Culture or Worldview, Which Comes First?

responded to a belief that most people’s political views are “downstream from culture."

  I was recently watching a YouTube commentator react to an article in which he was named. This article was discussing which comes first, politics or culture? On his YouTube channel, he mainly discusses news, events, and politics, but also sings in a band. I won’t name him, because I sometimes find him to be unnecessarily sensational and we certainly don’t agree on many issues; however, I keep watching his channel because I find his unique perspective interesting. He greatly changed his views over the past few years, and he doesn’t fit neatly into a box. He also interacts with people from multiple viewpoints, and I find that a great way to learn.

The initial article responded to a belief that most people’s political views are “downstream from culture.” He and others hold this view. I think it’s important to point out that I’m not primarily concerned about politics themselves, but I think the term here is deeply intertwined with what is called a “worldview.” A worldview is simply the way in which people see the world, and even believing you don’t have a specific worldview is a worldview. It’s inescapable to have one. It may be inconsistent, it may be well thought out, or it may be inherited and unquestioned. So, with that in mind, is an individual’s worldview downstream from culture? By that I mean, in the flow of cause and effect, which comes first, an individual’s worldview, or the state of the culture that is comprised of all individuals interacting with one another?

Convinced that individual views come after changing the culture, this commentator, as well as others, has taken a new stance in what has been called “the culture war.” Rather than talk about the surface level disagreements, and simply argue back in forth, there has been a pivot to “create culture.” The underlying idea is that people primarily learn truth in the context of story or song, so it is better to imbed truth into art or entertainment than to state it bluntly. Even our own President said it was a sitcom, “Will and Grace,” that changed his long-held views on same-sex marriage.

The idea that an artist can embed truth in their art is nothing new. It’s long been used to  persuade or inspire others. Star Trek is a famous example of Gene Roddenberry intentionally embedding his own values — humanism — in his creation and hoping it would inspire and influence others. Times have changed since then, though.

In recent years, it seems that those who formerly focused on giving a message through story, have wanted to be more direct, and so have changed their tone and style. I’ve attempted to articulate to others what I see as a big difference in older Star Trek, vs new Star Trek. In the past, there was a more intentional effort to give both sides of an issue a representation, even if there was a clear preference in the story being told. The characters in the story and the overall story itself came first, and the message was included, but more embedded. Now, the message is loud, and is more important than either character consistency or past cannon to the story. There is less nuance and subtlety, and it feels like the story is hammering the message into us more than entertaining us.  

This youtuber is part of a different movement. Those who have formerly preferred lectures, articles, and sermons, have drifted back towards story. Unfortunately, these two groups, for the most part, do not seem to be meeting in the middle, but are instead on parallel tracks in general, and now heading in opposite directions in terms of preferred delivery. They seem to be reacting to each other more than learning from each other.

Due to the highly political and divisive nature of the original article, I’ve decided to skip linking it as well, but it pushed back on the idea that someone’s views are downstream from the culture. Those who are creating culture in a specific way are usually doing so because of their personal views; therefore, they argue, those views come before their attempt to influence culture. They further argue that, in some cases, outspoken people’s content is only consumed by other people who knowingly share their worldview. This leads us back to the question, do people form their worldview based on the culture they live in? Or is culture formed based on individuals’ worldviews?

           I think the obvious answer is, yes. Both occur. The article and the commentator both had valid points but were oversimplistic in their analysis. It’s not a straight line. Our recent study in the Beatitudes revealed an interrelated relationship between the various individual beatitudes, and I think that here we see a similar dynamic. I do appreciate the idea that we should go back up-stream, to address more basic ideas, rather than simply arguing about our different conclusions. Where we are now both as a culture and as individuals impacts what we consume, and what we consume will impact the culture of tomorrow.

           We must recognize that there are intentional voices sharing ideas embedded in the entertainment we consume. They have the power to subtly or not so subtly insert themselves and their views into whatever type of entertainment they are selling, but only to the extent that the individual consumers will tolerate. If they do it at a slow but steady pace, they can carefully move people along to their views slowly. Too fast or too far, the consumer can push back, as we are seeing with current backlashes against companies like Disney.

