Cultural Engagement

In the aftermath of Saul’s conversion, Luke tells us that he spoke boldly and directly about the Lord Jesus in the synagogues. One key takeaway from this description of Saul as a man on fire for the gospel is that you have to know how to speak boldly and directly. That is to say, in order to engage meaningfully with family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers, you generally have to know a thing or two about the person with whom you are engaging. In past chapters, we’ve seen how Peter, Stephen, and Philip engaged meaningfully with their respective audiences. In upcoming chapters, we’ll see how Paul engages meaningfully with both Jews and Gentiles through the speeches that Luke has recorded for us.

However, at this point I thought it would be helpful to reflect on the foundation of that engagement. As I hope we will see in subsequent chapters, Paul engages with different groups in different ways. He puts the gospel of Jesus Christ in a context that will be meaningful for his various hearers. He also often engages specifically with the culture of his hearers. These ideas of contextualization and cultural awareness are, then, the foundations of Paul’s meaningful engagement with his listeners. How he will present the gospel depends on these foundational ideas, and the same is true for us today.

With that said, I’ll start by defining and relating two terms: worldview and culture. At a high level, a worldview is “the perspective from which you understand reality, your ‘view of the world.’”[1] More robustly, people’s worldviews are “their network of ultimate beliefs, assumptions, values, and ideas that functions as a framework for interpreting their immediate experiences and for interacting with the world.”[2] As defined, everyone has a worldview, whether they know it or not. Moreover, worldviews have their origin in our thinking, but clearly also impact our feeling and our doing.

On the other hand, culture is more the outworking of our worldview and has its origin in God’s command to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and to have dominion over the creation. Based on ultimate beliefs (worldview), we make things, e.g. music, art, architecture, and NASCAR superspeedways. However, cultures are not static things. Rather, “cultures are dynamic shared worlds of meaning that communicate, orientate, reproduce and cultivate.”[3]

Bringing these two ideas together, “culture is worldview exteriorized, and worldview is culture interiorized.”[4] But that is not the complete picture. As noted above, culture in part stems from our creation as viceregents, or deputy creators, and worldview deals with matters of ultimate importance. This suggests that the origin of worldview and culture is religious in nature because they have to do with our relationship to God. And so, we can say that “both stem from the religion of the human heart.”[5]

The point, then, is that cultural engagement is ultimately religious engagement. Though many would deny any kind of religiosity, their denial itself is a religious statement. At the same time, being overtly religious is not always necessary since cultural engagement is ultimately religious engagement. To illustrate briefly, Luke describes Saul’s evangelistic efforts in Acts 9 in distinctly religious language. He disputed with the Jews in Damascus on the basis of Jesus’ identity as the Christ, the Messiah. That is to say, he engaged more directly with the specific religious topic of a savior. On the other hand, though he engaged with religiosity in Athens (because atheism is a modern idea, after all), Paul did so at more of a worldview/culture level. He did not engage in specific religious topics but appealed to ultimate beliefs and their outworking in Athenian culture.

Turning to what this means for us today, how we witness boldly and directly requires knowing with what we are engaging. Having an awareness of someone’s ultimate beliefs (worldview) and how those are worked out (culture) can go a long way to addressing their religious needs meaningfully. How can we do that? By being hospitable with our neighbors, showing a genuine interest in another’s life, and otherwise taking the time to probe below surface-level friendships. Such things don’t need to take years of development, nor do we have to have a detailed understanding. Paul spent only a brief time in Athens, after all. And yet, when he was there, he engaged the culture so that he might boldly and directly witness to the saving power of the Lord Jesus.

[1] Ted Turnau, Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective (Phillipsburg, N.J: P&R Pub, 2012), 8. [2] James Anderson, “Introduction to Apologetics,” 2017. [3] Daniel Strange, Their Rock Is Not like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014), 69. [4] Strange, Their Rock Is Not like Our Rock, 69. [5] Strange, Their Rock Is Not like Our Rock, 69.

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