In 1988 E. D. Hirsch published Cultural Literacy: What Every American needs to Know. The premise of the book is that, with the growing diversity in our country, many Americans are losing touch with the basic knowledge about our culture that is necessary to function in contemporary society. In essence we have forgotten our roots. We are rapidly losing the common language that binds us together as one society. He is not talking about speaking English. He is talking about understanding the many metaphors, similes and allusions that are part of our common fabric. For example, what does it mean to “hit a home run?” Or what is the meaning of a “David and Goliath” story?
More recently I have acquired two volumes of The Intellectual Devotional. One is on modern culture and the other is on American history. Each volume consists of 365 one page essays on some aspect of modern culture or American history. In many ways these are a condensed refresher course for those of us who have been out of school for a long time. Personally I have found these books both interesting and informative.
This morning, as I was reading an essay on American Bandstand, I thought about how we as Evangelical Christians can become culturally illiterate. In our effort to separate ourselves from the negative aspects of our world we have also rejected much that is rather neutral. Instead of being avid students of our culture in order to reach our generation for Christ, we have chosen the path of anti-culture. We pride ourselves in living counter-culture lives, without fully understanding the culture around us. Many Christians have sought to escape modern culture and by doing so have become marginalized.
Jesus prayed in John 17:15 “not that you would take them out of the world, but that you would protect them from the evil one.” As Christians we are called to live in the world but not be shaped by the world’s values. If we are going to reach our world with the good news of Jesus Christ, we need to become students of our culture.
Let’s look at it from another angle. When a missionary couple is assigned to work in a certain country their first task is to learn the language and the culture. They want to know as much as they can about the culture in order to apply the truths of the scriptures to that culture. They also want to find the most effective ways of presenting the Gospel within the context of that culture. In the same way, we who live in one of the largest mission fields in the world, should seek to learn all we can about our culture to be able to effectively communicate the Gospel to our culture.
The Apostle Paul was an avid student of culture. As he sought to bring the Gospel to unreached parts of his world, he carefully examined the prevailing culture. The classic example is his encounter in Athens. His experience is recorded in Acts 17. While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. [Acts 17:16-17 (NIV)] Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. [Acts 17:22-23 (NIV)]
In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul clearly expounds on his desire to use the prevailing culture to present the Gospel effectively. Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. [1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NIV)]
God wants us to be culturally literate in order to reach our culture for Christ.