In our previous blog, Blessed Are the Culture Makers, we defined culture war and pointed toward the biblical alternative of culture-making. We noted that those born in the ’90s have lived in the constant shadow of culture war.
I want to offer some thoughts from the perspective of that generation. Those of us born into that first batch of adolescent culture-warriors might view the present with a sense of déjà vu. To quote the great poet: “I think I’ve seen this film before, and I didn’t like the ending.”
(Okay, that’s actually a line from Taylor Swift.)
Now a parent myself, I see many today returning to a broken playbook. I see many conscripting their kids into a cultural children’s crusade—the same sort of crusade that burned out and disillusioned so many in my generation.
In the near future, Kelsey and I will reconvene to take a lengthier look at that positive alternative of culture-making. But for now, I want to probe the dangers of culture war—especially the dangers to our children—with a series of self-diagnostic questions.
Stopping the spiritual carnage of culture wars starts with self-examination. From there, we can model that self-examination to our children. We can show them what it really looks like to weigh our words, actions, and beliefs against God’s word.
Hopefully these questions can serve as a starting point for self-examination and discussion.
A Note on Definitions
We defined “culture war” in last week’s blog, but let’s add one clarification before going further.
Whenever you challenge the idea of culture war, you inevitably encounter those who conflate “culture war” with “cultural engagement.” If you are against culture war, they argue, you must be against any instance of arguing for or voting for Christian values on the cultural stage.
But let’s hone in on the word “war.” A civil argument doesn’t constitute a war; war happens when civil argument breaks down. War involves aggression, even on the defensive. In wartime, we no longer look to persuade. We look to conquer.
It seems plain that you can stand unflinchingly for biblical truth, even argue strongly for it, without an aggressive posture. You can vote for Christian values and demand an end to injustice without seeking to conquer. Cultural engagement—even engagement without compromise—doesn’t require war.
That makes the real definition of “culture war” hard to pin down. It has to do with the means we employ, the ends we desire, and the issues we prioritize. In many ways, it comes down to a mindset, or a heart posture. That’s what the following questions attempt to probe.
Question 1: When I’m engaging with culture, what is my desired end?
Moscow-occupied regions of Ukraine recently held sham elections to allow Russian annexation. Ukrainians in those regions even received Russian passports.
This struck me for its absurdity. Putin doesn’t care, of course, whether these Ukrainians want to become Russians. He simply must declare them so to sanctify his thirst for conquest.
When we trade culture-making for culture war, we quickly slip into a similar absurdity.
Theology 101 tells us good works don’t save. It’s easy to remember this in one-on-one evangelism. We don’t demand our unbelieving neighbors somehow act like Christians before they experience salvation.
But what about culture?
Culture war tends to aim for surface-level behavioral changes and Christian symbolism. It seeks to raise the Christian flag, even if the hearts beneath that flag haven’t changed. Essentially, it takes the land by force and hands out passports.
Ironically then, culture war blows up the only bridge to actual transformation. A true love of Christian values flows solely from a true love of Christ. But culture war pushes others away, sacrificing paths for evangelism in favor of comfortable spaces for Christians themselves.
Symbolic change or enforced behavior might create a culture that looks Christian. But it won’t create a culture that honors Christ. It merely transforms culture into a pristine whitewashed tomb, with our neighbors as its occupants.
So the question: When we engage with culture, what do we hope to achieve? To gain power and institute symbolic change? Or to change culture by inviting others into the transformative beauty and goodness of God?
Question 2: Do the voices I listen to fill me with hope and love, or with fear and anger?
Much news media intentionally provokes anger and fear. These emotions draw an audience. They play to social media algorithms. They bypass the analytical mind and urge instant reaction. Even Christian media often operates from this emotional base. Consider the charged phrases you may encounter: “Things are worse than they have ever been,” “They’re coming for our children,” “The enemy surrounds us,” “Our nation is at stake,” “We must fight!”
Pulse rising yet?
Scripture commands us constantly: Do not fear. Not all anger is condemned, but enmity, strife, and fits of anger all find a place on Paul’s list of works of the flesh. (Galatians 5:19-21) Psalm 37:8 says, “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.”
If we constantly feed ourselves on anger and anxiety, our children will smell that rotten fruit seeping out of us. They might even exude it themselves.
“But,” you might say, “the world really is frightening. Culture’s current trajectory should scare us. It should even anger us.”
When God says “do not fear,” it’s not because the enemy isn’t powerful. It’s because even when the enemy surrounds us, God surrounds the enemy. Like Elisha surrounded by the Syrian army, we see God’s army on the mountains, stronger than any earthly force.
So it’s true. The enemy is big and scary. But God is bigger and scarier.
