Different people’s voices have different weights. Diane Abott has more influence than my son’s primary school teacher. My MP’s voice is more influential than my dentist’s. However, it is not just politicians who have influence. Culture is not just shaped by law makers, but by all sorts of different groups. Cutting to the chase, artists are pretty key in all of this. They live in the middle of the stairs. They build the plumbing of our culture. So often, it is the artists who shape the values and thinking of all of us.
This seems like a pretty non controversial way of looking at the world we live in, but still it may sit uncomfortably with some Christians. Jesus taught his followers to serve, not lord it over others. Paul reminded us that God chose the foolish things and the weak things and often operates ‘in the face of worldly wisdom’. We do not fight with worldly weapons and in some ways we do not see things as the world does, therefore we shouldn’t play the influence game like the world does.
The problem with this view is that God clearly does see the world in this way and is more than happy to ‘play the influence game.’ In the Bible, one of God’s main strategies in pushing his plans forward is by engaging with the structures of cultural influence. That’s a big claim and needs some backing up, so let’s wheel right back to the start and survey the evidence.
Cultural Influence in the Old Testament
In Genesis, God starts to roll out his rescue plan for fallen humanity. It all starts with Abraham. You’ll be a father of many nations, God says. Through you all nations will be blessed, God says. He even throws in some stuff about his offspring- his seed, the Messiah- for good measure.
And so a couple of geriatric parents, an awkward take your son to work day up a mountain and two squabbling twins later, the plan has moved on.
But how does God turn Abraham’s descendants from an extended family into a people? He raises Joseph to a position of cultural influence.
Joseph’s brothers stick him in a hole and ship him off to become a slave in Egypt. (The place is not incidental- Egypt is the key cultural centre of the day). Then after a series of further misadventures, Joseph amazingly ends up as second in command to Pharoah. The result: Abraham’s descendants are saved from starvation and then given a home to grow in.
But how does God then turn his slave people into a nation? He raises Moses to a place of cultural influence.
This all starts at the beginning of Moses’ life, when he is adopted into the royal family. Though he doesn’t take the title with gusto (Hebrews 11:4), he would have been known as the son of the king’s daughter. This meant that when he returned to say ‘Let my people go!’ he didn’t have to queue up to meet with one of Pharoah’s aides, but he got to say it to Pharoah face to face. Repeatedly and forcefully. Moses’ position of influence was crucial in freeing the Hebrews and enabling them to become a nation.
So, time passed. And there were ups (Joshua, David, Solomon). And there were downs (most of the rest). And the downs prevailed and Israel got exiled to Babylon.
So how does God preserve the nation of Israel while in exile? He raises Esther (among others) to a place of cultural influence.
When Xerxes the Persian King, agrees to eliminate all the Jews in the Empire, what does God do? Well, he’s already got this one covered. Esther has been roped into the King’s royal harem and become queen, and she uses her position to save all of God’s people from death.
And how does God get his people back from exile? He raises Nehemiah to a place of (I think you’re probably seeing a pattern here) cultural influence.
Nehemiah, as he is at pains to tell us, was the cupbearer to the king. This role gave him the ear of the king, and he used this influence to get permission and even substantial resources to rebuild Jerusalem and give the returning exiles a home.
So, in the Old Testament, how does God push forward his purposes? Well, obviously he calls his people to personal holiness, social kindness and observance of the covenant, we know that stuff. However, at the same time He makes sure that some of his faithful people are in positions of significant influence at just the right times, in just the right places to keep things moving along as planned.
And seeing as this plan worked so well in the Old Testament, as we cross from Malachi to Matthew, we find that God continues in much the same vein in the New Testament.
Cultural Influence in the New Testament
Luke is the gospel writer who brings our attention to this most blatantly. He does this mainly by laying out a geographical trajectory to the ministries of Jesus and the early church that shows God still working with a keen eye on human structures of influence.
Jesus is born in Bethlehem and grows up in Nazareth. Nazareth, however, was a bit of a backwater. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael scoffs in John 1:46, and while we may want to chasten him for such cultural insensitivity, in a sense it seems that Jesus agreed with the basic sentiment. At the very least, Jesus seems to have concurred that you certainly couldn’t change the world from Nazareth. But you could from Jerusalem. And so to Jerusalem he goes.
Luke presents to us that after he begun his ministry in and around Galilee, in Luke 9:51, Jesus resolutely set his face towards Jerusalem. Why? Well, he went there to die, but not just that, he went to die in the place where the effect of his death and resurrection would resound loudest in that locality. Now, there are surely loads of other reasons why Jesus needed to die in Jerusalem, but sociologically speaking, the cultural currency of that city cannot be overstated.
And when we see Luke’s sequel, Acts, we see a very similar story. According to Luke, the story of the early church begins in Jerusalem (no continuity errors here), but it ends in Rome. Jerusalem was a place of influence, but it was still a capital city of a small nation of limited global significance. Rome, on the other hand was the cultural centre of the entire world at that time. The trajectory is again telling. (Take a peak at Footnote 1 for another interesting titbit).
So, it seems that the picture we get from the Bible is of a God who understands that for his purposes to succeed, he needs people in places of influence. He needs people who bend the ear of kings, he needs people who are speaking into the centres of cultural influence, both geographically and metaphorically.
Now, influence in the 21st century western world certainly looks different to how it did way back then. However, the basic principle still stands. If God hadn’t ‘played the influence game’ then, the people of God wouldn’t have got out of Genesis, let alone the Old Testament, Jesus’ death and resurrection may well have gone unnoticed, and the early church would likely have fizzled out on the fringes of the Roman Empire.
If we take this lesson and bring it up to date, I don’t think that it’s too much of a leap to suggest that if Christians aren’t exercising significant influence in our society today, significant progress is going to be impossible for God’s people in our time and place too.
This means that we need Christians in politics. Christians in business. Christians in the media. And… we’ve got there eventually… Christians in the arts. Many making work that shapes life at a local level or making creative decisions in their jobs that subtly question and challenge the accepted status quo. But also a good number who attain to such a level of excellence and creative freedom that they monkey with the way our whole culture ticks, providing an alternate narrative to the one of unlimited personal autonomy and nihilistic hedonism that presently holds sway, and warming hearts and minds to this narrative in a way that prepares the way for people to give their allegiance to Jesus.
It’s not proud or worldly to think like this. This seems to be how God thinks and we must take that into account. The church needs some of its people in positions of significant cultural influence today. It’s a good thing to hope for and it’s a good thing to pray for. But how should we actually go about living in light of this understanding. Should we chase after influence ourselves?
Next time, Gadget. Next time.
Footnote 1- It is interesting to note the apostle Paul’s own example in all of this. In his calling was a specific call to kings (Acts 9:15) and Luke relates to us how this plays out by highlighting all the people of influence he engages with as he does his apostle-ing. Sergius Paulus (Acts 13), Gallio (Acts 18), Felix (Acts 24), Porcius Festus (Acts 25), Agrippa and Bernice (Acts 26), the chief official on Malta (Acts 28). This is not to mention Lydia (probably a significant business leader) (Acts 16) and the various high ranking military personnel he regularly bumped into. Even this is the tip of the iceberg though as behind the scenes there seems to have been loads of other influential individuals who Paul had made friends with outside of Luke’s watchful gaze (eg Acts 19:31). So, when God wanted to push the church out of Israel for the first time, he made sure that he had someone on hand who could carry himself well specifically with people of cultural influence.