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How Should Christians Engage Culture? – Darrell Bock

Home » How Should Christians Engage Culture? – Darrell Bock

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Bock about how Christians can engage the culture while keeping the gospel central.

Topics of conversation include:

  • Some of the inventions that have led to major cultural shifts in recent history.
  • The difference in cultural perspectives between the generations.
  • What it should look like to love our country and still live a faithful life as a Christian.
  • The triphonic model of conversation and how that can help us advance conversations and engage well.

Dr. Darrell Bock serves as the executive director of Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center and as the senior research professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including How Would Jesus Vote?: Do Your Political Views Really Align With The Bible? (Howard Books, 2016) and Cultural Intelligence: Living for God in a Diverse, Pluralistic World (B&H Academic, 2020). Dr. Bock holds a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen.

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Introduction (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):

One thing you hear said a lot in America today is that there is more that unites us than there is that divides us. But with each passing year, this cliche rings less true: from how to handle the global pandemic, issues like immigration, LGBTQ issues, climate change, race relations, the national debt, just war theory, and a host of other issues, Christians continue to splinter amongst themselves and with the broader culture. And Christians are becoming just as polarized as the culture. Yet the Bible has much to say about how Christians should be salt and light, and not just salty. We have a witness to protect. We are citizens of another kingdom, and yet we find ourselves too entangled, often, in modern affairs. We can do better than this, and we must do better than this. To help us on this cultural engagement question, we have with us today, Dr. Darrell Bock, professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, who is the author of many books, including How Would Jesus Vote? And Cultural Intelligence: Living for God in a Diverse Pluralistic World, which is the focus of our discussion today. Dr. Bock, welcome to the show.

Darrell Bock (01:23):

It’s a pleasure. Let me just note that I’m also executive director for cultural engagement at the Hendricks center, and this book comes out of that space.

Brian Arnold (01:30):

Well, I can think of few centers more important than that today, as these issues just continue to bubble up to the surface, and could really lead to some fracturing in the church in years to come.

Darrell Bock (01:42):

Yes. And I think what’s happened is that people have got…I actually think we’ve fought the culture war in the last three decades or so in the wrong way, not in a biblically rooted way, and it’s gotten us into trouble. And it’s gotten us deflected from what the center is, of what our faith is, and what actually…what the center is in terms of the answer. And all of that has produced a problem for the church, because when you lose sight of your mission and you don’t direct your mission in the right direction—it’s misdirected—you end up with a problem.

Brian Arnold (02:11):

Absolutely. So that’s going to be our major question for today is: how should Christians engage culture? And there’s a lot of punditry out there these days, where people are kind of throwing gasoline onto the question. And as you said, we’ve got to keep the main thing, the main thing—the center of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ has got to hold in this time. So you mentioned some of these even inventions of the 20th century that kind of led us to a place of cultural split, whether the Telstar satellite, or even the pill, as being these major points of cultural shift. So can you maybe start there and begin to talk about how we got here today, over the last century or so?

Darrell Bock (02:51):

Yeah, well, I mean what we’re dealing with is the world is bigger and smaller at the same time. Here’s what I mean. There are more of us, but we’re more tightly connected. The reason the Telstar satellite is important is because it made communication instantaneous. And as we’ve seen in our lifetime, not only is it instantaneous, it’s also omnipresent. And so…Telstar satellite was significant because you could send one signal in one direction to get an instantaneous communication from one location to another. Okay? And it only went one direction. The US sent a signal to Europe, and then they had to shut down, reset, so that Europe could send a signal back to the United States. Now pick up your phone, okay? You can go anywhere in the world instantaneously, face-to-face have a conversation with someone. Granted it’s digital, but it’s instantaneous. And before all that, it would take up to a full day before something happened in one part of the world before people in another part of the world could see it.

Darrell Bock (03:54):

Now they can see it while it’s happening. So what that means, is that our ability to monoculturally bubble went away, and we’re now constantly connected with all kinds of people, with all kinds of voices, with all kinds of points of view that bombard us constantly. So that’s the reality. That’s the reality of the Telstar satellite. The reality of the pill was that sexual activity lost its ability to have consequences, and thus opened up what we’ve called the sexual revolution. So those are two of the things that represent massive changes in my own lifetime. Both of those things have happened in the time when I was growing up. I mean, the pill goes back to the sixties, and the Telstar satellite happened when I was eight years old. And so the older generation has had to adapt to this a step at a time.