           What can we do about this cycle? How can we use this aspect of our culture to glorify Christ?  For one, we need to be aware of it when we consume entertainment. Fiction is often intentionally trying to communicate a message about truth. My son is reading through a book at school, Tiger Rising. While it is age-appropriate, we have discussed a line from the movie trailer based on the book: “You have to save yourself.” It falls right in line with this idea from Frozen II, a favorite of my daughter’s “You are the one you have been waiting for.”

           While I do want to call my kids into action, not passivity, can we truly save ourselves? Any Christian should respond with a clear “No.” Yes, we can pull our leg out of a bear trap, but the deeper need for salvation still exists. Are we the answer to all problems? We certainly are an imperfect answer, in even the best situation. Yet our culture often tells us that we are. So, Avery Joe and I had a good conversation about leaning on God and realizing that we, in our own power, can’t fix everything, solve all of our problems, and we certainly aren’t always as much of the “good guy” or hero as we want to be. However, if we trust in Christ and allow him to save us and to work through us, we can be a part of His work to change the world. 

2 Corinthians 10:5 records Paul’s words, “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ,” I think it lines up with active listening to the messages our culture sends, but simply being aware of what the world is telling us through story isn’t enough.

           In the past, Christians have intentionally impacted the culture. It was Christians who wrote amazing tales like Pilgrim’s Progress, or the classic Chronicles of Narnia. These two examples showed differences in how clear the Christian worldview was, but it was very much present in both. Rather than just letting ourselves or our children absorb entertainment made by a secular world, we need to support Christians who create, as well as create ourselves — not just sermons, but stories. There was a reason Jesus Himself used stories to convey truth so often. As much as I love a good academic book or a great apologetic line of evidence, there is a reason that the most-read books in our own library are the fiction books. Most people, even Christians, still consume a lot of stories. Let’s use that. Let’s engage in a way that points them to truth and ultimately to Christ.

           I’m not sure what role you will play in that effort — perhaps simply supporting a Christian author or creator — but as I head into my doctorate program starting in the spring, I have an idea that’s been on my heart and in my head for a while. If you weren’t aware, my doctorate program at Talbot is designed for full-time pastors. It will mean some extra reading on my part in the Spring, 2 weeks of classes in the Summer, and a project in the Fall, but they will be improving my ability to serve you, right here at the Fountain, as I’m learning. I’ll begin work on my dissertation early in the process, and just like my master’s thesis, it will be long project, so I’ve already been thinking about it.

I’m a nerd. You all know this. My nerdy hobbies, including design, and reading, and enjoying collectibles, but I’ve always used them as a bridge for something more important to me. These hobbies get me into communities with people who don’t know Jesus. It can be as little as showing atheists that Christians can sit beside them have some food and we can laugh together, to being there for prayer, to full on sharing the gospel with an author I had read for years prior, after we met at a mutual friend’s funeral. Rather than just point out good and bad in the entertainment we consume as a family to my kids I recently did something a little different. I wrote again, for fun. Not a newsletter article, not a sermon, but a story.

Since the pandemic began, I’ve only managed about 80 pages of content, in a total of three years, so it’s not been a distraction to my duties, but it has been a fun occasional recharge for me. I took one of those stories and recently read It to my son. I don’t know where it will go from here, but because I set it during the crusades and intentionally included a few creepy elements that he would enjoy, we were able to discuss real spiritual warfare, the crusades, Catholicism, Islam and how people can live together when we disagree. I’m not sure he would have sat through that as a sermon, but after reading a story with words and concepts he was unfamiliar with, he would ask, “Who’s that?” or “What are those?” Simply telling the story gave me a chance to bait him into seeking more important information. 

I learned in much the same way from a man named Larry Hama, who wrote the G.I.Joe comics I read as a child. I’ve even had the honor of meeting him several times, and yes, I have even talked to him about God. He would also throw words well beyond my reading level into his stories. Some he would explain with a footnote, others he wouldn’t, leaving me to hunt for the words meaning or to ask an adult.

I’m not sure what’s next for my little story, but maybe, just maybe, I have found something that will form the basis of my doctoral research: How to convey important truths in fiction in a “non -preachy” way that Christians can learn from and those who disagree with can still enjoy and maybe get tugged, even just a little, towards the truth. That’s how I might contribute to the ongoing conversation we call culture. How will you? I’ve seen wonderful art here, and we have a few authors, but there are ways each of us can answer the call to be salt and light, and it must involve interacting with those outside of our church walls.