Pyromaniacs and the debate over cultural engagement

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I have always been somewhat in awe of the feisty visual and verbal rhetoric of the Pyromaniacs blog. I don’t go there very often – it’s the other side of town, it’s unfamiliar territory, I sense that I don’t belong there, I don’t understand the language, and frankly I’m afraid of being mugged. But this theological separationism disturbs me. Why do I feel so uncomfortable there? Why is it so hard to be understood? How are we to make sense of the mutual incomprehension expressed between, for example, those who believe that the church must re-engage with the culture and those who insist that the task is always and simply to preach the gospel to the lost – between those who are inclined to treat the world as a friend and those who view it as an enemy?

I have been following a lively conversation provoked by a post entitled ‘Engaging the culture’ by Phil Johnson on the Pyromaniacs site. Johnson complains in characteristically forthright fashion that evangelicals spend too much time and energy looking for new ways to be ‘hip and trendy’ – a more recently posted excerpt from one of Spurgeon’s sermons makes the same point though in rather more cultured English. Johnson’s critique is directed primarily against the evangelical mainstream – the seeker movement in particular. But it clearly raises important questions about the purpose of cultural engagement that have a bearing more broadly on post-evangelical or post-modern or emerging endeavours to recover cultural relevance.

What follows is a rough attempt, on the one hand, to account for – to justify – the quite widespread move to reduce the cultural distance between the church and the world; and on the other, to highlight the shortcomings and short-sightedness of the just-preach-it position. This will be a one-sided response: it should not be taken to mean that I think that Johnson’s critique misses the mark entirely or that we no longer need to preach a gospel of personal salvation.

It’s possible that I don’t know what I’m talking about

The problem may be, of course, that I simply have no idea just how inane and puerile the church in the US can be. One contributor to the conversation wrote about a large church planters conference at which ‘each main session includes a “Guitar Hero” contest to see which church planter is the best at the video game’. If that’s really what cultural engagement looks like in America, if that is genuinely representative, then I can understand why the Pyromaniacs (I use the name as a synecdoche for a broad swathe of belligerent Reformed opinion) are so opposed to it. But I suspect that there is much more at stake here than this anecdote suggests.

Emerging cultural engagement is an attempt to remedy the cultural stagnation of the modern evangelical movement

There are other reasons than vanity or insecurity why many in the church today feel the need, as Phil Johnson puts it, to ‘get in step with the values, trends, and dominant worldviews of our culture’. Perhaps the most important is the realization that modern evangelicalism, whether seeker-sensitive or not, is blind to the extent of its own captivity to cultural and intellectual forces that compromise its witness to – and indeed its understanding of – the gospel. The distinctive cultural engagement of the emerging church is in the first place a sign of disengagement from the stifling culture of a particular form of religious modernity, precisely for the sake of the integrity and credibility of the gospel. At least, this is how it looks from my side of town.

We are living in the present not the past

The insistence that the evangelical church needs only to proclaim and defend the gospel in imitation of the New Testament church or of the Reformers fails to take account of the radically different historical context of the church today. The state of affairs that the early church anticipated and which the Reformers sought in limited ways to overhaul is now behind us. Any attempt to proclaim good news to post-Christian Western secularism must somehow and at some level take account of this development and the bad cultural memories that accompany it. The emerging church’s admittedly chaotic and confusing quest for a new self-understanding is just one type of response to the crisis.

Uncultured subcultures and the marginalization of the church

The fact that the emerging movement is drawn to what Johnson calls the ‘language and fashions of a culture’s most uncultured subcultures’ is also theologically significant. On the one hand, it is part of the repudiation of a mainstream, affluent, middle-class evangelical culture. On the other, it is indicative of a broad and largely instinctive attempt to understand and accept the growing marginalization of the church in the West. Arguably this constitutes a very sound biblical strategy, for surely Jesus associated himself with an uncultured subculture of Israel – and, moreover, identified with them in practice sufficiently for the Pharisees to think that he had transgressed some significant cultural boundaries. Cultural engagement is not merely cosmetic: it is an attempt to reposition the church in order to be seen, trusted and heard – indeed, there is an important sense in which the position of the church is the gospel.

The gospel is not an absolute or single thing

What the Pyromaniacs appear not to appreciate is that the theology and praxis of both the New Testament church and the Reformers was a reaction to a specific set of historical circumstances. Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom of God was a response to the looming crisis of Judaism; Paul’s gospel of the resurrected Son of God was a gauntlet thrown down to the dominant pagan culture; the Reformers’ gospel rescued the people of God from the corrupt self-serving institutionalism of the Roman church. We cannot proclaim and defend a gospel in a way that is true to these illustrious antecedents without taking account of the historical crisis that the church faces at the tail-end of the Christendom era. I would argue that the current highly diversified, variously motivated engagement with culture forms the necessary backdrop to the pressing task of restating what good news means today.

