Whither the Culture Wars?

Those involved in the culture wars (such as myself) often are asked if this may not be at best a distraction from the gospel or at worst, a perversion of it. ‘Why waste time tying to reform society? Just save souls.’ But as I have argued elsewhere on this site, it seems both can be done simultaneously. Both are important.

This view is also held by a senior editor at Christianity Today. Writing in the September 25, 2006 issue, he argues that the culture wars are an important part of our ministry, and certainly have not been a waste of time.

Entitled, “Sit Down, Sit Down for Jesus?,” Stan Guthrie says that some have claimed we have lost the culture wars or they are not worth fighting. He mentions several names to this effect, including popular author Philip Yancey. They seem to think it is time to give up on the culture wars.

Guthrie disagrees, as do I. (Speaking of Yancey, he is a Christian of the left who does indeed frown upon those of us fighting the culture wars. When he was in Melbourne a few years back I had a chat with him about this. We agreed to disagree on these issues. Yet I quite enjoy much of what he says, and have read many of his books, including his latest on prayer.)

Says Guthrie, “Certainly these writers are making a perennially important point that evangelism and social ministry must never take a back seat to political activism. But we must also beware of going to the opposite extreme of a privatized faith. Christians are to be salt and light in all spheres of human life – even at the risk of occasionally offending our neighbors.”

He continues, “Carl Henry, the first editor of Christianity Today, said as much almost six decades ago in his classic book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. ‘The battle against evil in all its forms must be pressed unsparingly,’ Henry said. ‘[W]e must pursue the enemy in politics, in economics, in science, in ethics – everywhere, in every field, we must pursue relentlessly’.”

“Of course, relentless (and sometimes confrontational) cultural engagement has a long history among Christians. William Carey fought widow burning, Martin Luther King Jr. battled segregation, and William Wilberforce opposed slavery, to cite just three examples. Thank God they succeeded in their valiant but never easy efforts to clean up the degenerate empires in which God had placed them.”

Guthrie admits that we culture warriors have not always been as wise, as loving or as discerning as we might have been, but still the work is vital: “Granted, Christian cultural engagement is risky – but disengagement is even riskier. Missionaries who return to the United States sometimes express shock at how quickly their home culture has turned against Christian values it once took for granted. And let’s face it, derided in some quarters as ‘theocons’ or even the ‘new Taliban,’ we couldn’t withdraw from the culture wars even if we wanted to.”

And years of tireless activism has borne some fruit. Indeed, “the outcome is far from hopeless. ‘There have been gains,’ notes Ross Douthat, an editor for The Atlantic. ‘The abortion rate has dropped, and the country is marginally more pro-life than 30 years ago; the divorce rate has dropped as well; and the erosion of religious faith that prompted Time magazine to ponder the death of God has been halted, though not necessarily reversed. The push for euthanasia has been largely turned back so far, and if the courts are not yet prepared to overturn Roe v. Wade, there is greater reason for pro-life hope than in the 1970s or the Clinton years’.” That is certainly good news, and Christian culture warriors deserve a lot of credit for their efforts.

And as is so often the case, getting the balance right is crucial. No one is saying that our efforts should just lie in the political and social arenas. But that is part of the overall battle we find ourselves in. “Passing new laws and backing pro-life judges, while good acts in themselves, do not exhaust our responsibility to love God and our fellow human beings.”

Guthrie concludes with these words: “As we seek concrete ways to love our neighbors, Christians are right to fight sex trafficking, genocide, and aids. But doesn’t Christ’s love also compel us to speak compassionately against the new eugenics, gay marriage, and other attempts to redefine bedrock Judeo-Christian understandings of human nature and family life? We must fight evil in the public square – whether we are the political flavor of the month or not.”

Needless to say, I give a hearty ‘Amen’ to those thoughts.


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One Reply to “Whither the Culture Wars?”

  1. Agreed. It is not either/or but both, within the justified peace, and very real limitation of our human capacities.

    Somehow, I think many people feel worn down by – or even insignificant – amidst the vast array of opportunities for comment, opinion and participation:

    We are participating in:
    1. a democracy, giving input into the collective mind and action of society. It can be most rewarding.
    2. personal, one-to-one conversations, where what we say can be of extremely good influence upon others.
    3. churches, where everyone brings their democratic know-how and techniques into an open environment.
    4. a global conversation, regarding cultures and nations and religions, on internet, newspaper, TV and so on.

    Jesus’ life, for example his concentrated entry into Jerusalem on a colt, indicates that it is human dignity to focus on the most essential of matters.

    P.T. Forsyth in an essay entitled ‘The Divine Self-emptying’ said ‘Self-limitation is one of the infinite powers of Godhead’.

    As those in his image, we too need to exercise a degree of ‘self-limitation’ in order to be most fruitful. A Christian needs to focus upon the direct proclamation of the gospel, in ways that are not merely painting with a broad brush (culture wars), but are engaging with others meaningfully, effectually (in good old fashioned conversation).

    Praise God for both the ready pen of a writer (Ps. 45:1), and the fiery tongue of a conversation bearing witness to Christ (Acts 2:3) – public or private.

    Trevor Faggotter, Tasmania

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