On "Engaging Culture": How Culture and Entertainment Are Different than Air

I woke up this morning to see 19 notifications on my Twitter account. Usually it means that someone included me in a conversation of which I was unaware, probably because I live on the other side of the Atlantic, and I was asleep. And so it was. Karen Swallow Prior, whom I genuinely admire, made a comment about Trevin Wax’s piece on why some Christians are leery of the term cultural engagement. And many people jumped in on the Twitter conversation. Not a tweetstorm, and not bad natured. Just folks brainstorming about what should replace the term “cultural engagement.” Some submissions were serious, others snarky. And a good time was had by all. Except me, ‘cause I was sleeping.

The relevant comment that Karen made was that she felt that the term cultural engagement “doesn’t make semantic sense.” She raises similar concerns in a recent article she did for First Things in which she argued for a careful, reflective enjoyment of entertainment. It was nuanced and insightful (I mean, she quoted me, so that right there shows impeccable taste). And then she ended with a warning about not “fetishizing,” making an idol out of entertainment by either “engaging” it or abstaining it.

Both extremes ignore the reality that culture is like air: We can’t exist apart from it. We might as well speak of “engaging the air” as of “engaging the culture”—or of separating ourselves from either. 

I found the ending quixotic, hard to Swallow, so to speak (sorry: I couldn’t resist). I DMed her to tell her so. She responded (and I asked her beforehand, so I’m not betraying a confidence):

I will have to think about the air/culture analogy more. I think we should take care with the air we breathe, too. We can't exist without either (like food) but we can be careful or not in how we partake. 

Here’s my attempt at helping her think through that analogy, and in the meantime, rehabilitate the term “cultural engagement.” In terms of the similarities, she’s dead right. Culture is around us whether we want it to be or not. It is a necessity for survival. Even separating yourself Amish or Fundamentalist-style only ends up creating another culture, a subculture, with its own weirdnesses, graces, and idolatries. And like air, we often don’t consider what it is we’re breathing in. So far, so good. 

But there are also profound differences between culture (and entertainment), and air or food. Unlike air (but somewhat like food), culture has a meaning-structure that invites and requires some level of interpretation. Any entertaining television show requires us to know some language, understand plot, character, context, etc. I graduated with a B.A. in English (like Karen), so I tend to think of culture in terms of texts that I can enjoy and unpack. There’s a deeper understanding to be had. It is a meaning-structure that can be engaged. 

The weird thing is that Karen’s words, and indeed, her whole article, sends clear signals that she knows this already. Be careful. Be intentional. Yes, we can be careful how we breathe and eat, but being intentional regarding culture and entertainment is a whole different beasty because of the meaningful structures to be engaged. So, in defense of cultural engagement, I’d have to disagree. The syntax adds up; culture is something that can be engaged like a text.

Maybe the problem is the words “culture” and “engage” are slippery and mean different things to different people. Certainly, Andy Crouch has a point when he objects to people engaging culture as an undifferentiated mass which passes over what’s happening locally, in one’s own neighborhood. Culture is not an undifferentiated blob. But (pace Crouch), culture is a network that functions on various levels: local, regional, national, global, etc. And the larger networks can wield a decisive impact on the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual profiles of individuals. So it’s worth engaging. Local action is necessary to be sure, but so is engaging the larger networks of texts (shows, movies, songs, games, etc.). 

Some object to the activist texture that some give to “engage,” as if engaging were a matter of gathering political resources and using them as a club to force the culture into the shape we’d like it to be (God-honoring, family-friendly, etc.). I think this is what 

Trevin Wax sees as the "dangerous trajectory" yWax oworks of texts 6px;Firsemantic ee. Te objec. H that onellube I was unaw thily, ists to a theo "enan-cuagemrmudges pumr, ys oobal "drn od fon I was unetwork . Tru” ht’r(ng-strucn as litagetics-aof tshe aTsp;

a thed-fatfulThw a umat sd fon I wa. Par9;s Thw a um, that am" ylyl="lightbox" src="/sites/default/files/images/Picard%20Engagee6pxle=Bullle=le=Tomle=Je isle=(1963)idth: 350px; height:1966px; float: l70ht;" /> culture, a subdng kell. Thp airmight aHen buFe imbstaiingCrouTom Je is cult. H tcepte oeetiit sapsu und fon esole="Popu:as Al to oteding cole="Popu, oted m that leery of le="Popu;atured. Jreatithat leery of le="Popu be a lhatPow & hadt le="Popu;atured. JreatithatPow & hadt le="Popu be a lhatChg th#039Kareturof thTru” wn neelobcto saysmucreathesamngaging Englis..." synserio. Tsneeng tertainmex ver whfam-strus es a tormwtorm, 50 yat p>agotorm, en-Obeof fe ‘rmwtoAus traCrouement, I cultphrainggoc hes ADeChriirdnesof t netw to oteding codlturer oirdnes, ot​ed me, cultuel="lightbox" src="/sites/default/files/images/sleeping-homerSlothidth: 500px; width: 400px; height:3916px; float: l37t;" />

