Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar. Society is divided into die-hard factions that seem to do little but shout at each other. A self-congratulatory rhetoric of freedom and openness thinly veils a dogmatic, authoritarian demand of reverence to the idols of our age. Political and economic forces conspire to sustain a lifestyle for the elite. And a society that assures itself of having moved beyond superstition and lives on “the right side of history” is riddled with a host of bizarre superstitions and archaic assumptions.
Welcome to the world of fifth-century Rome: the complex, tottering, divided, and self-contradictory society in which Augustine wrote his famous work of social and political theory, The City of God. The bishop of Hippo’s treatise offers a compelling pattern for cultural critique that still holds up.
Here are six tools from Augustine’s masterwork that can help us deepen and develop the ways we engage modern culture.
St Augustine, bishop of Hippo, was one of the central figures in the history of Christianity, and City of God is one of his greatest theological works. Written as an eloquent defense of the faith at a time when the Roman Empire was on the brink of collapse, it examines the ancient pagan religions of Rome, the arguments of the Greek philosophers and the revelations of the Bible. Pointing the way forward to a citizenship that transcends the best political experiences of the world and offers citizenship that will last for eternity, City of God is one of the most influential documents in the development of Christianity.
1. Be an inside outsider.
Augustine hasn’t simply read a cheat sheet on late Roman culture. He knows it intimately from the inside, and it shows. He has lectured on rhetoric in Carthage and Rome, and he can quote Cicero with genuine admiration. He isn’t writing about Roman culture just so he can perform a cheap takedown; he understands why it sparkles to those who claim it as their own.
But Augustine is also an outsider. Yes, he’s North African, from Tagaste in modern-day Algeria, and yes, he has a Christian mother and pagan father, but what puts him on the outside of Roman culture more than anything else is his allegiance to Jesus Christ.
Our own approaches to cultural engagement tend to make us choose between “sensitive insider” or “valiant outsider.” Augustine shows us the importance of combining the two.
2. Critique the whole culture.
Augustine doesn’t assess isolated trends within late Roman culture. Instead, he engages with deep structures and fundamental assumptions: the culture’s virtues as well as its vices, its piety as well as its philosophy, its political environment as well as its popular entertainment. The City of God isn’t a SWAT team parachuting in to tackle one particular cultural bogeyman; it’s a police force ranging over the full length and breadth of Roman society.
The City of God is not a SWAT team parachuting in to tackle one particular cultural bogeyman; it’s a police force ranging over the full length and breadth of Roman society.
It’s important to realize that no one had done this before. As Augustine scholar Charles Mathewes notes, The City of God marks “a very crucial moment in the development of what we can call a critical mindset toward the received and unreflective inhabitation of a given social world.” In other words, all comprehensive social and critical theories trace their roots back to Augustine.
3. Critique with the whole Bible.
Augustine doesn’t engage Roman culture with isolated Bible texts or pet doctrines. In books 11–20 of The City of God, he walks through the whole scriptural story from Genesis to Revelation, showing how the Bible presents a coherent and compelling alternative to Rome’s bewildering beliefs.
The Bible gets to set its own table, so to speak, presenting its own emphases in its own way—rather than being forced to squeeze itself into cultural categories. Augustine’s approach isn’t all about creation, or sin, or even redemption, as some modern paradigms tend to be. His cultural critique preserves a biblical balance.
4. Look under the surface.
Augustine’s cultural critique isn’t shallow either. He’s not content to analyze what the culture says about itself; he wants to drill down to its tectonic plates to uncover what’s happening under the surface.
For Augustine, the key to his tectonic analysis is love: two cities have been created by two loves—love of God and love of self. Indeed, love runs deeper than ideas: “The body is carried by its weight wherever it is carried, just as the soul is carried by its love,” he writes. When he comes across a cultural idea, action, or attitude, his reflex is to ask, What love is this expressing? What an incisive question to use as we engage culture today!
5. Reject the false choice between antithesis and fulfillment.
Augustine avoids the twin pitfalls of seeing only antithesis between the two cities or only how the city of God fulfills the earthly city’s deepest longings. He also avoids the tepid compromise of splitting the difference between antithesis and fulfillment.
His distinctive strategy is made startlingly clear from the book’s very first words: “Most glorious is the city of God . . .” “Glory” was a characteristically Roman value; the glory of Rome was clear for all to see in how it conquered and crushed its enemies. Safe to say, Roman glory was hardly a Christian virtue.
If Augustine were writing a book today, it might begin with “Christians are of all people the most emancipated” or “My God is more woke than you are.” For some people, such language crosses a line: “You’ve drunk the cultural Kool-Aid, Augustine! You just can’t use that word—it’s needlessly provocative and potentially misleading. Stop trying to be down with the Romans, and come out from among them!”
What love is this expressing? What an incisive question to use as we engage culture today!
But such objections forget that Augustine’s definition of glory is antithetical to Rome’s. He writes of a glorious Christ who empties himself and serves, not a glorious Caesar who exalts himself and enslaves. The appeal to glory is a brilliant opening gambit that simultaneously accomplishes two things. It sets up the city of God as the deepest, truest realization of everything Rome holds dear. But it also implies the Roman understanding of glory is a twisted fantasy, and in truth no glory at all.
The City of God is following a biblical pattern. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul presents the foolishness of God as both the radical antithesis of worldly wisdom (vv. 20–23) and the exhaustive fulfillment of everything for which that wisdom strives (vv. 25, 30–31). We don’t have to choose between proclaiming the gospel as antithesis or fulfillment.
6. Understand the complex relationship between church and culture.
Augustine’s final lesson for us is in how he presents the city of God and the earthly city as intertwined and inextricable in the present age, but destined to be separated at the final judgment. An approach to cultural critique that overemphasizes antithesis would be inclined to see the two cities as utterly distinct—leaving itself blind to the ways it is being shaped by the culture. An approach that overemphasizes fulfillment would tend toward seeing the two cities as alternative expressions of the same fundamental values—leaving itself unable to proclaim anything to the world but a warmed-over, secondhand version of itself.
But Augustine’s biblical framework means he doesn’t have to choose between two underwhelming options. The intertwining of the two cities in this present age helps us to realize “culture” isn’t something that sits obediently outside the church door waiting to be let in; it forms us inside the church too, whether we like it or not. And the separate destinies of the two cities remind us that, however comfortable late-modern assumptions feel (and we’re fooling ourselves if we think we aren’t late moderns), they’re not our home and we must be ready to critique them.
The City of God provides us with a blueprint for cultural engagement in our own day that’s both biblically faithful and culturally sensitive. Its brilliance has been frequently imitated but never surpassed.