Christian cultural engagement has two pitfalls: legalism, which rejects culture as evil, and libertinism, which regards culture as good. Douglas Wilson articulates “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:13):
The way others are to view your liberty is not the same way that you should view your liberty. Other Christians should let you do what you want unless the Bible forbids it. That’s how we guard against legalism. But you should use your liberty differently—you should be asking what the reasons are for doing it, and not what the reasons are for prohibiting it. Liberty is intended by God for you to use as an instrument for loving others (Gal. 5:13), and not as an instrument for suiting yourself.
In his review of Brett McCracken’s book Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, Owen Strachan writes:
The apostle Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 6:13 play on my mind in these discussions: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful.” The first part of the verse seemed of greatest importance to me earlier in my Christian life—all things are lawful! As I mature, I find the second part coming most often to mind: Not all things are helpful. I would submit that this is a crucial text for cultural engagement.
I’m not against a deep-dive into heavy material that probes the depravity of the human condition. But remembering Paul’s words has helped me, and frankly has steered me away from material that speaks truly about aspects of life but wraps that message in worldliness. Just because a work of art has a doctrine of brokenness and a type of Christ does not make it worthy of engagement. Some works of art will be; many will not be, particularly as the depravity-meter creeps upward.
The basic point is this: I, like many young evangelicals, don’t need more worldliness. I need less. That applies to a good number of movies and television shows I could watch but don’t, because frankly they won’t help me. I teach college students, and I can say with great confidence that their chief need is Christward conformity and transformation.
Cultural watcher and engager though I am, I cannot help but think that the Scripture has a great deal more to say about gospel-driven holiness than about cultural engagement. We are surely free to consume and enjoy cultural goods. But, starting with the Scripture’s doctrine of God, I am called to lose myself in marveling at the holiness of the Lord (Isa. 6:3). With God’s grace looming large in all that I do, I’m called to be set apart (Rom. 12:2), killing sin constantly (Col. 3:1-11), making no provision for the flesh (Rom. 13:14), and putting on all the holy armor of the Lord (Eph. 6:10-20). “Without holiness no one will see the Lord,” Hebrews 12:14 says. To use Miroslav Volf’s language, I think there’s more of a “hard difference” between the church and culture than we might suppose.
This last reality can perhaps help us apply McCracken’s numerous insights. It is not cultural, worldly artifacts that are most pleasurable. Holiness itself is pure delight (Psalm 16:11). This is what makes the prospect of life in the new heavens and new earth so exciting: We will taste the full sweetness, and luxuriate in the aesthetic splendor, of holiness. We will be, as Jonathan Edwards once said, “wrapt up” in God forever, enjoying all the fruits of a renewed city whose light is the slain Lamb.
Christian freedom entails several revolutionary realities: liberation from the law, from guilt, from a moralistic—but demoralized—way of life. Above all, though, Christian freedom is the freedom to obey Christ, and in so doing to savor the goodness of God above all else.