Darrell Bock (04:46):

This brings in the generational difference. Young people have lived with this difference from the start, and they can put names and faces on the pluralism that they’ve experienced that older people, generally speaking, were more isolated from. That’s why you get the different reactions between the generations that you have, generally speaking, is because of that factor. And the church has wrestled with, if I can say it this way, not being the home team. Now the Bible has always said we were not the home team. They said we were aliens in the strange land, we’re citizens of heaven, our commitment is not to our earthly attachments as the primary attachments that we have, but we’ve forgotten that. And when we think we’re the home team, and we’re not, that’s one of the ways in which the mission gets off.

Brian Arnold (05:30):

It is. And it’s…there’s a beautiful opportunity for awakening here, for people to remember those great truths—that we are strangers and sojourners looking for our heavenly kingdom. And yet we find ourselves rooted in these geopolitical realities, even now. You know, one of the things I want to piggyback on is the difference in generations that you mentioned. It’s almost an exponential shift between these generations. And I think about somebody like Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind, where he talks a lot about Gen Z, or it’s also been called iGen, and where we’ve gotten a lot of these major shifts, because they’ve only grown up in a world full of this kind of technology. I mean, for myself, I can still remember, and I’m only 37, a remote control attached to the TV, a rotary phone in my home. Well, my nieces don’t even know what that is.

Darrell Bock (06:20):

So you show a rotary phone…in fact, I’ve seen videos where they take an old rotary phone and they put it in front of someone and they say, “what do you do with this?” And it’s so funny, because they look at it, you know, they look at the thing with the numbers and the holes and they go, “what in the world is that?” So yeah, I mean…I think we forget the impact of what that means. You’re right to bring up Jonathan Haidt and what this means. The point that I want to make, is that there are relationships that younger people have, and have lived with all their lives, that older people, generally speaking, thought about theoretically. And so the tension between what I believe and how I deal with it, relationally, has been a very different experience for the older generation versus the younger generation. And actually, we need each other. But it’s been hard, because the different instincts that people have, formed somewhat by their experience, has caused them to almost talk past one another or against one another. And we need to do better than that.

Brian Arnold (07:26):

And it’s just like what Huxley said, right? We are encountering a “brave new world.” There’s a lot of things that won’t unwind, won’t go back. And we’ve got to think as Christians about how to engage. The question that seems to drive your book, you say: “with our daily lives, how do we extend a hand of invitation, while at the same time faithfully representing the challenge of the gospel?” And I like how you have those two pillars set up. We want to be people who speak truth, who stand firm on God’s Word, and yet can engage culture as salt and light.

Darrell Bock (07:56):

Yeah. And the other important feature of the book is the battle passage that I take a pretty close look at in Eph. 6, where I make the point that—Eph. 6:12 is the key verse—our battle is not, not, not, not (that’s emphatic), against flesh and blood. It’s against spiritual forces. It’s a spiritual battle. It requires spiritual resources. When we fight a spiritual battle, that requires spiritual resources, just like the world does, we get off target. And if you actually look at the armor, the armor is not our circumstances. It’s not our ideology. It’s not our politics. It’s our lived out faith. So it’s righteousness, it’s truth, it’s peace, it’s the gospel, it’s the Holy Spirit, it’s prayer. So our lived-out faith is the way in which we stand out and draw people. That’s the most important thing that we do.

Darrell Bock (08:48):

And when we fight on ideological political grounds, we automatically move away from the gospel, which we actually believe is the answer. So the challenge is…the gospel is good news, okay? The danger of what we have done, is we’ve made making the challenge so transparent to people, people no longer hear the good news. There’s too much static. So how do you invite people into the opportunity to have a better life, and the way life was designed to be lived, in the midst of making the challenge and making sure that the good news is enough present, that you actually are sharing the gospel and not just shaking your finger at people about the way they’re living.

