One interesting, and somewhat confusing, passage bridges these apparent extremes. In his final prayer for his disciples before his ascension, Jesus addresses the relationship his followers would have with culture. "My prayer is not that you take them out of the world," John records him saying, "but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it" (17:15-16). By this, Jesus seems to mean that Christians should not retreat from the world altogether; we have a responsibility to be salt and light among the lost. Nevertheless, we should persistently resist the influence of the broader culture on our values and behavior.
That's easy enough to say. But as one commentator has said, "Yet within a century of his resurrection Christians were disagreeing over how to apply it to their lives." And to this day, we continue to disagree.
"In the World, Not of It"
When I was a child, the adults in my life summarized our relationship to the broader culture by saying we should be "in the world, but not of it." They didn't explain it; they just said it and that settled it. They were paraphrasing Jesus' prayer in John 17. But behind the saying lay the assumption that Christians should be radically different from the people around them. So we constructed a world, a subculture, made up of Christian alternatives to secular products. We listened to Christian radio or bought music performed by Christian artists. We watched Christian television shows, wore Christian t-shirts, and read Christian books and magazines. Our goal was to do everything the world did, but do it differently: Christianly.
At stake was the credibility of our witness among the lost. We would prove the truth of the gospel, we surmised, by being different. We'd show "the world" that good movies don't need sex scenes, and good music doesn't need cuss words. "The world" would be so impressed with what we made that they would be persuaded to follow Jesus. After all, Jesus told us to "let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).
An advantage of this approach is that it takes seriously the subtle power of culture to affect how we think and act. Often quoting the King James Version translation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22, folks who take this perspective will argue that we should "[a]bstain from all appearance of evil." Because of this verse, I was discouraged from drinking root beer as a child, because in both the packaging and the name, the beverage had "the appearance of evil." In other words, this approach tends to draw a broad black line between good behavior and bad, and prefers to stay well on this side of that line. Christians who approach culture this way are deeply concerned with holiness.
On the other hand, this approach has a couple of disadvantages. For one, if you want to flee all appearance of evil, then you have to clearly identify what evil looks like. We had a saying for that, too. "I don't smoke, cuss, drink, or chew—or run around with girls that do!" In other words, this approach has a tendency to identify the misdeeds of culture in terms of a select few easily observable behaviors. Smoking, cussing, drinking, and chewing—along with certain types of music, hairstyles, tattoos, etc.—were obviously worldly, and thus immoral. This is an overly simplistic view of culture that tends to focus primarily on externals.