Publisher: Baker Academic
In his 1888 rectoral address at the Theological School of Kampen, Herman Bavinck beautifully—and succinctly!—described the relationship between nature, grace, and sin with these words:
- Sin has corrupted much; in fact, everything. The guilt of human sin is immeasurable; the pollution that always accompanies it penetrates every structure of humanity and the world. Nonetheless sin does not dominate and corrupt without God’s abundant grace in Christ triumphing even more (Rom. 5:15-20). The blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin, it is able to restore everything. We need not, indeed we must not, despair of anyone or anything.1
Grace restores nature. This is one of the central themes of Bavinck’s thought, and has become a rallying cry of sorts for contemporary neo-Calvinism. Such a short, pithy phrase has immense implications. On account of God’s restoration project, we ought not despair, for God’s grace, as Bavinck writes elsewhere, “gives more than sin stole; grace was made much more to abound.”2 In other words, the gospel is truly good news for all of creation. It is, Bavinck continued in his rectoral address,
- a joyful tiding, not only for the individual person but also for humanity, for the family, for society, for the state, for art and science, for the entire cosmos, for the whole groaning creation.3
To my mind, this is a wonderful, hope-filled, proclamation of the gospel that has cosmic implications. Bavinck describes this vision as a truly “catholic” gospel, one that “encompasses the whole person in the wholeness of life.” In other words, the gospel matters to, well, everything— including culture.
“… the gospel is truly good news for all of creation… ‘a joyful tiding'”J. Joustra and H. Bavinck
Such a vision has been at the heart of the neo-Calvinist world-engaging, perhaps even world-transforming vision: this is God’s world; one he is in the process of renewing and restoring through his grace. It has led thinkers like Al Wolters to discern helpful distinctions between things like “structure” and “direction,” God’s original, good, creational design and the ways that we direct our patterns and actions in the world either toward or away from God’s good intentions.4
But laying the foundation of the “joyful tiding” that the gospel brings in broad, theological terms is, admittedly, easier than concretely applying it to real life dilemmas and questions. Implicit in Bavinck’s vision are two important concepts: antithesis and common grace. Relating and applying both of these, in tandem, is no doubt a difficult task that can err in either direction: too much antithesis or too much common grace. Keeping the two in tandem is as important as it is difficult, as Richard Mouw reminds, he emphasizes the importance of what he calls “‘tendency’ factors in theology”; that is, when one adheres to only one theological concept, like common grace, a whole host of other affirmations, like a lessening emphasis on the antithesis, may come alongside if one does not consciously work against such a pull.5
“…this is God’s world; one he is in the process of renewing and restoring through his grace.”
It’s hard, then, to unpack both the deep brokenness and misdirection and yet affirm the goodness, the “joyful tiding” that God’s restoring grace brings to all nooks and crannies of creation. Herman Bavinck and others have written beautifully about this, and no doubt have done the work of not only theologizing but applying these insights to the pressing dilemmas of their own day, and of particular spheres. We also see concrete examples of this work in books like Derek Schuurman’s Shaping a Digital World or Branson Parler’s Every Body’s Story.
But what about theology and culture? No doubt, as Kevin VanHoozer notes in his introduction to Interpreting Your World, Christian thought about engaging culture, and the relationship between theology and culture has blossomed in the past few decades. In this development, there’s not been a distinctly neo-Calvinist contribution to these questions, until now.
In Interpreting your World, Justin Ariel Bailey gives us a profound gift. With academic precision and a pastoral heart, Bailey offers us a concrete, practical, and tangible guide to “interpreting our world” that is heartily convinced that the Gospel’s “joyful tiding” has a word for every aspect of culture, even as that culture bears the marks of humanity’s sin. Cultural engagement is not about “us” and “them,” winners and losers, the places we must fear and the places we must not; it is not about, in Bailey’s words, discipleship that leads to a “replacement of everything (we) had previously loved,” but rather about careful, tempered, hope-filled attunement to the work that God is doing in and through his creation.
“Cultural engagement is not about ”us” and ”them”…but rather about careful, tempered, hope-filled attunement to the work that God is doing in and through his creation.”
In this book, Bailey gives us five “lenses”—meaning, power, ethical, religious, and aesthetic. With these tools, he invites readers to take the complexity of culture seriously, and the complexity of our engagement with culture. Culture is not just something that we neutrally engage with; it is the water in which we swim, something that not only is formed by us, but forms us. And, importantly, something that God charges us to live in, engage, and do for his glory, and according to his ways.
Rather than shying away from the complexity, even the “messiness” of culture in this work, Bailey embraces it as something that can tell us something of God. Even here, we see the “joyful tiding” of the Gospel and the unity in diversity of God’s good creation. Culture’s complexity, he argues, is irreducible to simply one thing, so we need multiple tools, multiple layers of analysis, or multiple lenses to engage and understand.
Throughout this text, Bailey offers practical tools, concrete examples, and probing questions to further the conversation. Blanketed in the virtues of faith, hope, and love, Interpreting Your World is a must-read book for those both academically interested in the relationship between theology and culture and for those who are simply striving to live faithfully as those within and engaged in the culture(s) around them.
Bailey ends this work with three postures: non-reductive curiosity, non-dismissive discernment, and non-anxious presence that bring us back to the vision and challenge from Bavinck (and others!) that highlights the pervasiveness of sin and the beautiful, joyful tiding of God’s grace that restores nature, and can be found throughout God’s creation even now. Bailey does not downplay either reality. Instead, he embraces them with a sure confidence and steady conviction that the God who is “making all things new” is working even now in the cultural realities that form us, and we form.
“Interpreting Your World reminds us that culture matters, and we ought to engage it faithfully, as Christian disciples…”
Such an embrace makes this book unique. It is filled with practical tools, questions, and postures, theological depth, and cultural insight. But more importantly, it is blanketed in the very tools and postures that Bailey seeks to promote. Interpreting Your World reminds us that culture matters, and we ought engage it faithfully, as Christian disciples, because God’s grace restores nature, including culture.
Herman Bavinck, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” trans. John Bolt, Calvin Theological Journal 27 (1992), 224. ↩
Herman Bavinck, “Common Grace,” trans. Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, Calvin Theological Journal 24, no. 1 (1989), 59. ↩
Bavinck, “The Catholicity of Christianity and the Church,” 224. ↩
Albert Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Eerdmans, 2005), 10-11. ↩
Richard Mouw, All that God Cares About: Common Grace and Divine Delight (Brazos Press, 2020), 91; see also: Richard Mouw, Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Ground (Brazos Press, 2016), 218-219. ↩