Brian Arnold (09:26):

And sadly, I think we see the latter unfolding before our eyes. It’s a pivotal moment in the church’s history in the west to see, as we lose home court advantage, will we wag our fingers, or will we stand in the armor of God and faithfully represent his kingdom here on earth?

Darrell Bock (09:44):

Yeah. Another way I like to say it is: we need to learn how to be good losers. And Jesus was a good loser. I mean, he went to the cross. He lost on the world’s terms. There’s no way that a Messiah could possibly die on a cross and take us anywhere, was the view of the world, including his disciples. But he said, “no, there actually is a way to overcome evil and hate and that’s with love.” And with a willingness to sacrifice, and with an outstretched hand, and with modeling the fact that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, even when the world’s back was turned towards God and the Son. That’s what we’re supposed to model. And I sometimes think we struggle to do that.

Brian Arnold (10:23):

And to open up our eyes to see this as an absolute opportunity. I think of someone like Ignatius, who said “Christianity is greatest when it’s hated by the world,” because we get to start to display radical love. What does it mean to love your enemies in the midst of persecution? And it’s sad to me to watch Christians let this beginning opportunity slip through their fingers because they want to preserve some worldly, political sway.

Darrell Bock (10:51):

The way I talk about this…there are two things I say. First is, we’ve got to go back to the future, by which I mean, we need to go back to the first century church. First century church had no political power, no social power, no cultural power. All it had was spiritual power. It did pretty well. Second point I like to make is anyone who teaches that the sky is falling is not reading the Bible, and they don’t have a biblical point of view. God has his church in his hands and always will. And the victory is secure, regardless of what the circumstances in the world all around us are…in fact, the Scripture tells us the situation around the church, in the world, will be a mess before Jesus comes to fix it. So we aren’t going to fix it. Jesus is. Now we need to do the best to try and urge people to live as faithfully before God as they can. That’s our calling, and our call is to be faithful. It’s not our call to fix it. So we need to stay in our pay grade, which sometimes I’m afraid we don’t do.

Brian Arnold (11:45):

And to lift up our eyes and recognize that God’s doing a great work in building the church globally. There’s a lot of exciting things happening.

Darrell Bock (11:52):

Exactly. Exactly. No, you’re right.

Darrell Bock (11:54):

And actually, when you do that, you actually recognize the nature of the kingdom, which isn’t nation-centric. It is pan-ethnic, it involves all people. The vision of Rev. 5 is people of many tribes and many nations are all going to be standing side by side, praising God. And we’re supposed to be the sneak preview of that. So when we maintain that vision, and we don’t worry about which nation is first, but we actually think through the kingdom being first, that is the way of the gospel.

Brian Arnold (12:28):

So let’s unpack that a little bit, because I would consider myself somebody very patriotic. I’m very proud to be an American. I love the country that I get to live in. I do see Paul calling me to recognize that my greater citizenship is in heaven. And yet I have been placed, Acts 17, where I have been placed, in time and in location. So what does it look like to be able to live out a faithful life as a Christian, but also to love my country? I mean, a lot of people are talking about Christian nationalism today. It can be idolatrous. It can go too far, but how do we even differentiate that from patriotism, from engaging in areas of government?

Darrell Bock (13:04):

I think where you pause and think through that is, “okay—so what does that mean for a Canadian, and what does that mean for a Guatemalan, or what does that mean for someone from Vietnam or from India, et cetera?” Can they love their country and try and serve the community where God has them? Absolutely. That’s what they’re supposed to do. But what does that mean about the relationship of nations between one another? And how do I think about that? Do I only think about that from the standpoint of where my nation is and where I am, or do I, as a kingdom person, think about what is best for people globally? Those kinds of questions. So that’s where it tends to impinge, if you will. It isn’t that I don’t care about my local community—after all, these are my neighbors, these are the people that I know. But then I need to think about…particularly Christians who are in other parts of the world, who have the same dynamics, but in a different nation.

Brian Arnold (13:55):

And always the greater allegiance is to Christ as he builds his church, as he’s told us to go in the Great Commission…as you said, in Revelation we see this beautiful throng gathered together—every tribe, tongue, and nation worshiping the slain lamb, that our priority must remain seeing the church built up around the world until Christ comes.

