Let me make a prediction: if you read this brief book, and rethink some of your preaching and evangelistic conversations in the light of it, you will do yourself, the gospel cause, and the people you’re speaking to a huge service. I don’t know of any other book which covers this ground, let alone shows us what to do with it.
To make it clear from the outset, Dan is a good friend, and I’m proud to have worked alongside him at Oak Hill College here in London. I’ve seen waves of students profoundly impacted by his teaching, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that it is now widely available.
Dan Strange has provided an accessible, thought-provoking summary of how Christians should read culture. This is a brief and non-technical book, so he doesn’t provide a full literature survey. But by way of Bavinck, Kuyper and Charles Taylor, he outlines the kind of position that so many find so attractive in the apologetic preaching of, say, Tim Keller. The simplest summary is ‘subversive fulfilment’, meaning that we should be able to identify the deep story that any cultural artefact tells, show why in itself it cannot deliver that (and will usually defeat it, anyway), and how the gospel is the actual answer to that longing. Christians are therefore tellers of the better story, and creators of better cultures, which point to the gospel.
In one sense, this is familiar stuff: it’s in the the famous C. S. Lewis comment, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world;” and in Augustine’s prayer, “O God, you made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”
But however familiar the ideas might be, the execution of them is hard, and find it well-done is rare (Dan confesses to finding it hard himself, which is a relief!). So the brilliance of this little book is the way he describes the steps needed to do the work, and the theological framework we need to have in place to understand what we are doing.
This is a clever book which wears its learning lightly. Be assured, it is theologically and biblically robust (and Reformed), and Dan also knows his way around the theoretical minefields of anthropology and culture. But he manages to do this in such an easy and assured way that the reader is never bogged down in detail. This is material which has been worked through in the classroom, and it has a good and easy pace to it. He writes so well!
He concludes with some sample ‘readings’ of cultural artefacts, and how the gospel is the subversive fulfilment of each one, no matter how quirky. These are all based on the work of Strange’s students at Oak Hill, and are assured and positive summaries. Bird watching, Zombies, adult colouring books and Japanese toilets are all given the once-over.
I really have only one problem with the entire project, which is in identifying suitable cultural artefacts to explore.
In one sense, that’s a silly quibble, because every cultural artefact tells a story and is worth exploring.
But I mean something different.
We need to identify the cultural artefacts with a big audience, and those are becoming increasingly rare, as choice expands, and common experience fragments
What are the movies that everyone watches? The TV series that everyone sees? The performances we all share? Dan explores England football supporter theme song, “Three Lions” – he can do that, and it works for 30 million people – but I can’t, because I don’t follow football. I haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame. I’ve never seen an episode of Game of Thrones, played Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty. Like Dan, I’m an admirer of the pianist Sviatoslav Richter – but I’m aware that makes us members of a pretty niche club, and there’s not much point for my next sermon to analyse the extraordinary power of his slow opening to Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto.
Richter’s that is, not Dan’s.
So what do we do, once we’ve done our cultural exegesis on Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of The Rings? Is that it?
Where do we fid the cultural commons these days?
I suspect we preachers will find ourselves diagnosing experiences more. Experiences like work and career, or relationships, or holidays, or ambition. Brexit and knife crime. Debt and credit. Barristas. Those are cultural artefacts too, but perhaps not the kind that Schaeffer would have dealt with.
And I hope we will be diagnosing our own church’s cultural profile more as well. What do people do with their time? And how can we connect the gospel to that?
Grab a copy of Dan’s superb little book, read it, and then – like a novice pianist learning her scales – try out the exercises and play something in public.
Daniel Strange, Plugged In: Connecting your faith with what you watch, read, and play (London: The Good Book Company, 2019) – and I’m loving that Oxford comma!