Interpreting Your World
Five Lenses for Engaging Theology and Culture
Justin Ariel Bailey
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022
Justin Bailey is an assistant professor at Dordt College. This is a book about culture and theology, a lived-out everyday life. He wrote this book in part “in part because I am troubled by the dismissive tone with which many of my fellow Christians (and particularly my fellow Calvinists) approach culture”.
Karl Marx’s eleventh of his Theses on Feuerbach is: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Here Bailey writes on ways to interpret the world but as Marx observes interpretation must move on to engagement and where needed transformation. But then before transformation must come interpretation.
Culture is an elastic term. Bailey is rightly concerned that we do not adopt a thin view of culture or a reductive view of culture. To avoid that he discusses five lenses or “penta-focal lenses” through which culture can be observed and interpreted. He doesn’t define exactly what he means by culture – perhaps that is deliberate? One of the best definitions is that of Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd – who is surprisingly absent from Bailey’s writings. Dooyeweerd in his Roots of Western Culture describes culture as “… the term culture refers to whatever owes its existence to human formation in contrast to whatever develops in ‘nature’.
Bailey’s five lenses are:
1. The Meaning Dimension: Culture as Immune System
2. The Power Dimension: Culture as Power Play
3. The Ethical Dimension: Culture as Moral Boundary
4. The Religious Dimension: Culture as Sacred Experience
5. The Aesthetic Dimension: Culture as Poetic Project
For each of the dimensions, he identifies a practice. For the meaning dimension the practice is hosting; for the power dimension the practice is iconoclasm; for the ethical dimension the practice is servant hood; for the religious dimension the practice is discernment; and for the aesthetic dimension the practice is making. These provide constructive and interesting insights into how we respond to, approach, and shape culture.
He correctly realises that cultural participation must go beyond resistance and critique. It also needs to include the cultivation of beautiful things. And helpfully identifies some “characteristic flaws” in Christians’ approach to culture:
intellectualism (overreliance on analysis), triumphalism (overestimation of our ability to “transform the culture”), and parochialism (underappreciation of the gifts on the outside).
Sadly, these have often marred a distinctly Christian approach. Hopefully, Bailey’s book will go towards helping alleviate these unbiblical traits.
Bailey notes that
I was attracted to the Dutch “Reformational” tradition because of the way it trained me to recognize the multifaceted glory of creation and the beauty of ordinary life. This tradition has trained me to oppose reductionism at every turn.
And there are obvious echoes of this tradition in what Bailey writes, but, surprisingly, there is no interaction with Dooyeweerd – though Kuyper, Herman and J.H. Bavinck do get some mentions. Dooyeweerd identifies fifteen different modal aspects, and it would have been good to see all of these aspects explored concerning culture.
The book is well written and provides some excellent questions for reflection and discussion at the end of each chapter. The appendix also has a set of thought-provoking questions. Even though this book doesn’t have all the answers to Christian cultural interaction it does pose important questions and offers some wisdom into how we approach culture.
My thanks to Baker Academic for supplying an ARC.
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