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Christian Union
May 20, 2016

Q & A with John Seel

Christian Union: The Magazine recently interviewed Dr. John Seel, a "cultural renewal entrepreneur." Seel is a senior fellow at Cardus, a think tank focused on North American social architecture. The former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation, he is also principal of John Seel Consulting LLC, a cultural impact consulting firm specializing on millennials.

At Christian Union's recent Nexus Professional Conference in New Haven, Connecticut, Seel was a keynote speaker. His two messages were entitled Evangelical Exiles and the Challenge of Culture Engagement and Faithful Presence in American Babylon.

Christian Union: As a cultural renewal entrepreneur, what are some projects you have worked on that come to mind when you think about engaging culture?

John Seel: Here are three: the Williamsburg Charter; the founding of the Institute for the Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia; and the Walden Media film, Amazing Grace.

AmazingGraceThe Williamsburg Charter was a national hearts and mind campaign that was a reaffirmation of the religious liberty clauses of the First Amendment. At the University of Virginia, I was involved in the founding of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. The Institute was started to explore the collapse of the modern project, what its collapse portends for society, and what might emerge to replace it. And finally, I worked on the film team that released Amazing Grace (2006), the historical biopic about abolitionist William Wilberforce. I have learned a number of valuable lessons from all my past endeavors in cultural engagement.

CU: At the Nexus Professional Conference, you said, "Until recently, we tended to practice a civil religion American dream with Christian language wrapped around it. This is no more, and it's a good thing." Why is this a good thing?

JS: Because of America's unique history and because of the semi-establishment of Protestantism for the first 150 years of our history, there has been the easy temptation to conflate the flag and the cross, to talk too quickly about a "Christian nation." American civil religion, even when at its strongest, is not the gospel and it is not the good news of the immediate availability of the kingdom of God. Assuming an easy civil religion has tended to weaken the gospel and set up in its place an idol. "Seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness" is not the same thing as chanting "U-S-A! U-S-A!" The conflation of conservative religion with conservative politics in the last twenty years has, in fact, turned many young people away from Jesus. That Christendom has collapsed is a good thing. We can get on learning how to be genuine Christians in a post-Christian society. This new cultural situation where Christians are a contested minority helps followers of Jesus keep first things the first thing.

CU: Despite an increasingly hostile attitude towards Christianity, why we must we resist the temptations to "circle the wagons," or "turn inward," in the words of American sociologist James Davison Hunter?

JS: The problem with this approach is that it reflects an attitude of resentment—a presumed entitlement to a lost majority status. It is counterproductive to a constructive witness in society. Any "we/they" attitude does not reflect the sacrificial love of Jesus. Hunter says that the way some Christians act within this framing of cultural engagement is a kind of "functional Nietzcheanism"—power politics for me and mine. This is hardly Christ-like. It is to repeat the Constantinian heresy. Hunter writes of this heresy, "Rather than challenging the principalities and powers, the people of God became united with the powers; rather than proclaiming the peace, the church embraced an ethic of coercion, power and, thus, violence; rather than resisting the power of the state, the church provided divine legitimation for the state, which has invariably led to the hubris of empire, conquest, and persecution; rather than modeling a new kind of society, the church imitated the social structures of hierarchy and administration; rather than being a servant to the poor and oppressed, the church has been complicit in wielding economic and political power over the poor and oppressed."

For some, "turn inward" is a further retreat into the evangelical subculture, which only further reinforces the church's cultural marginalization. The Amish are quaint, but they are not influential.

CU: How can professionals who are believers be like Daniel and Esther in the workplace and in society?

JS: Daniel and Esther embraced their status as exiles as a missional calling from the Lord. They followed the admonition to exiles by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:1-7). Their exile country became their home. We learn seven characteristics of Daniel in exile.

  1. Cosmopolitan: Daniel no longer lived in the Jewish ghetto. He moved to the center of cultural influence. For three years he was taught in the king's court the language and literature of the Babylonians. Daniel's relationship to his new country was not adversarial; his new home became his new, God-ordained missional platform, his "On earth as it is in heaven." He was committed to making Babylon great for God, and he dedicated his life to this task.
  2. Conscious: Daniel never lost sight of where or whose he was. He developed daily practices that reminded him of his distinctiveness from his surrounding culture. This started with refusing the royal food and wine, sticking instead with a vegan diet that proved to be healthier. He also had a conscious pattern of prayer—getting on his knees three times throughout the day. He remembered whose he was right where he was.
  3. Conversational: He had an ongoing conversation with God that dealt with all the affairs of his public and professional life. There was no compartmentalization in Daniel's life—secular/sacred or faith/work—all was brought daily into a conversational relationship with his God. Daniel was an ambassador of heaven in the midst of Babylon.
  4. Companioned: Daniel was not a loner. He surrounded himself with three close friends whose professionalism, values, and calling matched his own. These four compatriots distinguished themselves. Almost more than any other choice we make, we reveal our heart's orientation by the close friends we choose. In an alien world, Daniel had trusted companions who served as his accountability partners. We all need a "soul friend."
  5. Competent: We also see that Daniel and his friends excelled in their studies and professional work. "In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them 10 times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom" (Dan. 1:20). This is not commonly observed about contemporary Christians in a cosmopolitan world. They often lack the education, social graces, innovative creativity, or professional acumen of their non-believing peers.
  6. Clear: Daniel was not a closeted Christian. It was widely known that Daniel was a follower of the "God of heaven." In a pluralistic and spiritually hostile environment, it is often easier to keep one's faith under wraps as a purely private matter. This was not the policy of Daniel or his female counterpart in the Persian court, Esther. Like Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin, Daniel was known equally for his faith and his humility. We do not need to be obnoxious about our faith, but we do need to be authentic.
  7. Committed: Daniel and his friends finally had to demonstrate with their lives that they were willing, whatever the cost, to put first God and His kingdom. They would not bow down to idols or cease their habit of prayer, even when their lives were at stake. When push came to shove, God always came first. And while they counted on the reality of the supernatural presence of God, they did not presume on God in some sort of simplistic assumption that everything always works out easily for his followers. Their gospel was not a prosperity gospel. They were saved from death, but they did not presume that outcome. The outcome of faith can lead equally to remaining untouched by lions and being bitten in two, life or death, Corrie ten Boom or Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Hebrews 11:32-38). The common element in both outcomes is a faithful commitment to God that leaves the outcome up to God alone.

{tweetme theme=bg_white|mode=box}7 Lessons from Daniel on Cultural Engagement by Dr. John Seel {/tweetme}

We are no longer living in a culture where casual adherence to Americanized Christianity will suffice. In today's world the stakes are high: the contestability of belief assumed, the professional risks to public faith real, the global instant scrutiny of personal hypocrisy afforded by the Internet and Gawker omnipresent. Ours is a day that calls for Special Forces in kingdom service.

CU: What are some signs that we are engaging culture as Jesus did?

JS: When acknowledged by those around us that our actions evidence sacrificial love. When others recognize the spiritual presence of God in us. And finally, when there is a consistent effort at working toward human flourishing (shalom) and the common good in all situations.