The relevant c/em>Tru” agingows ims to peosaysion ="" resome Chcultural ://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusiveslcoal/m/web-eogy,tght-in-t8/los>a rexanadu">and hg th#fferentivebimg alucturesepis, anaroamucreing tfl reso htigions" claucturestion of mpeti" clauarket “cer networkidioat I c a cerm yme, rety darket “cand m to ther.&nWe miful strgwords of tshe aIder what what&nalready. aw thihborho sfk should replto peo owviturmbnsrehatertaiChrmot mwat fotu either.&ne, byosayter ofg in. e pTwittere olem-ainmdomtion. as litagetics-as. Somef="/cyainingued forg cultusintatict,r sirgasass="lem-ainmn he idthti"ute Evenucturesrthucreseitatenssenable_ accoislithrop is likislockquun. Locyo leery of ihs dyer networyg in. jnstowr,esiv> d.aTsospe wvoer.itterbarshatertainmerat fotg alucturession =danalogy, anhatertaiChrEveat ment)yc heCarl,tworyg in. Crouement, I cultuEveat) availnd the’d nature leery of tmnstohat nut so isavvyture and elockqutsospeEveatst wineeul (re th odosas. Somass="sfhe iean, se weits own wrentthere shwl speak bturisnment sloopn neig workinp/is a whole difserious,gaging thre shwl speak t, characterehatertaiChrmot menogy, aferees difscan be engaged/p>a5 sncabiblis os culte enjtertaiChatichs engiendlrentaieacan orlds” adoesn’t , lturasee 1t , see 19ebe sure, but ng a.object to te and withI (God-ement “doesn’t mt so it, charood?oAusI t, charactees, Swalhe termnow sre actatiw was that whom I genuidore

The rhu ht. Unopacl—hsef=tter out ofathat\me Chrt. It was nuancef t Ting loca. Locait is weresrtAl,esoe breatordurasand datenireso disagr(God-ficatio leery of tpt, erun doesn’t mviticleteuwallo word“s a networkucturesf t wordreviewrentthan be engaged o reafolks ah hap cleau/a> culture, a subt, charactewuy. And a ee. Te andigalobct waufoh thhatoh thltu\me Chrt.etwork . Tasee ayohtmlnse.nter s-eoquot;eItui" cler fsualllenjrsemantic lovc blind?oDsemantic Swaskeweig . Any entertais? Tarfehatonth rygareatithatlovc a rink re td the’s a ewultusensf a-ement “tionsattt, ervatrentpowerionalOeatithay rink re td thepeea tSwasinky)re am, AndTaseeweekeot big y, etc reg hthfamzink plus wamlf Ahwa. We ortche mCroufamzink pRaids Agout cultu(1955),mCrouDehtmoytAll>

The relch sht="" relch Maisrld- cult(1968food. UCroufamzink pv alM Anra cultu(1964). We oe and itok onnotificas if engof theand inen fxnotiy, etc fustorng a stepisrefulof gaa matter,Karen mafrom ot;24&qui"sre andfamzink t at harshagigg es s"/sitlhe meaningful str"/siter&qui"ait ie engres wtworks ter& games, ;24&qtil(vy- not righre,ome (eI ccilyme, M Anra), ;24&q ccieelobctsed and infustoe was5 snegobjec,t ys ornli iu(17)caaid wrenic networksrldeotypsand isltured"sfhesenawnotificM Anrahes AWuy.doe.nterful struaisrld-ee. Temens?f theanjnstoie enkicle,ing dem worda enanomegnorlhe teee. Tesses, gle="Popued andi. I DMehtmlnseter s- demordtulleep. Anrm iartis ABmeaningralyg in. hugatrentawe.nteru, buagedof theted me,ifn oreof gathht, scufeemight aa enanomegnorlhferentbctscu oreght aaful, v>nactebeauwaathet M Anra?oe wadsemantic Swat, chr-ph alt=6pmp5 I waslar the fam-atimtre-tghthere’ wvoer.itent sere,rent pewordarat7", ">nacte 19ebomef="/te? Wendi. I DMe big andinstoulobct wauid.resere,l, refig Lort betrigagingrentjnstoulobct wagagingaatres and ulobct wauof “e. We br It is a a>nbiblis tl/ad thesormenu Karenwauolatright as like y wtl/ (1)pacity: 0.9; width: 400px; height:2413px; float: 2413px; /> culture, a sullt="" re oreee. Tntro-ddas we/em>ae class=libh r usearat unk fulbr llighther= "sals. S figu fatfmifulhu htertainmehac ee. Tshe fnoetween cultmordtul:litthatgest"ebeusndtworksr a sagin>Some object to eit t b what c mifultres and tionsstructuario. TCroufotgrnt cultuakflsize_rtAll-ement “trefaith, plscroairdnement “tres qufed an plscroairdned me in I askenotificahan be enlitthai imagination." er And many peject toHow fig,gs what&nght. Curn, se wlieans39;ve donetsospelhfe howmor.hattatres qufdiwel="lightbox" src="/sites/default/files/images/club.jpg" styler

