The Church Leaders “Best Books” series is our way of helping leaders find, read, and recommend books on a variety of important topics related to ministry and the Christian life. Check out the rest of our best books lists.
Bruce Ashford stops by to offer a helpful list on theology and engaging culture. Bruce serves Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in many ways: Provost, Dean of Faculty, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture, and Fellow for the Bush Center for Faith and Culture. He recently edited The Theology and Practice of Mission and writes regularly on the intersection of faith and culture.
Check out his forthcoming book, Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians.
If ever in history there were a non-event, this is it: my top eleven books on cultural engagement for an American Christian to own (and read). A few weeks ago, a friend of mine requested that I recommend a list of five books on Christian cultural engagement and it “got me to thinking.” Although I tried to limit myself to a list of five, I failed miserably, and thus you have before your eyes a list of eleven. So here’s the list, but before we proceed, allow me to make several comments.
First, “cultural engagement” is a very broad term, encompassing many things, and a short list like I am providing only scrapes the surface. Second, I’ve tried to include a mixture of beginning, intermediate, and advanced books in order to provide recommendations for every type of reader. Third, although I don’t agree with everything that is said in any of the books I recommend, I do think each of the books I recommend provide helpful guidance in how to engage our 21st century Western context.
Learning from History
Let’s not be “chronological snobs” who think we can learn only from people in our own era and context. Instead, let’s learn from faithful Christians of years past. Here are two books that can help us do just that.
Culture Matters by T. M. Moore: This small book provides a helpful introduction to the ways in which some Christians have engaged their respective cultures, and an argument that Western Christians should work together to promote Christ in our post-Christian era. Beginner.
City of God by Augustine: Augustine wrote this powerful theological treatise in response to Roman intellectuals who mocked the Christian faith. He responded to their political, philosophical, and religious arguments with intellect, wit, and verve. We’ve got a lot to learn from Augustine. We, like him, live in an empire and an era whose cultural elite are diametrically opposed to the Christian faith. I recommend the abridged version with a foreword by Vernon Bourke. I’ll warn you that the unabridged edition is more than 1,000 pages. (The covers of this book are too far apart.) Do not read it in bed. (I fear that if doze off in mid-sentence you will be crushed to death.) Advanced.
Building a Theology of Culture
It would be odd, wouldn’t it, to talk about “engaging the culture” if we didn’t first investigate what the Bible says about culture and about how to approach one’s cultural context? These three books help one to build a theology of culture.
Living at the Crossroads by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew: This slim volume begins by articulating a Christian worldview in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, and then use that framework to (a) critique contemporary Western culture and (b) help the reader discern how to live faithfully when interacting in various spheres of culture such as art, business, sports, higher education, and economics. Beginner-Intermediate.
Christ and Culture by Richard Niebuhr: This text has become the modern benchmark for discussing Christianity and culture. Niebuhr articulates five different views of the relationship between Christianity and culture, accompanied by historical representatives for each category. This book has flaws—serious ones—but is worth reading. Advanced.
Lectures on Calvinism by Abraham Kuyper: In this small book, Abraham Kuyper argues that our Christianity should affect every sphere of human life and culture, including not only our inner spirituality but our interactions in the arts, sciences, and public square. Intermediate-Advanced.
Evaluating and Evangelizing the West
These two books focus on the fact that Christians living in the United States and Europe need to approach their cultural contexts every bit as seriously as international missionaries do.
Foolishness to the Greeks by Lesslie Newbigin: Newbigin served for nearly 40 years as a missionary in India, after which he returned to Europe and began asking the question, “What would it mean to confront Western culture with the gospel?” This book is an elegant an incisive distillation of his answer to that question. He is the towering influence behind many of the theologians and church planters who are asking that same question today. Intermediate.
How Should We Then Live? by Francis Schaeffer: Schaeffer was a towering figure in the 20th century evangelical world. His compassionate and learned apologetic for Christianity finds its fruition in this book, which is an analysis of the decline of Western culture, and a proclamation of the truth of Christianity. Intermediate.
More (Really) Good Books
Here are four more very helpful books.
Culture Making by Andy Crouch: An engaging and persuasive treatise arguing that the Christian community should “make culture” rather than merely commenting and criticizing. Beginner-Intermediate.
To Change the World by James Davison Hunter: This book, written by a sociologist, argues that the dominant ways Western Christians think about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based upon both bad social science and poor theology. He promotes a view of culture and cultural change in which Christians should aim to be a “faithful presence” in their culture. Intermediate-Advanced.
Reason for God by Tim Keller: This book provides intelligent and compelling responses to the sort of skeptical questions our society asks about Christianity. He draws upon Scripture, literature, philosophy, and real-life conversations in order to answer questions about suffering, hell, salvation, and relativism. Perhaps most importantly of all, the book conveys a tone of grace, humility, and compassion.
The Naked Public Square by Richard John Neuhaus: A very influential and well-argued text on the place of Christian conviction in public political discourse. The author argues that Christians should draw upon the resources of the Christian faith in order to fulfill their vocation as citizens of the United States of America. (Note: This book is not a hot page-turner; it reads like a prolonged excursion into the earnest world of doctoral dissertations. However, those who are not deterred by its density will be richly rewarded.) Advanced.
This brings us to the end of our post. I wish I could recommend more books, because there are so many dimensions of cultural engagement which I am not able to address in this blogpost, including art, science, politics, economics, business, education, sports, and homemaking.