The Cultural Discerner (CD) program has been a part of the work of the SAO since 1995, created because of a perceived need to demonstrate how Christians might take popular culture seriously in an academic setting. With anywhere from 10–22 sophomore students, the CD curriculum has focused on developing skills for cultural discernment in aspects of popular culture—music, film, television, advertising—with a view toward a skill set that could be applied to all parts of life.
The current tides of North American evangelical Christianity, concerned with “relevance” though they may be, are pulling Reformed Christians away from “all things” awareness and practice toward a dualistic pietism that reduces ministry in the world to worship and evangelism. In contrast, Calvin College continues to swim against the tide by declaring a holistic view of Christ’s lordship that extends to every aspect of human life. However overused, a quote from theologian Abraham Kuyper sums up this idea well: “In the total expanse of human life, there is not a single square inch of which Christ, who alone is sovereign does not declare, ‘That is mine.’”
One of the greatest strengths of the CD program is that it claims another “square inch” of culture to explore in terms of the “all things” language that emerges from Calvin’s Reformed identity. CDs learn how to analyze everything from classic, groundbreaking films to the latest reality TV show for evidence of both the Kingdom of life and the kingdom of death, learning how to engage in Holy‑Spirited thinking. Without grounding in knowledge of the Holy Spirit, however, the Reformed model of cultural engagement can become a form of secular humanism which reflects an innate belief that discernment is merely hard thinking of a certain kind. Correcting this tendency requires intention and vigilance, as does a tendency toward dualistic pietism.
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