I have two or three social media accounts, created in moments of inspiration or boredom, that I have never actually used. The companies that provide those accounts naturally want to turn me into an active user. But since they know nothing about me, the promotional messages they send, rather than being tailored to my actual interests, are the most generic form of popular culture you can imagine. “Here are some people we think you might like to follow,” Twitter gamely suggested recently to one of my dormant accounts—Ellen DeGeneres, CNN Breaking News, and Kim Kardashian West.
Those generic promotions come to mind when I hear fellow Christians talking, as they so often do, about “the culture”—as in, “the culture” is becoming more secular, or we need to engage “the culture.” Talking about “the culture” in this way causes us to stab blindly in the dark, much like Twitter’s email. It also causes us to miss our actual cultural responsibility and opportunity.
A nation of 300 million people, especially one as gloriously diverse as the United States, does not have one monolithic “culture.” It has neighborhoods and cities, ethnic groups and affinity groups, political parties and religious denominations. There is a shared national ethos, to be sure. But that ethos is constantly being contested, challenged, and reimagined by different groups within the nation, and ignored or actively resisted by others.
Even the idea of “the culture,” in the way we now use the phrase, is fairly new. The New Testament, especially the Gospel of John, prefers the term “the world” (cosmos in Greek) for what we might call “the culture,” ...1