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Summer Reading Group: Deep Culture, or He Shines in All That’s Fair

In his final chapter, Jim Belcher tackles the subject of culture, again setting emerging church and traditional church ideas about culture against one another and then offering his synthesis as a third way, or “deep” approach to, in this case, culture.

The question of how Christians should relate to culture is a tricky one, to be sure. It would probably be difficult to arrive at much consensus about the definition of “culture”, let alone a theology of culture, but I think Belcher does an admirable job in the space he’s given himself.

The much-loved hymn, This is My Father’s World (1), goes a long way toward describing my own theology of creation and culture, which is not unlike the Calvinist notion of “common grace.”

Here are excerpts from the first two verses:

This is my Father’s world,

and to my listening ears

all nature sings, and round me rings

the music of the spheres.

This is my Father’s world:

he shines in all that’s fair;

in the rustling grass I hear him pass;

he speaks to me everywhere.

This hymn, perhaps more than any other in Western Christian hymnody, captures a rare affirmation of creation. The notion that God’s “shines in all that’s fair” is a bold claim which, if one really believes this, changes her relationship to the creation and culture.

While I’ve always loved this hymn, it was Dr. Richard Mouw who first brought these thoughts prominently to my attention in his book, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (2). I had also by this time been fellowshipping with pastors in various emerging church gatherings. We frequently spoke of the importance of telling God’s story from the beginning. Too often, evangelical types have started with the fall (Gen 3) when talking about the story of redemption. But the story doesn’t begin with the Fall. It begins with God’s good creation (Gen 1). And it is a creation which is wonderfully and beautifully incomplete. Thus the first command the new couple receives is to “be fruitful and multiply;” that is, “continue the work of creation I have begun by being my co-creators.”

In this closing chapter, Belcher describes the emerging church as taking an affirmative view of culture by helpfully recovering a Biblical theology of creation. In stark contrast he describes the traditional church taking a negative and even hostile view of culture, citing the Biblical injunction to not love the world or the things in the world (1 John 2:15).” He further describes the emerging church as not going far enough, contenting themselves with the personal and private aspects of culture such as fine art, film, etc, and not the larger systemic issues of politics and economics. While I think Belcher’s categories are extremely limited and limiting throughout the book, I agree with him that the emerging church still finds it difficult to break free from an evangelical emphasis on the interior life of believers and the private aspects of faith, often retreating into enclaves (albeit more culturally savvy enclaves than most Adventists have ever been a part of) and hiding behind a misreading of John Howard Yoder and others regarding the church as alternative community.

On the other side of the equation, I don’t agree that John MacArthur represents the “traditional church”. Perhaps this is beyond the scope of Belcher’s book, but he completely omits the long legacy of social and cultural engagement in the Catholic and main line Protestant churches. To say that the conversation about the gospel and culture is between fundamentalist evangelicals like John MacArthur and emerging church pastors (with the exception of Brian McLaren, as he notes) with reformed theologians saving the day is incomplete at best. That being said, the theology of “common grace” is my favorite feature of reformed theology and I am grateful to Belcher for introducing here. It is a theology that every Seventh-day Adventist should embrace with gusto. Ellen White demonstrated a similar conviction when she wrote

To restore in man the image of his Maker, to bring him back to the perfection in which he was created, to promote the development of body, mind, and soul, that the divine purpose in his creation might be realized–this was to be the work of redemption. This is the object of education, the great object of life (3).

Certainly Ellen White’s vision of education as serving the restoration of God’s image in the human creation could be extended to include the rest of the created order. An affirmation of the arts and engagement in political and economic spheres could be included in the restoration of God’s image in creation. For example, when the church stands for civil rights and against hatred and discrimination, does this not work to restore in humanity the dignity, the divine perfection, in which human beings were created?

However as I read some of Belcher’s examples, both the original symphony production and the story of the Mayor of Anaheim who attends his church, I found myself asking if his understanding of cultural engagement goes far enough, or if even his vision of political and economic engagement is still limited to the personal and private. As he described the good work that Mayor Pringle in doing in Anaheim, his comments were limited to the restoration of the historic character and beauty of run down neighborhoods. This is all fine and good, but what about the poor? What about the families that will no doubt be forced to move out of their neighborhood as a result of all this wonderful “economic development?” Perhaps the City of Anaheim addressed this concern, I don’t know. But I wish Belcher had mentioned this as part of his illustration. Otherwise, the Mayor fixing up parts of Anaheim to make them more beautiful isn’t that different from a group of emerging church pastors fixated on the aesthetics of worship and performance art.

In the case of the symphony production mention was made of the poor having access to good art. However, in this case the event struck me as paternalistic. Here the rich were creating good art for the poor, which in many ways simply reinforces the divide between rich and poor. I realize I’m being, perhaps, too critical. I wish more churches were going at least as far as Redeemer Presbyterian and Jim Belcher has given us much to think about.

For most Seventh-day Adventist Churches, like my own, we would do well to follow Belcher’s advice and enter our communities having laid down what we in Hollywood call a hermeneutic of suspicion and embrace first a hermeneutic of appreciation, looking for evidences of God’s kingdom, God’s new creation, in the world immediately around us. When we discover these places where “common grace” is evident, we might also find God’s invitation to get involved and makes his grace and love more explicit where before it was only implicit.


(1) Lyrics by Maltbie D. Babcock

(2) Richard J. Mouw. He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002)

(3) Ellen White. Education, 15-16.

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