We can be honest with our children about the state of the world, not driving them to fear, but pointing them toward hope in God. To do that, we start by putting away fear and anger in our own media diet.
Question 3: How do I view people who oppose Christian values?
Wartime propaganda aims to make the enemy appear less than human. Enemies become the object of demonization and ridicule.
If we view cultural engagement as war, we end up doing the same.
Phrases such as “the enemy” and “forces of darkness” have long circulated in Christian culture. Usually, these terms refer to the devil and his demons. But in recent years, it’s not uncommon to hear Christians apply this language to human opponents—often accompanied by mockery, caricature, and biting sarcasm.
It’s appealing to dehumanize those with whom we disagree. It gives us license to stop treating them as neighbors. It lets us indulge our fleshly impulses to mock and ridicule.
This ties into our first question: When we engage culture, what is our desired end? If we wish only to conquer, it doesn’t matter whether we alienate and insult our enemy.
But this mindset neglects an essential truth: We were all enemies of God.
When we cut down those who disagree with us, we tell them, “You are not worthy of the grace I have received.” We make ourselves like the debtor of the parable, forgiven of his own debts but refusing to show mercy to others.
This sends our children a mixed message. On Sunday morning, they learn that Jesus came to seek and save the lost. But how do we talk about “the lost” during the rest of the week? Do we mock them and create caricatures of them? Or do we speak of them as image-bearers in need of grace, whom we are called to love?
Question 4: How do Jesus Christ and His work make my cultural engagement look different from others in my tribe?
If you removed the gospel from the equation, would your cultural engagement look any different?
The teachings of Jesus grate against our fleshly tendencies. We’re told to turn the other cheek, to be peacemakers, and wildest of all, to love our enemies.
But what does enemy-love look like? Quick and dirty theology can easily transform “love your enemy” into something that looks no different from “hate your enemy.” Simply tell yourself peace requires fighting and truth requires insult. Just like that, we convince ourselves that insult and injury constitute enemy-love.
Christ calls us to a cultural engagement that makes no sense to the world—even to those in our own political spheres—because it goes against the desires of our flesh. When we twist that into something that looks no different than the world, we inadvertently proclaim that our faith has nothing better to offer.
It sends the same message to our children. When they see us bending scripture to fit our tendency toward combativeness, they may well learn to bend scripture toward their own tendencies. If we want scripture to shape our children’s cultural theology, it must first shape our own.
Question 5: Is this an issue on which orthodox Christians can legitimately disagree?
Increasingly, Christians turn the weapons on each other. Even this week, as I edit this piece, I witnessed an influential leader in a major denomination tell another Christian on Twitter to “go jump off a cliff.”
It’s not uncommon to see Christians dragging each other online, insulting one another, even accusing one another of heresy—and all over issues that don’t intersect with the core doctrines of Christianity.
Some hot-button cultural issues have a clear scriptural answer. Others don’t. Questions about racial justice and pandemic response have split churches down the middle, in part because Christians can hold to the core truths of Christianity and still reach wildly different conclusions on these issues. In the heat of an argument, it’s easy to lose sight of that.
We should slow down long enough to ask: “Can Christians disagree on this issue within the bounds of orthodoxy?”
This helps us rethink our words. We might find that the bombs we meant to lob at outside strangers have actually landed in our own house. We might realize we’ve made others think they’ve fallen from the faith for non-core cultural stances. Perhaps we’ve made someone in our church feel they don’t belong because of how they vote. Perhaps we’ve even made unbelievers see these issues as prerequisite to faith.
Our children will pick up on what’s actually most important to us. We can tell them the dividing line of orthodoxy falls along core doctrines, such as the divinity of Christ and the truth of scripture. But if our words and actions reveal a dividing line along culture and politics, that’s what our children will see.
It helps to frame these thoughts as questions because these are complex issues.
One reason the topic of “culture war” has grown so heated—aside from the forces who intentionally stoke the fire for views and clicks—is because it’s so hard to define. There’s simply no “one size fits all” for cultural engagement. We know we’re called to stand for truth. But which issues require legislative action? Which should remain in the realm of one-on-one discipleship? Believers will face legitimate disagreement on those questions.
But our response to all these issues should flow from a self-examined heart. The greatest dangers of culture war come from forgetting the most basic truths. We are called to love our enemies, to make disciples, and to show mercy as we have been shown mercy, resting in the knowledge that the battle belongs to God. Even when we don’t get it right, we are preserved by His grace. In the toughest times, we hold fastest to what the world calls naïve: the self-sacrificing enemy-love of Christ, displayed on the cross for us.
With our hearts aligned to that true north, we can move toward culture-making.