Gospel is about community and therefore about culture

One of the fundamental questions here has to do with the purpose of the gospel. Is it to save individuals or to create community? If the story at the heart of the New Testament is the essentially dualistic, quasi-Gnostic one that God sent his Son into the world to save people from their sins so that they might eventually go to heaven, then the Pyromaniacs’ argument about resisting culture makes sense. If, however, the story is that God saved his people from destruction through the death and resurrection of Jesus, that this provided the basis for a transformation of the people, and that this storyline culminated in the eventual vindication of those communities of Christ-followers who had the trust in God to defy first Judaism and secondly paganism, then the question we have to ask is: What sort of community has the gospel created?

This is a question not about salvation only or even personal sanctification, but about culture, about the manner of corporate self-expression. What sort of culture is consistent with the new-created existence of the church? And how is that culture to be formed and articulated in the midst of the various cultures of the world? These questions have to be answered through the exploration of cultural identity, through the testing of cultural resources, under shifting social and religious conditions.

We are a very long way from good theological dialogue

What finally frustrates me is the difficulty of pursuing good theological dialogue between the two broad positions represented by the Pyromaniacs on the one side and the Emergents on the other. The following comment by Frank Turk illustrates my point.

The problem is that we’re talking about whether or not to see genesis as a historical account of the faith; we’re talking about whether or not substitionary atonement is actually important as a weekly teaching in the church; we’re talking about whether or not foul language is a vehicle for the Gospel; we’re talking about whether to adopt the current pop trend as the most valuable cultural language in which to frame worship and community.

What is so disturbing is that these issues are put forward not as areas of important and legitimate discussion but as foregone conclusions to be defended at all costs. I happen to see no problem with reading the creation stories non-literally; I think the staunch defence of the teaching of substitutionary atonement is pretty worthless without some understanding of narrative context; I think there may be, in principle, good rhetorical and contextual reasons for using foul language as a vehicle for the gospel; and I don’t see the problem with adopting contemporary musical idioms for worship. But if my views are dismissed out of hand as evidence of a need to ‘impress or flatter people’, there seems little prospect of furthering mutual understanding.

When I rashly introduced the term ‘narrative’ into the conversation, I got a rather scornful response, but I fail to see why the Pyromaniacs are so ‘twitchy’ about the word. The New Testament tells a story, it presupposes a story, it interprets a story, and ‘gospel’ is a key word used in the telling of that story. I understand that narrative-historical approaches to theology are at odds, methodologically speaking, with the more systematic, thematic, dogmatic, propositional, apologetic modes of thought that modern evangelicalism adopted in an attempt to shore up its defences against the inrushing tide of secular rationalism. But we all have to get beyond the easy caricaturing and start talking seriously and respectfully about how we are going to deal with the massive theological crevice that has opened up between traditional Reformed and emerging theologies.


You raise an important issue, in succinct and timely manner here. I've been genuinely and, at times, vulnerably exposed to a number of different traditions over the past five years, in personal manner and the net effect is one of finding it quite impossible to easily 'dwell' in any single one…

  • My background is Pentecostal and I continue to be involved with Pentecostal movements in Africa, where the tradition breathes a refreshing air compared to its western cousin. 
  • I've been exposed to emerging theologies through your websites, as well as a few books
  • I've been exposed to Anglican and Catholic representatives
  • I've been drawn up alongside representatives of the Reformed tradition through my academic interactions with Fuller, in LA

I find there is a measure of richness in each one, but an unhealthy measure of suspicion and effectively a lack of forbearance that undermines the sharing of that richness. Much of the strongest suspicion and lack of capacity to engage "the Other" in any way other than in an attempt to 'reform' them, has come, from representatives of the Reformed or Evangelical traditions, on several occasions actually, in a manner bordering on histrionic. By contrast, Anglican and Catholic representatives have generally shown greatest acceptance and refreshing signs of humility empowering their cultural engagement. 

In consequence of these engagements, I've thought long and hard about the issues that I know also concern you: how to encounter the gospel in a manner that is truly consistent with all that one is exposed to, throughout these myriad cultures. At heart, this is the essential challenge of missiological thinking.

Missiology, although a relatively new discipline academically, potentially offers a distinctive path towards theological and practical renewal. It eschews steriles theology; only theology that is missional—not essentially in terms of content (i.e. not merely talking about "mission") but in terms of action…being concretely active in engaging the peoples and cultures of the world—can be considered faithful, true theology. Anything else risks being vain indulgence.

As for the twitchiness over narrative, I've encountered the same thing face-to-face, as I hinted above, and, as you adroitly put it, the experience indeed carries a sense of being spiritually mugged! Yet, surely it's a matter of straightforward observation that any systematic theological summary only exists because the narratives of scripture lie behind it?

