At one point does assessing culture and its art forms cross the line into active participation with the culture? Is there a point when engaging in critical assessment of art actually descends into voyeuristic behavior? Honestly, I have no idea about the answers to those two questions. All I know from personal experience is the very real tension between engaging with the culture while maintaining my witness for Christ. There is a part of me that believes the tension is meant to engender humility within God’s people as they engage in proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. For example, the apostle Paul reminds the Ephesian believers of who and what they used to be prior to God’s saving grace (Ephesians 2:1-5, ESV). Now, after God’s grace, the Ephesians are an example of God’s gracious work to all of creation both in the physical and spiritual realms (Eph. 3:10, ESV).
When Jesus preaches his sermon on the mount, he uses two metaphors to describe the people of his kingdom: salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16, ESV). In the context of the passage, Jesus highlights salt as an ingredient for cooking. Salt adds flavor to soups, meat dishes, salads, desserts, and beverages in the right amounts. This mineral dissolves into the surrounding ingredients while cooking, but the chef can still taste it. In many ways, that describes believers and the church. On the outside, we may not stand out or call attention to ourselves. We may be ordinary and plain people; however, our presence is influential as we flavor our relationships and social settings for the good. Like the salt within food, we might be called to dissolve, to lay down our external rights of prominence and praise. Hopefully, we can be effective witnesses to those around us in that act of laying down our rights.
The other metaphor that Jesus uses to describe his people is light. In fact, the Lord develops this metaphor even further into a city, which rests upon a hill (Matt. 5:14, ESV). There are two things important to note about the city image. First, God has raised up the city above all others in order for its light to exhibit the farthest reach possible (Matt. 5:14a, ESV). Second, because the city has been raised up, Jesus intends for it to be visible to all (Matt. 5:14b, ESV). Now, the city image describes God’s people as a group; however, the lamp image pertains to the individual believer (Matt. 5:15, ESV). Individuals make up a city, which shines because its people shine. Jesus reminds his disciples and the crowds that they are to shine their light within their respective contexts (i.e. give light to the whole house) (Matt. 5:15, ESV). The image is that one lamp is sufficient for the whole house. This implies partially that the call to proclaim the good news of Christ is a solitary one.
Each lamp shining in each house eventually, collectively light up the whole city. When it comes to actual cities, this is referred to as the city glow. Stargazers avoid this in order to better view the night sky. Jesus calls believers and his church to be visible and to shine for him: exude the glow of the city. This means that we are to engage the culture without compromising the Lord, his truth, and our witness. To answer my own questions at the beginning, if my engagement with culture lessens the Christ’s glow in me, then I must make an adjustment. I would have liked Trevin Wax to have explored at least the salt or light metaphor in his article, which I linked to this post. Wax writes for the The Gospel Coalition. He raises some good points with broad, brush strokes. Between what Wax says and my own post, I believe believers and the church are to embrace the tension between cultural engagement and obedience to Christ.