Theology & Culture (1): Introduction

In 1998, at the age of 24, I left the United States for the first time and moved to a predominantly Muslim republic in the former Soviet Union. I had never traveled further west than San Antonio, further north than the tip of Maine, further east than Nags Head (NC), or further south than Miami. Can you imagine what a never-ending carnival of cultural wedgies the next two years were for me?

The first week in country, I was introduced to a special drink called “kuhmis,” which my buddies told me “will taste a lot like an American milkshake.” And truly, it was white and frothy just like a vanilla milkshake. But it turns out that it was white and frothy because it was fermented camel’s milk. At some point in history, a Middle Eastern or Central Asian entrepreneur decided to take some camel’s (or horse’s) milk, allow it to rot over a period of time, and then bottle it as a delicacy. Later that week, I also was served fish jello for breakfast.

The second week in country I was introduced to the “banya.” My buddies told me that it “will be a lot like an American sauna.” And sure enough, it was a square room with a lot of heat. But there were a few differences. One difference lay in the fact that steam was generated by pouring vodka onto a barrel full of hot coals. (I wanted to join in, but I couldn’t find my bottle of Nyquil.) Another difference lay in the fact that Central Asian saunas have bundles of birch branches in the corner, with which the men whip one another about the back, starting at the heels and working methodically and consistently up to the shoulders. Afterwards, they go outside the banya and roll around in the snow. I’m not kidding. I’ve never prayed so hard for the rapture.

Cultural oddities aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being immersed in a very complex culture, a culture which was a multi-layered synthesis of Soviet-era atheism and Central Asian Islam. On Friday evenings, I could pay a dollar to attend world-class symphonies and piano concerts at the performing arts center one mile from my apartment. On weekday mornings, I took language lessons in Russian and Tatar, discovering how human languages provide people with unique categories for thinking and with unique advantages and disadvantages when mediating the biblical gospel. On weekday afternoons, I taught at three of the universities that were cultural legacies of years past. In the evenings, I drank hot tea (the manly drink of choice in Central Asia, best imbibed with a spot of milk and a spoon of sugar) and watched snow fall on a mosque and an Eastern Orthodox cathedral which stood immediately outside my apartment window. Often, I had a huddle of undergrad or grad students in my apartment, inundating me with questions about why I believe in God (atheists) or how in the world I could believe that “a man was God” (Muslims).

In the space of two years, I began to realize more fully the deep and resonant effects of religion upon culture, and vice-versa. I was living in a socio-cultural context that had been almost entirely devoid of evangelical gospel influence for generations. At the same time, I began to read Abraham Kuyper. (On my journey to Central Asia, I had packed one suitcase of clothes and four suitcases of books. Nerdy, no?) Upon reading Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Al Wolters, and Francis Schaeffer, I began to realize that Christian theology is relevant to every dimension of culture (arts, sciences, public square, the academy, etc.) and to all of our human vocations (not only family and church, but also workplace and community). Therefore Christians are called to glorify God by working out the implications of a Christian worldview in every aspect of their lives.

Aside from my salvation, that was probably the most profound theological awakening I have ever had, even to this day. In the twelve years since then, I have slowly but steadily built upon the conviction that the Christian mission includes the outworking of the gospel in every dimension of a given culture, in every human vocation, and across the fabric of human existence. Though I’ve read it or heard it quoted probably hundreds of times, I am still struck by Kuyper’s claim: “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”* In Pro Rege, he writes, “The Son [of God] is not to be excluded from anything. You cannot point to any natural realm or star or comet or even descend into the depth of the earth, but it is related to Christ, not in some unimportant tangential way, but directly.”**

This means that absolutely everything in life matters to God. He cares not only about the goings-on within the four walls of a congregational gathering but also about the goings-on in other corners of society and culture. We must live Christianly not only as the church gathered, but also as the church scattered. We must take seriously our interactions in the arts (music, literature, cinema, architecture, etc.), the sciences (biology, physics, sociology, etc.), the public square (journalism, politics, economics, etc.), and the academy (schools, universities, seminaries, etc.).

For this reason, I applied (with David Nelson) several years ago for a teaching grant from the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Yale CFC awarded us the grant, and we began teaching a seminar in Theology & Culture. In mid-January, I offered this seminar for the sixth time, and it turned out to be one of the best teaching and learning experiences of my life. As I observed our students discussing and debating these issues, and as I fielded their questions during and after class, I realized again the manifold and pervasive ways in which our answers to “theology and culture” questions affect our daily lives. For this reason, and at the prompting of some students, I’ve decided to provide a blog series along the lines of the major topics of discussion in our Theology & Culture class.

Because of the limited nature of a blog format, I will be able to provide a broad-brush treatment of some of the important issues at the intersection of theology and culture, but not an in-depth treatment. In upcoming installments I will treat (1) alternative views of Christianity and culture, (2) a theology of culture, (3) historical cases studies such as Hubmaier, Augustine, and Kuyper; (4) theology in cultural context, (5) theology and vocation (6) theology and the arts, (7) theology and the sciences, (8) theology and the public square, (9) theology and the academy, and (10) some book, journal, and website recommendations.

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*Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in James D. Bratt, ed. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 488.

**From an excerpt translated by Jan Boer, You Can Do Greater Things than Christ (Nigeria: Jos, 1991).