The Necessity of Cultural Engagement

Sharing Options

These are my notes for my plenary address to the ACCS convention IN Dallas, 2022.

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The central reason why we want the education we provide to be rooted in the ground of Scripture is because we want our graduates to be culturally engaged. If they do not learn to engage properly, then what we are actually doing is graduating art critics and snobs. And who wants that?

So what is true cultural engagement then?

I want to begin with the breakdown of options outlined by Niebuhr in his classic work, Christ and Culture. They are, in brief, Christ Against Culture, the Christ of Culture, and Christ Over Culture. There are various options operating as subsets of the third option, but because we are evangelical and Kuyperian, for my purposes, I will only consider one of them, that being the conversionist option, which is what we are all about. Disciple the nations, baby!

A Breakdown of the Options

Those who advocate Christ Against Culture have an unduly optimistic view of their actual ability to detach or separate from the surrounding culture. After a certain amount of time, you just become part of the show, and people drive to Lancaster County to buy themselves an Amish quilt.

And the Christ of Culture advocates strike all of us as openly compromised from the get go. It seems that way because it is. We might nickname this one the Christ of Climate Change. Or perhaps the Christ of Compromise.

But the danger for our schools is to adopt the rhetoric of Christ Over Culture while surreptitiously drifting into the softer and more oblique forms of the Christ of Culture.

If you have organized Christian communities (as we do, in our schools), and if you have a broader outside community, an outside culture, and the walls between them are porous, as they are, then influence will flow through those walls. The question is “which direction is that influence flowing?” Are you having as much influence on your town as your students’ Spotify playlists are having on your school? Not an easy question to answer. Actually, in many cases, this is a very easy question to answer.

But if in reaction you establish a fundamentalist religious academy, you are attempting to lock the world out. But this is a vain endeavor. You are the schoolhouse equivalent of St. Simeon Stylites who lived for 37 years on the top of a pole. Unfortunately, the pole was still attached to the world. Your school is still hooked up to the grid. This is Christ Against Culture, but not really.

So what if you applaud phrases like cultural engagement but deplore any form of cultural conflict? This is actually the Christ of Culture, even if you were influenced (or so you thought) by voices from the Christ Over Culture camp. With such compromise, you are teaching your students to sit still while the world presses them into its mold (Rom 12:1-2). You want them to be worldly and sophisticated and educated, but with a Jesus veneer. You reject the idea of proselytizing the world, but what this actually means is that the world is “evangelizing” both you and your students. If you are not swimming up the river, then you are floating down it.

This means that if you are remaining true to the founding vision of ACCS, then you must understand that our vision is a robust version of Christ Over Culture. This is who we are. It is in our DNA. Without this vision—Jesus as Lord over all—our book tables make no sense, our curricula make no sense, our conference talk titles make no sense, our Boniface Awards make no sense, our logic texts make no sense—which is really bad for logic texts, by the way—and everything about our enterprise can be compared to musings by the Red Queen out of Alice.

So if you understand that the point of teaching the classics is not to get your students to love paganism, but rather to teach them how to fight paganism effectively, even in its sophisticated and more glorious forms, then you are in the right place. I have some red meat for you.

“For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ . . .”

2 Cor. 10:4-5 (KJV)

Jesus is Lord. This means that He is Lord of every nation and every tribe. He is the Lord of mathematics and the Lord of history. He is the Lord of how many sexes there are, and how many genders. He is the Lord of whites and blacks. He is the Lord of the Noahic covenant, which makes Him the Lord of the rainbow. He is the Lord of Tibet and Tennessee, the Lord of Angola and Arkansas, the Lord of Denmark and Dakota, and the Lord of Congo and California. He is the Lord of economics. He is the Lord of school board meetings, staff meetings, curriculum committee meetings, football team meetings, and any leftover meetings you might decide to hold. Jesus is Lord of all of it.

If this is the way it is out in the world, and it is, and if your school exists to equip students to live out in the world the way it is, and that should be the case, then the education you offer needs to be a thorough-going worldview enterprise.

What might prevent it from being that?

The Color of Compromise

A quote that is falsely attributed to Leon Trotsky is nonetheless pertinent, whether or not he said it. He is supposed to have said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” And this goes double for the culture war. Another way of putting this is that there is no way to opt out. There is no theological pacifism, and there is no cultural equivalent of Switzerland. There is no such thing as neutrality—although there is such a thing as a confused pretense of neutrality for a time.

Because there is an antithesis between faith and unbelief, an antithesis that God Himself established at the very beginning of history, this means that conflict is unavoidable. Seeking to evade or avoid that conflict is not actually to be a theological pacifist, but rather is the first step in going over to the other side.

