If “balancing” Biblical truth and cultural relevance makes you think of two children on a seesaw-when one is up, the other is down-then “balancing” is the wrong word. Seesaws balance opposing forces, but Biblical truth and cultural relevance are not opposites. In fact, Biblical truth is the relevant message for any culture. We can’t make the Bible relevant to culture any more than we can make the umpire’s decision relevant to a baseball game: it is already relevant because of what it is, namely, the “God’s-eye view” on any subject.
Unfortunately, many who try to be culturally relevant take the “make the Bible relevant” approach. A glaring example of this approach is Revolve, the New Testament for teen girls formatted like a teen magazine, complete with sidebars such as “Guys Speak Out” and a lot of stock photos of pretty, happy-looking girls. Ironically, this effort to make the Bible relevant backfires, because the marketing strategy implies that the Bible wouldn’t be relevant to teen girls without the photos and sidebars. If we try to make the Bible relevant by adding extra-Biblical attractions, we actually undermine the sufficiency of Scriptures as such. The whole effort begins to look like a parent making airplane noises to get the baby to eat the mashed carrots: “Come on, now, it’s not so bad.”
The task for the Christian, then, is not to make the Bible relevant to the culture. Christians confess that it is God’s Word and inherently relevant. The task for the Christian is to demonstrate its inherent relevance to the culture. That is, Christians must proclaim what the Bible already says to the culture. But of course, Christians can’t demonstrate how God’s Word relates to the culture unless they first understand the Bible, and unless they first understand the culture.
Understanding the Bible
The Christian conviction is that the Bible is God’s authoritative Word: “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”; “making wise the simple”; “true, and righteous altogether” (2 Timothy 3:16; Psalm 19:7, 9, ESV). Not only is God’s Word authoritative, but it is also sufficient for God’s purposes: “It shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).
Christians who desire discernment in cultural matters must remember that God’s Word itself is a discerner, “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
Simply put, if Christians want to know God’s mind, they have to seek it in Scripture. Seeking God’s mind in Scripture is more than a superficial reading, panning for that daily nugget and calling it good. No, seeking God’s mind requires both extensive and intensive mining, discovering the mother lode of wisdom in Biblical and systematic theology.
It is in Biblical and systematic theology that we find the answers that connect with humanity’s deepest questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? What is wrong with the world? It is from Biblical and systematic theology that we shape a Biblical worldview of culture and all that is in culture.
Taking the term “culture” in its broadest sense, culture is the sum total of human endeavor: language, arts, sciences, technology, customs, values, and assumptions. It is everything implied by the command in the Garden, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion” (Genesis 1:28). People, being made in the image of a Creator, are naturally creative-capable of populating the earth and building civilizations. Psalm 8 marvels at God’s beneficence in giving mankind such a role-just shy of angels, crowned with glory and honor, and placed over everything.
Of course, we never got a chance to see what civilization would look like without sin. No sooner do we finish the creation narrative in Genesis than we find the Fall. Adam and Eve believed the serpent’s lie instead of God’s word and disobeyed. First of all, humanity’s creative efforts are now thwarted by thorns, pains, and general vanity and groaning until Christ makes all things new (see Romans 8:18-25). But more than that, humanity’s creative capacities are bent. Every project threatens to become a miniature tower of Babel. Genesis shows that everything that was so right about Adam and Eve has to some extent gone wrong in fallen man: household relations (Sarah and Hagar), sexual relations (Jacob’s wives), civic undertakings (Nimrod, Babel), and the list goes on beyond Genesis.
So when Christians bring God’s Word to their culture, they are bringing it to a culture that is bent. Of course, even bent people do right things, if only for self-interest. And furthermore, God has graciously intervened by raising up believers who exercise their creativity in obedience (however imperfect) to God. Think of Judah’s righteous kings, and Daniel in Babylon. And God preserves us from utter anarchy through governments, however imperfect (see Romans 13:1-7).
But by and large, Christians bring God’s Word to people who are by nature sinners and who have been nurtured in a sin-bent culture. Blinded by sin and immersed in a host of cultural assumptions, unbelievers are doubly unable to recognize the problem in themselves and in the culture at large. They are like fish who can’t describe what it’s like to be wet: it’s something they just take for granted.
