catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 12 :: 2003.06.06 — 2003.06.19


Engaging culture in the land where God has placed us

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." This is what the Lord says: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you," declares the Lord, "and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you," declares the Lord, "and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile?." (Jeremiah 29:4-7, 10-14).

Before criticizing the escapist tendency of many Christians in America toward culture, we must confess that engaging culture is not an easy task. Engaging culture requires that we leave what is customary and comfortable, taking a journey of faith that we are not capable of making on our own. Engaging culture often means engaging with other cultures, entering into commitments and even disputes, with those who have a different way of living. The very word engage, as we are used to hearing it, has connotations that often make us apprehensive, whether it's in the context of an approaching marriage or conflict with an enemy. Engagement is an act of commitment that could end badly, were it not for the faithfulness of God.

Abraham must have been aware of the risks involved when he left his home and ventured out as a foreigner in a foreign land. As Dutch theologian, Hendrikus Berkhof reminds us in his book, Christian Faith, An Introduction to the Study of Faith,

This transmigration meant that [Abraham] "a Babylonian shepherd prince" could no longer count on the protection of the city god or of the other gods that represented and protected Babylonian life. Nor could he, of course, count on the gods of the unknown land to which he went, for those gods were the deities of the indigenous city population there.

Knowing he would not be protected by the foreign gods encountered on his journey, Abraham followed the God Who transcended the languages and customs of the peoples he would meet, but Who also cared enough to intervene in the world.

Abraham dared to undertake the migration, in a strange, new confidence that he would be led and protected by a higher, nameless God who called him, a God who ruled over the old country he had left and the new country to which he was going as well as over the dangerous desert lying in between, a God who was not confined to a particular territory but who because of his transcendence was mobile and able to protect him as he trekked to new worlds.

Abraham's journey begins the story of God's faithfulness to Israel as they wander into strange new lands, take oaths with those who do not worship the same God, and become engaged in struggles with people who do not share their values. The Old(er) Testament exhibits the awkward position of Israel, who has the burden of being a foreign nation in a foreign land. Israel's first father, Abraham, finds himself in a difficult situation when he and his wife Sarai travel through Egypt. In an attempt to save his own life, Abraham decides to violate Egyptian ethics emphasizing the importance of absolute truthfulness and says his wife Sarai is his sister. Later, Abraham has a dispute with Abimelech over a well of water. And he negotiates with the Hittites in the land of Canaan concerning a burial site for Sarah. Abraham's son Isaac, finding himself in a precarious position of his own, repeats his father's practice of lying to kings and passes his wife Rebecca off as his sister, too. Though the Philistines forgive Isaac for this trespass, they soon become so jealous of Isaac's wealth on their soil that they stop up his wells and ask him to leave. When he does, he gets involved in two land disputes with the herdsmen of Gerar over wells that he discovered. Jacob's sons bring the violence of Israel's cultural clash with other nations to a new level in one of the ugliest events recorded in Genesis. They put their father in jeopardy in the land of the Canaanites and Perizzites by forcing a Hivite who has fallen in love with their sister Dinah to become circumcised, he and all the males of his city, then attacking the city while the men are still in pain. The account of Joseph, which leads to the slavery and exodus of the Israelites, subsequent battles with other nations on the way to the promised land, and the complications of going into exile under the rule of foreign kings, exhibits many dimensions of cultural exchange between Israel and other nations.


The story of Israel resonates with so many of us because conflicts between people who are different from one another, who share different values and follow different gods is a very human story, today as much as in the days of old. The reality that wars continue to be fought in this present age, that treaties still are drawn up, plans for peace formulated, ideologies developed to replace those that have failed in the past, speaks to the fact that engaging with others remains a difficult task for human beings. The task can seem so overwhelming, in fact, that we are tempted to avoid it altogether.

The avoidance of cultural engagement can be found everywhere, but most particularly we see this today in the counter-culture or anti-culture stance of American evangelical fundamentalism. As George Marsden points out in Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, Christian evangelical fundamentalists combine a contempt for secularization, a premillenialist view of the end times and an individualistic understanding of their relationship with Jesus Christ to form an anti-cultural stance.

The most immediate heritage of fundamentalists comes from their twentieth-century experiences of being a beleaguered and ridiculed minority. Sin and secularism had run rampant over some key parts of American culture. Like twentieth-century sociologists, most fundamentalists believed in laws that declared that the process of secularization was irreversible. In the fundamentalists' case these laws were drawn from dispensational premillennialism, which posited the steady decline of the modern era in preparation for a final world calamity resolved only by the personal return of Christ with avenging armies. Fundamentalists were outsiders. They were outsiders from the power centers of society, its politics, and its cultural life; they viewed themselves as separated from the worldly powers.

Though evangelical fundamentalists are often involved, and even quite effective, in many aspects of secular society, politics, mass media, economics, etc. the dominant tendency of fundamentalism is to take an escapist stance toward the world. If Jesus is coming to take His people up to heaven, away from the evils of the secular world condemned by God, why get involved in that culture at all?


It's no surprise, then, that when evangelical fundamentalists apply this worldview to a reading of Israel's story, they see the characters simply as models for a rugged individualism opposed to the evils of the cultures surrounding them. Abraham appears as the man of faith who never compromised his belief, despite pressure from the world that threatened him. The prophets become mere heroic figures of God, standing up against the crowd, defying those in power. Sampson and David stand out as models of bravery though the odds were stacked against them. According to the values of fundamentalism, the lesson to gain from Scripture is that everyone should dare to be a Daniel.

Reading the Bible simply as a story about individuals of faith who stood up against the evils of a faithless world, however, ignores the radical message of the Gospel, which Paul preaches through Christ concerning the salvation of all the world. Paul does not preach the heroism of the man of faith. Instead, he attempts to imitate Christ by being all things to all people.

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (I Cor. 9:19-23)

Paul knows the blessings of God cannot be found in an individualistic faith, but in the shared community of sacrificial love made possible by God's love for us in the form of Jesus Christ. Empowered by Christ's death and resurrection, Paul boldly speaks to Jews and Greeks, preaches in the synagogues and Greek marketplaces among the philosophers, and even presents the Gospel to Caesar himself, the most powerful leader of the world at the time.


The power of the Gospel emboldens Paul to engage in the cultivation of God's Kingdom wherever he finds himself. As the fulfillment of the prophecies of old, Christ claims the victory of a faithful God Who keeps His promises. God's Word spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, then, is given full authority in Christ whose conquering power is evident in the life of Paul as he preaches the Gospel to all the world. When we read Jeremiah's words to the exiled Israelites now, knowing that Christ has fulfilled those prophecies, we ought to be emboldened as well, for the God that ruled over His creation in the past rules over the culture(s) that we engage as God's cultivators now and in the future. God's Word to Israel in Jeremiah 29 applies to us today, since we find ourselves in a land that is still not fully our own. In Christ, however, we know that the future is a sure thing, as certain as the past, and that all culture belongs to God. Being sure of that hope, we engage culture boldly, going about our daily business in the land where God has placed us.

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