I don’t know if I can recommend “Center Church” by Timothy Keller enough. I’m not a big “re-reader,” but I’m going through his book again. And I’m so glad I am, the book is full of ways to engage with culture, one of the most helpful being his analogy of drilling and blasting.
Keller expresses healthy engagement with the culture with this image. Say you want to destroy a large boulder. What is the best way to destroy it? You would drill inside of it, and then set dynamite and blow it up. He says that affirming the culture is like drilling, and confronting the culture is like blasting. If you drill and don’t blast, the boulder doesn’t move. But also if you blast and don’t drill, you may just sheer off the surface of the boulder. So, according to Keller, you first affirm the belief in the culture that corresponds to scripture (he calls this the “A” belief) and then you challenge the belief that opposes scripture (he calls this the “B” belief). And-this is important-since scripture is internally consistent, you use the inconsistency between the “A” belief and the “B” belief to challenge the “B” belief. That may sound super confusing, but it gets more clear when we apply it to concrete examples. Let’s apply this method to a liberal culture, a conservative culture, and an East Indian culture.
“A” Belief- Discrimination on the basis of race is wrong because all humans are valuable.
“B” Belief- The unborn are valuable, and therefore abortion is wrong.
Now, when you look at the “A” belief, we see that it is affirmed in the Bible. In fact, the Bible likely takes non-discrimination more seriously than liberal societies do. The Bible ties the worth of people not to a particular attribute, culture, or skin color, but to the image of God which resides in us all. For example, James writes, “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” James 3:9-10. The idea is we cannot disparage a human being because that human is made in the image of God. You could powerfully convey, from the Bible, the equality of all people to a liberal society and be received very well. This is drilling.
But then, we have the responsibility to preach the whole Bible, so we have to challenge the culture by going after one of the “B” beliefs. A liberal culture would generally say that a woman has the right to choose to have an abortion. So how do we challenge this? We say, “I know this may make you uncomfortable, but if we say that we cannot discriminate based on race because all people are equal, why can we discriminate based on size or level of development when it comes to the unborn.” That’s blasting. You gained common ground by showing them that the truth of the Bible is consistent, but their views are not.
“A” belief- Sinful men inhabit government and therefore we should be wary of giving them unfettered power.
“B” belief- Most people who are arrested for crimes probably did the crime, so there is no point to long, drawn-out trials.
Again, we look at the “A” belief and we see how a conservative society has a healthy distrust of government. Whether that looks like schools teaching morality, government confiscation of firearms, or excessive regulations, the conservative thinks that if the government gets too much power, the government will misuse it. And the Christian can affirm this impulse. The Bible teaches that people are wicked and if you give a wicked person power, it does not magically make him better. Not only that, but Christians have a pedigree of resisting unlawful authority. (See Acts 5:29) A Christian conveying these sentiments to a conservative society would be received well. This is drilling.
But then again, the Christian also has the duty to challenge the conservative. So we go after this contradictory “B” belief. You say, “I see that you don’t trust the government very much, and frankly, I don’t either. Rulers can be unjust and seek to rule by sheer power and not equity. But if you distrust the government when they come to take your guns, why do you seem to trust them so much when they try to arrest you?”
The Bible absolutely speaks to the right of a fair trial. Think of the fact that the Old Testament law required 2-3 witnesses to convict. This was to prevent political powers from executing innocent people that they didn’t like. Which is exactly what happened to Jesus. For a time, Jesus himself was protected by this code. And further, it is hard to believe that a group of people who follow a Savior who was wrongly executed would always trust governments to never wrongfully convict.
“A” belief- it is shameful to do what is morally wrong
“B” belief- We need to do what is right even if if what is right is culturally unpopular
Much of East Indian culture is based on an honor-shame dynamic. This means that there is a heavy emphasis not only on things being wrong, but also on things being shameful. This means that, if you commit a sin, you don’t simply think in terms of whether you’ve done wrong, but also you take into consideration what others (especially those in your community) would think of you.
Indians believe that one of the reasons that we refrain from (especially public) sins is because it is shameful to act in that way. Reputation is important. This is the “A” belief. It is good to be ashamed of what is wrong. Philippians 3 speaks of the enemies of the cross who glory in their shame, they are proud of what they should be ashamed of, and that’s unhealthy. Jeremiah describes those who did not feel ashamed when they ought to have, “Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not all all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall…” (Jeremiah 6:15)
But the focus on reputation can go too far. A belief that would challenge an Indian would be to say that we ought to follow the commands of God even if those commands are culturally unpopular. An Indian would bristle at the thought of intentionally bringing shame on himself and getting pushed out of the community for the cause of Christ. The “B” belief is that we ought to do what is right, even if it brings scorn and shame upon us. So how do we show the inconsistency? We ask, “Is it honorable or not to follow the group into doing something wrong?” We rightly have a low view of people who cowed to the pressure of the culture instead of doing what Jesus was calling them to. So in some ways, if you seek honor at the expense of righteousness, you will have neither. And ultimately you will hear the haunting words of Jesus, “for whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:26) Do you want honor and reputation? Seek it from the one who matters.
It’s easy to reject a culture and say that there is nothing redeemable in it. But if you really work and find out what makes the people in a culture tick, you may be surprised about how biblical their beliefs are, and that will give you the relational credibility to challenge the beliefs that are not.