Darrell Bock (14:15):

God so loved the world. It doesn’t say God so loved a particular nation.

Brian Arnold (14:23):

That’s right. Yep. Every tribe, tongue and nation. So let’s get back into maybe some more specifics about how we can do this, because it has turned into shouting matches out there. And I think…I got the impression from reading your book that you really want to bring some cool-headedness to this. How can we actually live out the spirit of Jesus in these times? You use this fancy word, triphonics, in reference to cultural engagement. Why don’t you kind of work that out for us?

Darrell Bock (14:54):

Every difficult conversation that we have—and the world is full of difficult conversations today, because it’s a pluralistic world with lots of views—every difficult conversation you have, actually has three levels to it. Triphonics is like stereo or quadraphonic sound. Stereos, two speakers; quadraphonic sound is four. Triphonics is every conversation has three levels, three speakers going at once. And the problem is, is that we think we’re talking about one thing and the emphasis is on one place, but there’s actually something else going on underneath that’s more important to controlling the conversation. So here are the three levels. There’s what you’re talking about. I call that…that’s the frosting on the cake. Okay? The second thing are the different lenses people are using to look at what’s in front of them. To illustrate that, all I have to do is say CNN and Fox. They’re looking at the same thing, but if you listen to them describe what they see, they’re seeing very different things, and majoring on very different points.

Darrell Bock (15:46):

And then the third point is, how is my identity—and all of us have a lens—the third point is, how is my identity wrapped up in this conversation? And why am I so passionate about how I feel about it? And it’s because of the way my identity is seen. And my point is—in any difficult conversation, the two drivers are levels two and three. Not what you’re talking about. And so we sometimes forget this. And how I react to how my identity is impacted in a conversation will determine how cool or calm I am in the midst of the conversation, or how worked up I get in the conversation. And the other passage I like to talk about in relationship to this is James 1:19-20: “be slow to speak…be quick to hear, slow, to speak, and slow to anger, for the anger of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God.” And my point would be, we need to do a better job of applying that text in our engagement.

Brian Arnold (16:42):

Absolutely people are very quick to speak, it seems like. I mean, social media has only thrown gasoline onto that fire, where everybody gets an opportunity to voice, oftentimes uninformed opinions, about everything under the sun.

Darrell Bock (16:55):

And when everyone’s screaming and no one’s listening, nothing is happening. That’s not good.

Brian Arnold (17:01):

So in that sphere, what are some really specific ways that you see Christians kind of missing this pitch? Not engaging the culture well?

Darrell Bock (17:14):

Well, I have a chapter in the cultural intelligence book that talks about five things that we do that sabotage conversations, and five things that we can do to advance conversations. And what we do to sabotage conversations is we destroy them, we actually turn them into being something else than a conversation. The first one is what I call the quick confession with a pivot. That is, someone raises something, and they’re putting pressure on me to recognize where my group or I may be at fault. And I will recognize it quickly. I will confess it quickly, but then I pivot with a “but.” So it’s “yes, but,” and everything that matters to you is what you say after the “but.” But what mattered to the person who brought it up is what came before the “but,” so you talk past each other. And everybody pivots, all our news stations pivot. You mentioned the riots of January 6th—people will mention the riots of the summer. Or you can do it in reverse direction, because it’s an equal opportunity employer. Okay? So that’s the first one. The second one is what I call the exorcism. That is debate by labels. You label someone, you play taps over them,

Darrell Bock (18:28):

you bury the view, and you shut off conversation. People label one another to avoid conversations all the time. It’s also an equal opportunity employer. I can say “liberal,” “conservative.” I can say “fascist” or “Marxist.” You know, we use labels to stay out of conversations, and we kill them in the process. The third thing that we do is we assign motive, particularly negative motive. We play the prophet on why someone is saying something, which may or may not actually reflect their actual motivation for saying what they’ve said, because most of us don’t have the prophetic gift. The fourth one is thinking poorly about seeking common ground. That somehow the effort to move towards someone is defection towards my tribe. That’s a mistake. You want to try and see if in the midst of your conversations, there is a point of contact around which you can build a conversation in a positive way, as opposed to not doing it.