E.g. to say 'Jesus is Lord', as the church is empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak as a testimony of 'salvation', can only make sense because of the narrative reality—the living story—that it represents. Otherwise it could be any 'Jesus,' or any 'Lord' being spoke of, with no allegiance or connection with YWHW, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

So how is such an engagement and breaking down of barriers to take place? I think it may be encountered in our willingness to be 'mugged'. To stray into those places and sub-cultures where mockery and twitchiness are afoot, with patience, skill and, above all, a different spirit. One that does not depend upon 'winning the argument' but one that also is not intimidated from presenting a more profound wisdom and intentional challenge towards others to live up to their true vocation.

On which note, I would just add that the juxtaposition of individual salvation and creating community is a profoundly important one and worthy of a separate discussion.


Nicely put, John. You suggest in effect that the resources are there in the church for a rich and comprehensive witness, except that each faction is too contemptuous of the gifts of others, too pleased with its own small fragment of the whole. I think that unity should be much higher up our various agendas.

@Andrew Perriman:

Yes! That is exactly right, Andrew—there is a really rich Christian heritage to be appreciated, but it requires a fundamental reassessment of how we understand the question: Who is a Christian?

As long as it is understood and defined "theologically," doctrinally, orthodoxy-wise (rather than covenantally), then we will continue to box ourselves "in" and the Other "out." We may not any longer burn or drown 'heretics' in a real sense, but socially and culturally we continue to!

I wrote the following last year about the fact that Western (led) Evangelicalism has yet to come to terms with its inheritance of the post-Christendom mantle of Christian orthodoxy. I.e. it has yet to fully reconcile itself to the toxicity of what went before, with its inherent faults and the legacy that it has willingly utilised to maintain it's own place at the head of the table:

The ethical, theological and missiological limits of the Christendom paradigm were ultimately exposed and discredited by being brought into the full glare of both social and academic analysis during the twentieth century. Fundamentalist Evangelicalism was the principal theological and cultural paradigm that emerged from within to replace it as the new Western Christian orthodoxy (Walls 1996:81-5).

It was, however, unable to fully resolve a divisive tension between a “social gospel model” and an “individual conversion model.” This dualism, also referred to in terms of conciliars and evangelicals, is essentially a product of Enlightenment-controlled thinking (Shenk 1999a:22-29,93,110)—representing a philosophical alliance with which Western Evangelicalism has yet to fully come to terms, let alone break from (Shenk 2001:98).

This is reflected in its postulation of a universally applicable, westernised, ethnocentric theological framework, the result of which has meant that the emerging  missiological conversation concerning contextualisation has taken place primarily upon the margins of evangelicalism (Shenk 2005:193; Hiebert 1991:271-2).

That missiological conversation has evoked two highly significant realisations.

Firstly, that the gospel can only ever be communicated within a context, a cultural context. Thus, to imagine that our cultural accretions are somehow purer than that of others is tantamount to ethnic pride—the same subtle form of racism that effectively powered Colonialism. It is this spiritual link, in particular, that I refer to above, in terms of 'toxicity.'

The second is that when we are open to the whole Christian community, in its myriad colours and expressions, each of which has its own innate syncretism, that the Spirit of Christ is gently leading us from, that we truly begin to understand the scale of Christ's victory on behalf of all nations and people's, all of whom have a share in that inheritance—without any other gatekeepers declaring them and their Christian faith to be that of "outsiders."

Thus, it is in Andrew Walls’ vision of "World Christianity" that I find most to be hopeful about: a multi-coloured tapestry of different, overlapping Christian faith, incarnated amongst myriad ethnicities, each bubbling over with unique gift, vocation and culture.

In the midst of this, a missiological pièce de résistance, as Walls teasingly places Western Christianity within a broad historical matrix where it is marginal and “exceptional” (Walls, A., 2006:79)


In what almost looks like a "sequel" to this post, check out "Jesus Creed" (Scott McKnight's blog) and today's post (10/8) called "Shifting Evangelicalism". It's McKnight's response to a "Christianity Today" article entitled "The Reformer" about Al Mohler. It talks about Mohler, president of the SBC's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a school said to be "the staging ground for a struggle against (among other things) "postmodern Christians, the enemy within". 

McKnight says, "What we also are witnessing is the end of generous evangelicalism, what I often call Big Tent Evangelicalism that has been noted by a coalition of gospel-oriented people.What is perhaps the secret here is that many of us became evangelicals to escape fundamentalism. For us, there’s no turning back, which means we may find ourselves disenfranchised from evangelicalism.The question is Who will speak for the Big Tent coalition? Count me in."