Kristin Rudolph (@Kristin_Rudolph)
This year, the Acton Institute held its eighth annual Acton University (AU) conference in Grand Rapids, MI from June 18 – 21. It was the largest AU ever, with over 800 attendees representing dozens of countries. The conference brings together academics, theologians, writers, researchers, and other leaders to teach courses on what the Christian tradition contributes to a “free and virtuous society.”
Although much of Acton’s work focuses on economics, the fundamental question explored was what does it mean to be human persons, living flourishing lives in communion with one another? Indeed, the first “Foundations” course setting the stage for first time attendees was “Christian Anthropology,” which explored how our vision of what it means to be human shapes our politics, economics, and culture.
The question of humanness was explored deeply in a course on “Christianity and Cultural Responsibility” with John Stonestreet, executive director of Summit Ministries and a fellow with the Colson Center. Christianity, he explained, does not merely show us how to be religious, but teaches “A distinct vision for being fully and truly human in God’s world … To be Christian is to be fully human.”
To be fully human, we must know what it means to be made in the image of God, he continued. Most Christians, Stonestreet said, do not think much about this question. Being made in the image of God is not found fundamentally in our ability to reason or create, but “from a biblical theological category, the image of God is a status. It’s the status that the Ruler has made other rulers.”
“Humans aren’t just incidental to the story; humans are the rulers in God’s place,” he explained. Humans are so significant that “When the image bearers fall, the whole world breaks.” Stonestreet pointed out “Christianity actually is based on the idea that God became fully human.”
Although Christians sometimes conflate humanness with sinfulness, Stonestreet said “re” words like “restoration, renewal, reconciliation, and redemption” found throughout the Bible tell us that “Jesus didn’t come to … save us from our humanness. Jesus came to save us to our humanness.” Further, although “we are a church that loves discipleship … we’ve never articulated what that would be [in practice].” A disciple, he explained, is “a restored, renewed, redeemed, reconciled human person.” Thus, “To be a Christian is not to be less human, but to be more fully human.” If this is true, Stonestreet continued, Christians are called to live in this world while we are here, rather than create an escapist faith that looks exclusively heavenward.
“The cultural commission was not just something that was there in the Garden, it’s something that continues,” he said, although this is “not the reputation Christians have had” in recent decades. American Evangelicals often unknowingly espouse escapist theology through worship songs, Stonestreet said. For example, he quoted lyrics from the popular song, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus” that declare “the things of earth will grow strangely dim” when Christ is our focus.
“Is that what our faith does? Does our faith make the world around us fade away?” Stonestreet asked, continuing: “Is the point of our faith to distract us away from the world and just to Christ? Or is the point of our faith as we look at Christ, that we can properly see everything else? In other words, does our faith make the world grow dim? Or does our faith bring the world into proper focus?”
He pointed to John 1:1-13 which describes Jesus as the “Light of men,” that “shines in the darkness.” Simply put, “light enlightens things” and overcomes darkness Stonestreet said. Christians should not fear the world or seek to escape from it because darkness does not overcome the light. In fact, we are called to bring light to the darkness of the world.
On the other hand, he pointed out “Accommodation cannot be an option for Christ followers” either. Evangelicals have not consistently avoided accommodation, however, and “The goal of this engagement of culture has been to fit in.” Considering arts and entertainment, Stonestreet said we’ve merely “replaced celebrities with Christian celebrities … [and] what has really been harmed in all this is the arts.” He explained Christians “were so shaped by the consumerist mindset that the most important Christian artist of the last generation essentially was important because he could sell a lot, not because he was actually talented.”
“Cultures either bring life or cultures bring death. And when we accommodate to the rules of the game just to get Jesus in there, then we’re missing more largely what’s happening,” Stonestreet warned. “This generation is being cultivated … to consume.” Even Christians unthinkingly believe “the meaning of life is consumption rather than production,” and emphasize “convenience, efficiency, [and] choice.”
This consumerist mindset has resulted in “the moral McNugget approach,” Stonestreet said. This approach happens “When we take the Bible apart and break it up to these little moral McNuggets, [and] the people are then catechized to use Scripture along the lines of convenience, efficiency, and choice.”
Faithfulness to God and His Word means living in the full truth of Scripture, not isolating certain parts. Living as redeemed humans in this world will certainly cause some conflict with the culture around us that does not follow Christ. Even still, we bear a responsibility, as Stonestreet phrased it, to shine the light of Christ in all areas of life (Matthew 5:14).