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May 19, 2015Interviews

Every Square Inch: An Interview with Bruce Ashford on Cultural Engagement

How do Christians appropriately engage society in thoughtful, redeeming ways?
Every Square Inch: An Interview with Bruce Ashford on Cultural Engagement
Image: Kenneth Lu / flickr

Ed Stetzer: What’s the aim of this book? And why the title, “Every Square Inch?”

Bruce Ashford: In Every Square Inch, I wanted to write a book that provides a theological framework for understanding, making, and engaging culture. It starts by building a brief theology of culture and providing a few case studies of exemplary Christians throughout history, including Augustine, Abraham Kuyper, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and more. In fact, the title of the book is a play off of Kuyper’s famous declaration that, “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!’”

Every dimension of our lives relates in some way to Christ.

The rest of the book is an attempt to show how all of life matters to God, how each of us can serve faithfully as a representative of Christ, even as we interact in the arts, the natural sciences, the social sciences, the public square, the academy, sports and competition, and homemaking. Every dimension of our lives relates in some way to Christ and can in some manner be directed toward him.

ES: Where does someone start when approaching cultural engagement for the first time?

BA: It seems to me that many Christians reduce “cultural engagement” to politics, and reduce political involvement to certain forms of public policy activism. Other Christians think of “business as mission,” and while I certainly approve of that concept, that is not the best place to start or the best rubric for understanding cultural engagement as a whole. Still other Christians want to withdraw from culture, and this desire is not only impossible but profoundly unchristian.

One of the ways I help people get started making culture and engaging with their cultural contexts is to teach them to ask three questions. These three questions can be asked and answered when we find ourselves in any sphere of culture.

1) “What is God’s creational design for this realm of culture?”

2) “How has it been corrupted and misdirected by sin and idolatry?”

3) “In what ways can I help bring redirection to this realm by shaping my activities in light of Christ’s Lordship rather than in submission to idols?”

These questions are not easy to answer. It is mind-numbingly hard work because Scripture does not provide an apple-to-apple answer for each question. Discerning God’s creational design for a sphere of culture is hard enough. On top of that, we must put in the hard work of discerning the profusion of ways our society has corrupted and misdirected that design, and then how we as believers might interact in a way that redirects that realm.

ES: What challenges do you foresee as America becomes a post-Christian society?

BA: As evangelical Christians become increasingly marginalized, we will be tempted to respond in sub-Christian ways. If our response is fearful, we’ll tend to treat the church as a bomb shelter in which we can hide from the world. If we respond primarily in anger, we will attack our society and its culture relentlessly, as if the church were an Ultimate Fighter®. If our response is one of compromise, we will treat the Christian faith as a wax nose, continually adjusting the nose as we see fit. These and other options are unfaithful.

The better option is to realize that God’s grace restores the natural realm, and that it won’t completely or comprehensively restore that realm until Christ returns. What that means is that the salvation God has given us is one what should affect all of our activities in the natural realm. Christ’s Lordship is as wide as creation, and therefore as wide as culture. He saved us so that we would bring every square inch of our (cultural) lives under submission to his Lordship. We do this as a matter of witness and obedience, and as a preview of the day when Christ returns to renew and restore the universe. Our existence in the renewed universe will be profoundly cultural, replete with art, architecture, song, and so forth.

ES: How does cultural engagement help with Christian mission?

BA: As I see it, the Christian mission includes the outworking of the gospel in every dimension of culture because God’s grace renews and restores nature. In the aftermath of the Fall, every dimension of society and culture is corrupted and misdirected because of sin and sin’s consequences. For that same reason, every dimension of society and culture is rife with potential for Christians to reshape and redirect it toward Christ. We do this as a matter of witness and obedience.

ES: Our culture increasingly dismisses the Bible as true or even historical. How do we engage this culture rightly with our claims of biblical inerrancy and authority?

BA: One way to do so is to speak of the trustworthiness of God’s self-revelation clearly. Another way to do so is to actually obey Scripture, such that our lives are seamless tapestries of Christian words and deeds. God doesn’t give us a choice between the two. He never gives me the choice between speaking the gospel to my neighbor and being faithful to my wife or faithful at work. He asks me to proclaim him with my lips and promote him with my life, to make my life a seamless tapestry of word and deed.

Additionally, we would need to expand our vision for word-based and deed-based ministry so that it stretches beyond the limitations we might place on it. We cannot limit Christ’s Lordship to our personal devotions, church attendance, sexual ethics, and personal witnessing encounters. His Lordship is much broader and deeper. It extends beyond churchly activities to art, science, politics, economics, education, business, sports, homemaking, and many others. If God’s people can really grasp this truth, we can serve as a preview of his coming kingdom.

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