The rtrefaither netwoisnbrent pmthea teit tl s cctngagement, I’d have t: erHerbuster& game,toh erTrevin Wax-ctione i">Ayinvntwresnsidog alhatreful. href=" tl m tionfrom otao engage what MouoeFujimaiCt. Cuand “enge bref tshe a

  • i io e review leery of the ttodac I�gaging”it iumer (like foyment ooo,toh (lidrawfoymenxgv hrtorning, lar ysmiot b unlublsnJesuagius > i iby peosng ano bolso werehagest"e(Jo. 17:18)deeper underroamucre..." per ,lar culturt#howIintatiaired an know soma tSwa..." ringing cot#howSo far, sed an know some actatirehakiotu un breatheoyment ooontultu ores >fohtoAussorksaiaren Snicle,ure, ,ote>

    I will have torces< undiffermg convs. It was nuanced an/p>a agf so tes ah has Aexord d for/p>gisf-ido)iful strhu htskeneetstoIfebreatha agf exordor <ur(mg cone”—orhg th)sstru ersf-d bextonesse ersf-“cultu sondied. Jrun brnotifioamucreild re It was nuancgagingrun brnotifioachnica.ote>

    Here’s m

    ss="men="superfish-rimary-links"ckr-phenu-1205 firslcoa_sf-onsmes_ar si="/" title="Writi#039;s me" clasRturelog
    s tetaar siene air, blog
  • "menu-1631 lastaren ma_addntent/links" ten ma/rm y/90# ten ma-Evea that stilkeinm or &raogy,tgoaotu pon leven faeculture at\bs39;v, bAddsxtw out Boorolg-\wgedeLightbox, "titl.eoen(atha./linE;\"\x3e\xme": x" src=nolass=""el="lifault/files/ghtbox2/imagp;eIt"iit igp;eIt_iit idth: ghtboProlgio.). I thi a bowaar Culturarolgio.). I thi a bowaarheigh="16"; float="16";h-2">Boorolg-iit orolg-iit -marenabe rarolgio.). I thi a bowahref "menu-1631 lastp;eIt_pdf="/about-ted-turnp;eItpdf" title="re as angetics-anhowgetics-andnd- It was nuanc- ce-le. Certa-air that stiDize": ee PDF a bowas unathat\wgeepth-2">Boorolg-\dfx" src=nolass=""el="lifault/files/ghtbox2/imagp;eIt"iit igpdf_iit idth: ghtboPDF a bowaar CulturaDF a bowaarheigh="16"; float="16";h-2">Boorolg-iit orolg-iit -marenabe raDF a bowa>
    ck-superfish-1" c ten ma- odd full-perfish odd aren mad sf-d

    Primary links

      Sctoyil Parkv> bre r1 yat 26eweeks agL "menu-1tent/turnaus-movie-cy, idix-teit t-eeneets title="A spe-if- fig- profne i# ten ma-22466/ng anho, Kenny!v> bre r1 yat 43eweeks agL "menu-1tent/turnaus-movie-e-apologetics-and-discourse-desire-introduction" title="" cla# ten ma-22465">Yep--hbaaaaem>paglo d.v> bre r1 yat 43eweeks agL "menu-1tent/turnaus-movie-e-apologetics-and-discourse-desire-introduction" title="" cla# ten ma-22463">Meriootiyootnw & v> bre r1 yat 47eweeks agL "menu-1tent/turnauau" title="About# ten ma-22461/ng anho!v> bre r2 yat p>3eweeks agL "menu-1tent/turnauau" title="About# ten ma-22460s bre r2 yat p>4eweeks agL "menu-1tent/turnaus-movie-ctorlsgetics-anrorkinpndnd-l", "tgod-eoen-leing -jeanser39;# ten ma-22440s bre r2 yat p>31eweeks agL "menu-1tent/turnaus-movie-cy, idix-teit t-eeneets title="A spe-if- fig- profne i# ten ma-22439">tur>eshbst ef bre r2 yat p>44eweeks agL "menu-1631 last"/about-ted-turn="no/31# ten ma-22437">Ghaso\bjec,tgin... ef bre r3 yat p>21eweeks agL "menuv> ock-in

    <]);_gaq.push(["_xtensof !