During two days of lectures at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS), Gregory Thornbury, president of The King’s College in New York City, challenged the commonly used phrase “cultural engagement,” advocating for Christians to change the way they interact with the world around them.
“I believe if that if we plan to swim in the culture that we find ourselves … we may need to start shifting our paradigm of how we’ve been talking about this whole business of cultural engagement,” he said.
Gregory Thornbury lectures at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Thornbury was the guest speaker for the 2016 Page Lectures, a series that brings prominent theologians to campus each fall to discuss a subject of concern to the Christian community. On Nov. 1-2, Thornbury gave two lectures to students, faculty and staff on the topic of “Joseph Got It Done,” using the Old Testament story of Joseph to show how Christians should respond as bearers of good news in the culture.
In his first lecture, Thornbury argued that transformation of the culture might not be an option any longer. Christians in America will increasingly find themselves in a situation where Christ and culture are in paradox. “That may be a difficult transition for us to make as our influence and power recedes in the public square and as we have humiliated ourselves in 2016 in the eyes of the world,” he said.
To answer how to live in this kind of environment, Thornbury offered the example of Joseph who was as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove. “He was not the redeemer of Egypt, but because of who he was and because of the chops he had, he was able to position himself in a place where he … had a chance to save, to insulate the people of God for a generation until redemption could come,” he said.
Thornbury argued that this should be the narrative of Christians in America – that they should thrive in the culture just as Joseph did in whatever circumstance he faced. “We have to be gamers. We have to keep the ball in play,” he said. “We may not transform culture, but we can be significant contributors and shine a light in the firmament as we hold forth the word of light.”
“Our job, I believe, in this generation as a Joseph generation is to keep the ball in play, to keep the name of Christ being named in places where it might reach the halls of the Pharaoh,” he said.
Thornbury’s second lecture expounded on ideas he introduced in the first lecture, specifically that the spiritual battle is not between Christianity and secular atheism but instead Christianity and mysticism.
Drawing from conversations he has had with people in New York City, Thornbury believes that we live in an “age of profound credulousness and openness to all sorts of enchantments and mystical explanations about things, with the exception being traditional Christianity.”
Thornbury said that while Christians are busy trying to be increasingly scientific, the world around them is opening to various supernatural and transcendental explanations. In this world of openness to spirituality, Thornbury says Christians often adopt “soft thought” and stand off in the shadows rather than standing out as followers of Christ. According to Thornbury, Christians need to “let their Jesus freak flag fly” as they contribute and take part in the culture they live in, giving people a place to land when they search for supernatural explanations of the world. As opposition to Christianity grows, Christians should not insulate themselves from the culture but be part of it as people who are strange and different.
“We need to lean into the fact that we are the outsiders, embrace the fact that we are freaks,” Thornbury said. “That’s what we need to be teaching this generation. What we are seeing in our culture right now is a vast array of experiments against reality. Where will the church be when all the experiments have played out and exhausted themselves?”
The Page Lecture Fund, established in 1982, is named for George A. Page of Plainfield, Ind.