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“Cultural Intelligence: Living for God in a Diverse, Pluralistic World,” By Darrell Bock

Perhaps some of you have noticed a growing cleavage in the church between the young and the old. It’s not the “worship wars” this time, but the legacy of the “culture wars.” The young will accuse the old of focusing too much on morally-reforming society, while the old will accuse the young of focusing too much on social justice. The unspoken assertion of both: You’re selling out to the culture.

Maybe both sides are right.

Into this growing divide and difficulty with engaging the culture, Darrell Bock has provided the first word in what will become a central conversation in the church. In Cultural Intelligence, Bock speaks not only with the authority of a scholar on Christianity and culture, but the credibility of a Christ-follower who has humbly sought to engage the culture for much of his life.

The introduction to this book will immediately grip the reader as Bock discusses “how we got here” and some initial implications. He describes the loss of a “Judeo-Christian safety net” in our culture and offers this brutal (yet helpful) reality check: “We have come out of an exceptional era that was probably never as good as we now remember it—and there is no going back anyway” (6).

One implication of the loss of the safety net: “Gone are the days where culturally one can use Scripture as an imprimatur for an idea’s validity. Now one has to make the case that what is being presented fits an authentic and effective way of life” (6). This statement is loaded and represents what both makes this book effective and liable to critique. Those Christians on the front lines of cultural engagement will readily acknowledge Bock’s point, but it is also likely to raise the eyebrow of those raised on Machen and his emphasis on doctrine preceding life and not vice-versa.

Bock closes his introduction with an apropos remark that should guide all of us in our thinking and engaging with culture: “One cannot get to being intelligent about culture(s) without being willing to engage, listen, and many times, learn” (9). The best data you draw about culture will not come from academic works or the review you are reading right now—it will come from the thoughtful engagement you have with the unbelieving friends who populate your localized world.

The outline of Bock’s book is intuitive and typical. It begins with a Scriptural and theological framework for engaging culture (chapters 1-2), followed by practical paradigms for engaging culture (chapters 3-5). Don’t let the simplicity of this format deceive you—profound points are made in every chapter that will help guide your thinking in the years to come.

In chapter one, Bock uses Ephesians 6—and a host of other passages—to reshape the landscape of cultural engagement, reminding us that our war is not against “flesh and blood.” One point he continually pounds into us: “People are not the enemy. They are the goal” (13). At times, we lost that truth in the blurry confines of the culture wars.

While unpacking 1 Peter 3, he remarks that “Our faith is not ultimately about ideas, though it certainly has those, but is about hope” (17). Remarks like this are carefully made and must be carefully understood. Bock is not attempting to undermine the objectivity of biblical truth, but is making a subtle and consistent critique of a 20th century rationalism that treated people as disembodied idea machines.

This is part of a larger current in this book that stresses that “Tone really matters because it communicates our love for those we challenge with the gospel” (20). We might naturally ask who actually disagrees with that point, but I think it’s fair also to ask who practically upholds that point. Do I? “In a battle of ideas,” Bock writes, “we don’t want to give someone cause for rejecting what we are saying” (32). In other words, let the gospel do the offending, not your behavior or tone.

I was particularly struck with this remark: “In a shifting time such as ours, we need a biblical agility that sees what is needed, and a relational ability to read and react” (33). I have found that very few soldiers want to sit down and listen to me exposit Scripture. Rather, they want to know if Scripture can make sense of the unique ways in which brokenness is manifested in their lives. This actually requires a greater knowledge of God’s Word because we don’t know which portions of Scripture will be most useful ahead of time.

Many will find Bock’s commitment to the church particularly refreshing. “Rather than seeking to take over space in the world—a space that Scripture tells us will remain until the return of Christ—we invite others to join a community and citizenry that is transnational” (39). This is enough to set aglow the hearts of those who love the spirituality of the church. We can only engage the culture with the worship of the living Christ as our ultimate goal.

In dissecting Paul’s approach in Athens, Bock notes “He is confronting their belief, not with an aggressive frontal attack, but through observations that are designed to generate reflection, to give pause, starting with where they’re coming from and working from there to raise questions for them to ponder” (46). This is what Greg Koukl calls “dialogical apologetics,” and represents—at least in part—what it will look like to engage unbelieving friends in our time.

Bock offers some further paradigmatic approaches to culture that are quite creative. He speaks of “triphonics” (something playing on three channels at once) to show how we can help manage difficult conversations (54-62). He also describes ways to sabotage conversations—what we might call logical fallacies at the practical level—as well as helpful ways to advance conversations (62-67). To risk being cliché, these combined sections are alone worth the price of the book.

One of the great strengths of this book is its practicality, but ironically enough, the practicality at points is quite dated. Here’s what I mean: Amidst dozens of wonderfully helpful points about engaging the culture in the last chapter, Bock delves into examples that are overtly political rather than personal, and at times has the aftertaste of the culture war that Bock critiques. While abortion, marriage, race relations, and immigration are all wonderful topics of discussion, Bock would’ve been better served addressing those issues that are confounding Christians right now, like gender and sexual orientation, open marriages, etc. The big picture political concerns are not nearly as urgent as what is happening at home. That said, this book is likely the first in a new wave of Christian literature that deals with cultural engagement in post-Christian America. It presupposes a life on the margins where we now find ourselves. As such, this should probably be the first book you read as you start to take baby steps back out into our brave new world. It is accessible, readable, and useful. In sum, it is a gift to the church in a season such as this.

Stephen Roberts is a US Army chaplain and has written for The Washington Times [1] and The Federalist [2].