The establishment of this antithesis, this enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman, was actually the first act of mercy from our most merciful God. Immediately after we had sold ourselves into bondage to the devil, the Lord in His mercy decreed that it would be an unhappy relationship. We would be at odds with him, and eventually the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head, and the beguiled woman would have her revenge.

Bring It All Back to Your School

We are ACCS. We teach Latin to third graders. We have a curriculum that is chock-a-block with dead, white guys. We emphasize an appreciation for the cultural heritage of the West. A number of our schools have senior trips that visit cathedrals in Europe and none, at least that I know of, visiting the rain forests of the Amazon.

Having said that, we reject every form of actual ethnic animosity and actual ethnic vainglory. We are not white nationalists, we are not white supremacists, we are not Fox News Christians, and we detest every form of misogyny and racism and all the rest of those things that reasonable people detest. But given our moment in history, if you and your school have not been accused of racism yet, etc. then you are not doing your job.

Please note that I left the word privilege out of my denials. The purpose of a school is to educate its students, which is to confer a privilege. For educators to start decrying privilege is like farmers denouncing grain yields.

Now I say all this recognizing that you are a school, not an anti-abortion group. You are a school, not a political party. You are a school, not a conservative boot camp for activists. But what does a school do? It equips students to think about life. What does a Christian school do? It equips students to think about all of life biblically. And thinking biblically includes all of the issues that are currently roiling us up. If you are not teaching your students how to think about same sex mirage, how to think about the dignity of human life, how to understand the biblical way of addressing ethnic tension, about the authority of our chromosomes, about the blessings that our Western heritage has brought to us, then I am afraid that you wandered into the wrong movement.

We live in a time when many people that you know, including some professing Christians, want to be as woke as mid-morning. Not ACCS. We want to be as woke as the black sky behind a crescent moon, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 am.

Seven Danger Signs

A ship is built to sail on the water, but it is also paramount that the water be kept out of the ship. The ship in the water is good, but water in the ship is the opposite of good. So I wanted to leave you with seven indicators that your ship may be taking on water.

• When policy decisions are made on the basis of emotions, hurt feelings, or perceived offenses. You are trying to build an institution on the sandy foundation of corrupted human emotion.
• When you tell your constituency that you are going to keep your school “out of politics,” when what you really mean is that you are going to surrender to the insertion of politics into everything. The world demands that we separate our faith from politics, and this is just before they politicize absolutely everything. What they have successfully done is separate our faith from having anything to do with the world.
• When you would rather subscribe to a falsehood rather than have your school go through another controversy. This is a sin that arises out of weariness or cowardice, or both.
• When you deal with dissent by labeling it pejoratively instead of answering it honestly. Trumper! Racist!
• When you admire men secretly, but like Nicodemus did with Jesus, you are only willing to visit them by night.
• When you begin actively to pursue the world’s honors. This is not a problem when the world honors you and you acknowledge it gratefully. It is a problem when you want the world’s approval for your deep-seated insecurity reasons. How can you believe, Jesus asks, when you receive honor from one another (John 5:44)?
• When your school’s vocabulary of sin starts to closely mimic the vocabulary of the world instead of using scriptural terminology for sin. You begin talking darkly of misogyny, racism, or objectifying women instead of using malice, hatred and lust.

One Last Word

I have been trying to warn Christians of the cultural moment we are now in the middle of, and I have been seeking to do this for decades—since back in the seventies. So for going on fifty years now, I have been trying to tell Christians that ideas have consequences, that the devil is a liar, and that men and cultures do in fact reap what they sow. For years I was dismissed because my warnings—delivered of course with that winsome tartness—were too outlandish to be believed. But the moment is here now. Now that the outlandish has arrived and the weirdos are unloading their moving van, vowing that they are going to move in with us permanently, the whole thing is so absurd that nobody wants to believe that they were actually warned about this decades in advance. No one wants sing that old blues song by Paul Butterfield, “ain’t no one to blame but myself.”

We want to lament, saying “If only we had some time to prepare for this.” Oh, but we had plenty of time to prepare. We were lulled into a false sense of security by personal peace and affluence, as Schaeffer put it. We did not want the hassle of living like free men, so we settled for living like cattle in the barn, with plenty of hay in the loft.

I referred to the cultural moment we are in. That moment is best described as a cultural revolution, and yes, I meant for you to think of Mao, and that we are in fact currently under siege by the commies. Go ahead and think of them as commies. You know you want to.

And I will leave you with the last message that Roonwit sent to King Tirian. Always remember that “noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.”