The Poison Pill Of Culture


This article is a re-post of the one I wrote Monday for my Speculative Faith column.

Considering Travis Perry’s article last week [at Speculative Faith] (“Licking the Chocolate Off Poison Pills: A Comment on Cultural Engagement”), I suppose the obvious first question to ask is this: is culture really a poison pill? I mean, God quite purposefully left Christians in the world (“As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” –John 17:18). He did also say that said culture would hate Christians (“I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” –John 17:14) and that we are not to be of the world (“They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” –John 17:16).

Of course, I’m interpreting “world” as “culture.” I’ve heard some scholars refer to it as the system of the world. Kind of like, the way the world operates.

Clearly, from what Jesus said in John, the way the world works is opposed to the way God works, the way Jesus works, and might fairly be considered a poison pill. So today the world preaches (yes, preaches) that we are all good and have this unlimited potential in us, that all we need to do is look within to find it. God says something quite different: we all have a sin nature and need to look to the cross; that when we are weak, then we are strong.

The world also says the one who carries out revenge is the hero, whereas God says, the one who forgives and loves the enemy is the hero.

Another current “truth” the world is currently preaching is that there is no truth. Nothing set in stone. All relative, flexible, contingent. God, on the other hand, specifies that His word is truth, even that Jesus is truth. And that truth is fixed in Heaven. So, truth according to God is not pliable. Not malleable, not subject to our indigestion brought on by a bit of cheese or the feelings we have today that we didn’t have yesterday.

There are so many others: attitudes about sexual promiscuity, pride, greed, lying, gossip, sexual identity, other gods beside the One True God, etc.

So, if there is so much poison in the world, how can a Christian engage culture and not be killed by it? Is the only way to survive to divorce ourselves from anything that could potentially harm us? Or our kids? Our families?

That approach doesn’t seem to explain why Jesus left us in the world instead of taking us out. It almost seems to say, God was wrong about leaving us here because it’s just too dangerous, so we’ll do what He didn’t: we’ll take ourselves out of the world as much as possible.

Not only is it contradictory to what God intended, including the commission He gave believers (Matt 28:19-20), but it doesn’t work. The real problem we are faced with is the sin in our own hearts. That’s why Jesus chastised the Pharisees for cleaning the outside of the cup without cleaning the inside. His answer was not to build a shield around the cup to keep away people with dirty hands or even with evil intentions. His solution was to first clean the inside of the cup.

Key word: first. Matthew 23:26 makes the clear statement that the way to clean the outside is to clean the inside first:

You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.

As I see things, the way to engage culture is with clean hands and a pure heart. These we find in God’s word, by cultivating a relationship with Him. Not by keeping a list of songs we won’t sing or TV programs we won’t watch, computer games we won’t play, books we won’t read, etc. In other words, we don’t get clean hands and we don’t carry out the charge Jesus gave us to go into all the world to make disciples, by engaging only part of culture.

What may seem contradictory is that I believe Travis is right: culture that “pushes the envelop,” that walks the edge of propriety, actually normalizes that behavior. I’ve seen this first hand with the issue of homosexuality (I guess because I’ve lived long enough to see our culture do a flip-flop on this subject). My mom, who graduated from college the same year my brother graduated from high school, way back in the 1960s, had a psych textbook that listed homosexuality as deviant behavior (among other inappropriate behaviors). I watched as our culture introduced homosexual jokes into society, then funny but likeable homosexual characters, and ultimately homosexual scenes on TV. All the while our government has passed law after law that gradually aimed, not only at permitting homosexual behavior but at supporting and encouraging its acceptance and practice. Now, here in California, legislators are trying to push through a law prohibiting professional counselors from engaging people who want help with same sex attraction by using strategies designed to help them choose heterosexuality instead.

What does that mean for writers and readers? Do we keep away from culture’s poison pills, or do we sue the pharmacies? Or do we clean our own cups instead?

I believe Travis was actually saying is that there isn’t a one-way-to-engage-culture rule, unless it’s this: “it’s actually normal to embrace a type of sorting process for popular culture and refuse to engage in areas we know are potential problems for us” (Travis Perry).

Refuse to engage in areas that are problems for us! Because it’s my problem, doesn’t mean no one else should therefore engage. Because it is not your problem, doesn’t mean I’m supposed to engage.

But what about the normalization process? I guess I’d add another layer of discernment or awareness: what things might be problems for the culture, for society at large? For instance, was the violence in Schindler’s List an encouragement of mass murder? I don’t see how. Was the promiscuity on display in Mash an undermining of monogamous marriage? I think it was. Was Harry Potter normalizing witchery? Not in the least.

So we can make choices, which must be informed choices. Nevertheless, the real first step is that “cleaning the inside of the cup” Jesus spoke of. In a discussion that includes “friendship with the world,” the epistle of James says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:8) Note, he didn’t say, Stand up to the world. Go to war against the world. Yes, resist Satan (James 4:7), but the focus is clearly on each Christian being in relation with God and in obedience to Him.

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