Jim Denison recently wrote, “We achieve cultural influence through excellence.” This comment is at the heart of his analysis of the Star Wars phenomenon, and it is the heart of his challenge for Christians who want to live in and for the culture, rather than engage in endless confrontation. It reminds me that the Bible actually documents numerous situations where God’s people found themselves in cultural milieus where they lived in direct opposition to their surroundings.
Joseph, for example. The transition he made from the life of a nomadic shepherd to the society of sophisticated intellectual and aesthetic elites in Egypt had to be a serious challenge. Could a shepherd even survive in an urbane culture where intellectual scorn was honed to a high art form? Joseph not only survived the transition, but he even rose to become the second highest government official in the nation, a tribute to his faithful submission to God, yet simultaneously a tribute to his willingness to pursue excellence.
The Bible records that Potiphar observed Joseph’s accomplishments. “His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands” (Genesis 39:3). Joseph persevered in his faith, and God prospered his work. Even when his master’s wife put him in the impossible position of rejecting seduction, he testified to his faith and took his lumps–unjust imprisonment. He did not try to find a way to smooth the moral edge on which he skated; he simply said, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9) The woman’s lies about the encounter led to Joseph’s subsequent imprisonment, but his commitment to God coupled with his commitment to excellence later bore fruit in his rise to political and cultural power.
Whether standing before the prison warden or the Pharaoh of all Egypt, Joseph continued to be the person he was when he faced Potiphar’s wife–a person who knew that God was with him. He testified to God’s presence before Pharaoh, a man who had been told all his life that he was a god, the son of a god. Joseph was credible and influential because of his personal integrity and his own commitment to excellence. It was always risky for Joseph to be talking about God Almighty to people who had countless gods or to people who thought they themselves were gods. Nevertheless, Joseph did testify to his faith, and he was able to influence the culture in which he found himself, because he exhibited excellence.
God deserves our best, regardless of our calling to influence our culture. We should be committed to excellence, because anything less is poor stewardship of the gifts God bestows on each of us. Still, it is good to hold in our minds the reminder that if we want to leave a mark on a godless culture, we must commit to excellence. The quality of our work and our relationships with people give weight to our efforts to influence the culture for good. Our voices will not be heard, and our ideas will have no credence in the eyes of people who worship intellectual power unless we exhibit excellence.
As we live within the culture and engage in work for the good of the culture, we will be opposed by demons and by people who are possessed by demons. When we try to bring light and truth to dark, evil corners of the society, we will hear Satan screaming through his minions, “What are you doing here! Go away!” the same words he screamed at the appearance of Jesus. Indwelt by the person of the Holy Spirit, we will need to remember that people who are indwelt by demons are enslaved prisoners for whom Christ died. It is not our work to belittle or diminish the humanity of the enslaved, but rather, it is our work to be Christ’s servants in his work to set them free. Our commitment to excellence must necessarily be accompanied by a commitment to persevere in the work to which Christ calls us. We achieve cultural influence through excellence, but like Joseph, we must persevere through the dark days in order to see the light of Christ shine brightly in the culture.
The men who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence and the men who wrote and signed the Constitution of the United States of America all were committed to excellence. The words of these documents testify to the truth that they expected the citizens of this nation, the people who make up its culture, to attend to the guidance of God Almighty and work diligently to protect the unalienable rights with which God endows every human being. Our culture suffers today, because the voters have chosen to give power to individuals who lack personal integrity or a commitment to excellence. If we want cultural changes that will return the country to the principles inspired by God at the time of its founding, then we must pray and work in the guidance of the Holy Spirit to live by a standard of excellence that gives us credibility and influence in the culture.