What is the use of living for things that you cannot hold on to, values that crumble in your hands as soon as you possess them, pleasures that turn sour before you have begun to taste them, and a peace that is constantly turning to war?
– Thomas Merton

A pitched debate is being waged in this country over the ideal of change. The argument is not whether we need change—that seems to be almost universally accepted. The debate centers on how and by whom change can best be delivered. It seems evident that there is a growing swell of those who are unhappy with the course of their society, politics, and yes, culture. In this campaign season, politicians have taken on this mantle and are drumming the beat of change for all that it is worth.

But shouldn’t the Christian church have the market cornered on speaking for transformational change, of breaking free of the constraints and trappings of this society, of turning toward an authentic spiritual life? (Ironically, in this election, the perceived politicking of the evangelical movement seems to put the Christian church at odds with any change movement, either political or spiritual.)

Many sermons have been preached on the message of being “in the world, but not of it.” There are those who would divide cleanly between the corrupt world of our daily lives and the spiritual possibilities of Christian living. In the book Everyday Theology, Kevin Vanhoozer puts together a collection of essays that argue uniformly that Christians must strive to understand and, to a certain extent, embrace the culture of this world. While in this context such a mandate is moreso an intellectual exercise given as a principal theme from a teacher to his students rather than a uniform call to action, it is clear that Vanhoozer believes that engaging our culture is a foundational aspect of the Christian walk: “For I cannot love my neighbor unless I understand him and the cultural world he inhabits. Cultural literacy—the ability to understand patterns and products of everyday life—is thus an integral aspect of obeying the law of love.”[1]

There is no doubt that this book urges all readers to engage and understand our world through the lens of Christian ideology, but this is only a part of its conveyed message. We must too strive for change, becoming agents who reject a counterfeit cultural engagement by striving to redeem those aspects of our culture that represent signs of the fall.[2]

“What is Everyday Theology?,” the book’s first essay written by Vanhoozer himself, unpacks the ideas and methodologies that will shape the rest of the book. This essay confronts both how culture can directly affect our thought lives, dreams and aspirations, and the struggle that modern Christians face in interpreting and applying biblical teachings to our daily lives. Vanhoozer stresses the need for Christians to openly welcome the fact that they are “in the world” so that through this acknowledgment they will be spurred on towards cultural literacy and discourse. “Only when we truly understand what is happening around us can we engage our world intelligently and effectively (and evangelistically).”[3]

In a recent New York Times article leading up to the launch of his best-selling book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan explains that not only our thoughts and dreams can be abused by culture but also the very words and ideas that we hold as truths:

Confucius advised that if we hoped to repair what was wrong in the world, we had best start with the “rectification of the names.” The corruption of society begins with the failure to call things by their proper names, he maintained, and its renovation begins with the reattachment of words to real things and precise concepts.[4]

Vanhoozer, too, starts with a “rectification-of-a-name” culture. And while this rectification process can be illuminating, it can also be tedious. The genesis of this book comes from the class “Cultural Hermeneutics” that Vanhoozer taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. It is hard not to drift off as Vanhoozer exposés on ideas like the requirements behind quality cultural discourse—thick descriptions of cultural phenomena that not only demand a multi-layered approach (historical, psychological, social, educational, economic, musical, moral, political, etc.) but also multi-dimensional situating of “cultural texts and trends in two distinct three-dimensional frameworks.”[5]

At times his essay reads like a lesson plan to be unpacked with your fellow cultural agents in an hour lecture and discussion. And yet, while it may be easy to get lost in the depths of insight into which Vanhoozer dives to explore culture, the rectification he is undertaking is not just a name, but the very world in which we live and often take wholly for granted. If culture is indeed “the gesture [. . .]—a shrug, a raised fist, folded arms, cupped hands—[which] a people makes toward God,”[6] then it is crucial that we do as Vanhoozer demands: pay attention, be vigilant, know what we are consuming and, ultimately, how our consumption affects not only the world around us but our own internal worldview and identity.

In the second and third sections of the book, we get the next best thing to a one-on-one with Professor Vanhoozer at his office hours—a collection of essays written by former students looking at specific cultural texts and trends. Central to this whole exercise is Vanhoozer’s method for reading culture. To those not initiated with the Vanhoozer method, engaging culture probably means living—talking about our favorite American Idol performer, a new exhibit we would like to see, sneaking a peak at the headlines of U.S. Weekly at the grocery store, censoring our kids or maybe ourselves from the internet or TV. These essays, however, take on Vanhoozer’s in-depth requirements for viewing culture, each addressing a particular cultural “text”—anything from the lyrics of Eminem and the culture of rap to the human rights movement to the movie Gladiator.

Each essay discusses engaging and thought-provoking topics, but in the end VanHoozer’s formula, which informs his students’ essays, ultimately interferes with really connecting to the root issues. Almost all take the form of “compare and contrast” essays in which the cultural “text” is compared (unfavorably) with the message of Christ. This contrast leads the Christian cultural agent to veer away from their original topic towards a conclusion of redemption. There is a distinct feel that the “world” is being lifted up as a prop to be smashed down by the message of Christ. And while there is some satisfaction that comes from this, there does seem to be a lack of the tension that the reality of finding Christ in our world often creates.

The best of these essays is probably a youth pastor’s take on blogging. In the essay “Welcome to the Blogosphere,” Justin Bailey reveals how he stumbled upon a thriving cultural phenomenon that he knew nothing about. In entering the blogosphere, Pastor Bailey quickly discovered that nearly all of the students in his ministry had blogs of their own: “The day I discovered Xanga (an online blogging site) was the day my youth pastor naïveté died.”[7] What started as a profound discovery quickly became a daily part of his life. Through the process of reading others’ blogs and even starting a blog of his own, Pastor Bailey came to discover the tension of the cyber world in which some people feel they can be themselves and freely express their thoughts and feelings without ever actually having to participate in face-to-face interpersonal situations. His own experience and relationships led to an exploration of the tension of finding community in a realm without physical interactions, and how he as a pastor and cultural agent is called to respond.

As Christians, we are called to engage our culture exactly in this place of community. Too many have taken the idea of being “in the world” and used it to justify their own ends. Vanhoozer rightly claims that the ultimate response to culture comes through the Church:

When the people of God learn to read the signs of the times and to respond to culture so that they become a sign of the end time, they will have achieved not only cultural literacy but counter-cultural wisdom. For the church is to be a contrast society, an ecclesial excorporation that demonstrates a way of living blessedly here and now by taking not only every thought but every cultural text and way of life captive to Jesus Christ.[8]

It is not change for the sake of change that he teaches, but a call to action for Christians to engage their world, to know and to understand their neighbor, and to take Christ’s message into a world they not only are “in,” but one they truly know.


[1] Michael Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Baker Academic, March 2007) 19.
[2] Ibid., 240, 242.
[3] Ibid., 55.
[4] Michael Pollan, “The Way We Live Now,” The New York Times (December 16, 2007)
[5] Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology, 46-48.
[6] Ibid., 45.
[7] Ibid., 173.
[8] Ibid., 58.