Christians must not take for granted what they learn from a bent culture. Underlying every culture is a set of values, beliefs, and basic assumptions. The “cultural conversation” begun millennia ago continues, as people ask questions, some old and some new. Armed with a Word from above, Christians identify those values, beliefs, and assumptions, and listen for the questions. And then give an answer.
The Bible’s relevance
To summarize what has been said thus far: a Christian must demonstrate the relevance of God’s authoritative Word by studying God’s Word and arriving at a Biblical worldview (getting answers), then discerning the underlying values and assumptions of a sin-bent culture (listening for questions). The shape of this demonstration is an integration of Biblical theology with any given area of culture. This means taking the doctrines and concepts found in God’s Word and matching them to the ideas and notions in culture.
Perhaps the best way to elaborate on “Bible integration” is to offer a variety of real-world examples from daily life at work, at home, at play.
Advertising. How does current advertising persuade audiences? Does it explain the advantages of the product? Does it “brand” itself with ruggedness, sensuality, practicality, classiness, novelty? How do the Christian virtues of joy and contentment and warnings against coveting affect the way we view advertising? Better yet, for Christians employed in marketing, how should you craft your appeal? How can you avoid appealing to humanity’s baser instincts?1
Architecture. What people value in a house says a lot about them. What do you value? A front porch or a fenced-in backyard? A basement home entertainment room? An open area to host large gatherings? Room to work in the garage? Is the furniture arrangement conducive for TV viewing? for conversation? What might the Biblical ideas about “neighbors” and “strangers” and the use of one’s possessions say to someone designing a new home?
Business negotiation. There are dozens of volumes on business negotiation and making deals. What is the purpose of negotiation? To win for ourselves the best deal the other guy will tolerate? Or should we seek to understand the other person’s interests and seek to create a deal that is mutually valuable to both parties’ interests? Does the Bible indicate that people have the capacity to multiply the value of something? Does the Bible say anything about consideration for the interest of others?
Leisure. Our culture speaks of “weekends.” How does the contemporary concept of a weekend square with the Biblical concept of the Sabbath? What is the relationship between work and leisure? Do the Genesis narrative, Proverbs, and even the larger Biblical concept of “God’s rest” have any implications for how we take our leisure?2
Psychology.What is the self? What makes you you? When you describe yourself, to what should you refer? What has become of the “self” as we enter the postmodern era, in which people live increasingly compartmentalized lives? What do the doctrines of the “image of God” and “union with Christ” have to say about personal identity? What does it mean to live life with a clear conscience before God alone?
Sexuality. Let’s go beyond no-sex-before-marriage basics here. Consider that God didn’t have to make male and female, yet He did. Why this watershed decision on God’s part? How does God’s relationship to His people affect our thinking of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality? The Bible presents erotic love as a delight in one’s beloved as two become one; today, erotic love has been replaced by the pursuit of an experience as two remain two. How do we address such stark contrasts?
Technology. Nowadays, this is huge. Computers help us do things faster. We expect things faster. How does the Biblical virtue of patience apply? The Internet presents us with gobs of unsorted, unsifted, unorganized information. What do the Biblical proverbs about wisdom and discernment say to the Internet researcher? What do the warnings about human wisdom say to someone who-by the sheer volume of conflicting opinion that is out there-is numbed into complacent relativism?3
Hopefully these examples have served both to flesh out the idea of “Bible integration” and to provoke readers to further thought. Obviously, this is not an easy job. However, what is the alternative? Is the Bible relevant to culture? We nod, “Well, sure.” Fine. How? To answer this question with intellectual integrity, we have to answer in terms of how the Bible really applies to culture. We can’t make things up. We have to be thoughtful. We are exhorted, “Test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
God has something to say to the world. Christians are entrusted with that message. They can either appeal to the culture alongside the preaching of the Word as they try to make the Word relevant to the culture, or they can speak to the culture through the Word as they give God’s answers to the questions that culture asks.
Watch. Listen. Read. Pray. Then speak.
Michael Osborne serves as a deacon at Good Shepherd Baptist Church in Omaha, Neb. He currently works as a trainer and abstractor at a real estate title company. He and his wife, Becky, have two daughters, Felicity and Elinor, and one child on the way. Michael has a BA in Bible and an MA in church history from Bob Jones University, and plans to pursue further education in apologetics. He enjoys audiobooks, classical music, and dark roast coffee.