be trying to correct ourselves. It's not good for someone say, Well, I'm a shelter, so I'm just going to shout all the time. All of us need to be seeking to become more Christ like but it's only together as the church that we can begin to embody that full breadth that Christ showed in the Bible shows in these different ways of engaging with culture. As you look at the sweep of the biblical story. Are there any other characters or narratives that you think would be

helpful fodder, good places for us to go to explore different postures towards our culture, you've given the example of Daniel, and we've talked about the prophet or Esther, are there any other stories that you have? These are stories that we really need to attend to? Because, you know, even those two tend to fall into two broad categories, which is the person who's direct and confrontational person who is gentle and listening. But of course, our engagement culture can be much more multifaceted than just those two apparent polarities. But are there any other stories or postures that you'd recommend we consider as we engage our culture, the one passage that has helped me perhaps more than any other over the years in answering this sort of question, it's not a story, but it's a shape of engaging with culture, is what Paul is doing in one Corinthians one, verses 18 to 31, where he's addressing the dominant cultural values of his age, you know, Jews demand miraculous signs, and Greeks look for wisdom. So here are two things that you guys really value you think you've arrived when you have these things? Yeah, look at me, I'm all wise, is sort of peak Greek, having made it status, you know, that wisdom is the thing that you want, and then produce these miraculous signs, it appears later on in the passage, what they're looking for is a demonstration of God's power. They said, We want power, we want to see raw power in the sights. And what Paul does with those two cultural values, I think, is, again, you could write books and books and books on how this can shape and approach the cultural critique, because he does two things. And they are not to belong together. And they do. And it's brilliant that they do. So the first thing that he does, is he sets the gospel in a stark antithesis to these values. So you know, he says, Greeks, you look for wisdom. I've got the foolishness of the cross, and Jews, you look for miraculous signs, I've got the weakness of the cross, He says, Don't come to the cross thinking is what you're already searching for. If you want wisdom, all I've got is foolishness a man strung up, you know, dying, a criminal's death is not your picture of wisdom. And similarly, a man who can hardly even draw a breath and his dying in agony is not a picture of power. So you're not going to find the things that you're searching for in the way that you're searching for them at the Cross antithesis, and at that point, the sort of mode of cultural critique that seeks to denounce the culture, and to point the finger at the culture is sort of rocking back in his chair and thinking, Paul's our guy, yes, Paul, you tell them, you know, the gospel is not the same as the culture, buy upon your wisdom and down with your power. And if that's all that, he said in that passage, they'd be right. But he doesn't, intriguingly, and deliciously. A couple of verses later, he goes on to say that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. And the weakness of God is strong in the human spirit. He was He doing that? Well, he's taking this same word wisdom. And he's actually saying that if you want the fullness of this thing, that you're searching for Sophia, if you want to find real wisdom, not the sort of paddling pool that you're using at the moment, then you need to come to the cross. Because actually, the thing that you look upon is foolish. God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. And later on in the passage, he goes on, to talk about how through God's wisdom we can come to know God, you know, the ultimate reality, the source of all things, the great God of the universe, and human wisdom can never do that. And at that point, all the people who take an approach to Christian cultural critique that says that the gospel is the fulfilment of the cultures, values, are rocking back into their chairs and saying, Paul is our guy, you know, look, he's saying, if you really want wisdom, you need to come to Christ, because you'll only find true wisdom in Christ. And it's the fact that he can he get the antithesis of really, really hard and embrace fulfilment, really, really hard, in the same passage, that I think is just gold, for our cultural critique. And it opens up for as a whole, rich, biblical paradigm of engaging with culture that neither reduces itself to simply denouncing and doing the antithesis thing as the only thing that we do. Nor does it reduce us to simply saying, oh, carry on in the way that you are, you know, you're Greeks looking for wisdom, and eventually you'll find the wisdom of Christ. So just a few steps further, and then you'll be No, no, absolutely not. There's a repentance that's necessary. There's a letting go of what we think wisdom has to look like, because we'll never find it unless we do let it go and let the cross reshape our sense from the ground up for what wisdom is. And so that passage, I think, provides for us a really powerful blueprint for what cultural critique can look like in this complex, biblical way. That's a great reference point and good luck.

Patrick Miller 55:00  

Just example, but model for us to try to live into the following. Paul, I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions. I have a bajillion more I could ask after this, but we have already taken more of your time than I promised. So I appreciate you so much coming on to the podcast. But before we close, would you just mind praying for our audience? I'd love to Yes.

Chris Watkin 55:23  

Dear father, God, we can be for you.

Not as those with the answers, and we're sorry, if it appeared that we, we did think we had all the answers during the conversation, Lord, Your word contains endless depths of wisdom, and we have begun only to scratch its surface, but what a surface lot and what wisdom we have found, it is wonderful. To seek to plumb the depths of your word, we thank You that we too have had the opportunity to do so in this conversation. And we pray for all those who are listening or watching that by your grace, you might shine the light of Your Word, on to their understanding of culture. And as they dig in to the Bible. They will unearth treasures

that can help them to understand themselves and you and the culture around them and to engage with it in rich and powerful biblical ways. And I pray, Lord, that there will be people listening to this podcast, who will go far beyond what either Patrick or I had been able to do and apply these truths in areas about which we don't have the foggiest idea.

And love may together, we try to,

to find and to to embody the richness of Christ. So different ways of engaging with the people around him, that we might be a church that points people to you and points people to Him. Amen. Amen. Thank you so much for being on the show with us today. If people are interested, is there any way that they can follow you or connect to your work? They can hop over to the website thinking through the Bible, or one where there's some of my talks and written pieces? And if people want to follow me on the platform, formerly known as Twitter,

it's Dr. For Dr. Chris Fantastic. Thank you so much for being with us today. Thank you, Patrick. It's been a real treat.

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