Darrell Bock (19:24):

And then the fourth one is just raw tribalism. Any thing that brings discredit on my tribe, I’m not going to go there. And so those are the five things that we do that kill conversations. And whenever you’re in a difficult conversation, there are really three ways you can react. You can push back, okay? Which is what we often do. Or—and this is also common—you withdraw. You just don’t…I don’t want to get in a fight. I don’t want to do anything. I’m just going to not say anything. Or you can move towards someone. And I think the biblical call to love always calls us to try and move towards someone, even in the midst of the challenge. So what do we do to advance conversations? We own our own junk. We take responsibility for the things where we are responsible for it, and we’re honest about it, and we own it, and we deal with it.

Darrell Bock (20:11):

This is more than being vulnerable. Okay? This is actually taking responsibility for what we do wrong. I don’t pivot. I acknowledge, if I can say it that way. And then when we get to where the other person contributes, we have a conversation on that basis that stays focused on that level. We stick to issues. We don’t attack people personally. We’re honest about our own concerns and convictions. You don’t hide behind what you believe, you actually do put it out on the table and work on it, but you do it sensitively, and generously, and humbly, et cetera. You’re honest about where you need to listen and learn, because we all have blind spots. And then finally, you develop the ability to parse the layers that take place within a view, because most of the complex things that we deal with in the culture have layers to them, in which certain aspects of it are more certain than other aspects, but they all work together to form a view. And I need to have some sense of how it’s working and how it’s working out. And sometimes the best way to see that is to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t see it the way you do, so that your blind spots can be dealt with.

Brian Arnold (21:20):

Well, there’s a lot of opportunity for that today. One just needs to open up some social media channel, or turn on, especially one of the news channels that is not your preference, to find pretty fast ways to open up channels of conversation through disagreement.

Darrell Bock (21:37):

Exactly. And it’s very, very important we do. Let me make one other point. There are really three kinds of issues in the public square, and knowing which one you’re dealing with is important. The first is where there’s a real worldview clash. And there are some of those. I mean, the discussion on same-sex marriage, the discussion on abortion starts from such different places, it’s really hard to work to find common ground. It doesn’t relieve you however, of the relational responsibility of how you deal with someone who’s in that space, even though you may disagree with the choice that they made. And this becomes real clear, real fast, pastorally. When a family member says “I’m gay,” and the parent comes to you as a pastor and says, “what do I do with my child? How do I handle this?” The second area, is we agree on the landing point, but we disagree on how to get there.

Darrell Bock (22:25):

Racial reconciliation, for the most part, belongs in that category. If you asked most people, “should the racists be reconciled, and should we live at peace with one another,” you’ll get numbers the politicians would be jealous about. But if you ask the next question, how do we get there? Then you’re in the conversational debate, but that’s the easiest category, because at least you share the goal. The third category is, for me and my thinking, the most common, but it’s the least recognized. That is, because we live in a fallen world, values—biblical values—are colliding, and the issue is not “which one do I choose?” The issue is, “how do I balance and relate these to one another in a healthy way?” So that the conversation that we ought to have is not choosing say, between—do we follow our laws or do we show compassion for people who are seeking asylum or for whatever reason they might be coming? But how do we balance those two things? That’s actually the conversation we never have, because most of our political discourse is binary. I have two options and I’m supposed to choose, and it’s all or nothing. Rather than having the nuance of saying, “what’s the relationship between these two things that are colliding, and how should we wrestle for what the proper balance is between them?”

Brian Arnold (23:36):

Absolutely. It’s all of that, that you’ve said, I’m sure a lot of our listeners are even saying, “that is a lot of information!” From where we go wrong, how we can engage with people…I just want to, even right now, tell people, “get this book.” Cultural intelligence by Dr. Darrell Bock. It is just chocked full of gold in how to do this. As we wind down, I just want to encourage Christians who are listening to this, as you see these conversations decaying, I hope you see this as an opportunity to bring the light of the gospel into these conversations. To set about a different approach than what culture is doing, and to represent the Lord Jesus Christ in each avenue of this cultural engagement piece. Dr. Bock, thank you so much for being with us today.

Darrell Bock (24:25):

My absolute pleasure.

Outro (24:26):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at ps.edu.

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