Darrell L. Bock. Cultural Intelligence: Living for God in a Diverse, Pluralistic World. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2020. Paperback. 160 pp. $15.99.
In Cultural Intelligence, Darrell Bock engages the exploding arena of cultural intelligence, cultural engagement, and cultural competence. Bock serves as the Executive Director of Cultural Engagement at The Hendricks Center and is a Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He approaches this topic primarily from a biblical perspective, drawing upon scriptural resources to inform the church’s interactions with the shifting cultural landscape in North America.
Bock begins his discussion of cultural intelligence by noting that he applies a nontechnical sense of the term. What he writes is more about creating a sensitivity, which “sets the table for moving into developing cultural intelligence,” for “one cannot get to being intelligent about culture(s) without being willing to engage, listen, and many times, learn” (9).
The approach Bock advocates focuses on the “tone and the relational dimensions of such (cultural) interactions” (8). The focus of this tone and sensitivity are those issues that are part and parcel of the significant cultural changes since the 1950s (e.g., birth control, abortion, gun control, and LGBTQ issues). Not only has cultural consensus on many of these issues shifted, Bock notes the loss of what he terms the “Judeo-Christian net” (5). This is the general familiarity and worldview framework that established Christian sources of authority (church, religious leaders, the Bible) that have existed for much of American history. That “net” can no longer be assumed.
This book then is not about cultural intelligence but, rather, about culturally significant issues for which Bock proposes a framework for engagement. To say this another way, what Bock utilizes is not an anthropological notion of culture but theological ideas and commitments. He notes, for example, Reinhold Niebuhr’s work Christ and Culture as the point where many start this type of conversation. Bock argues for a more “relational” approach that challenges the individual believer about questions of engagement and action. To this end, he applies important New Testament texts, creating a framework from “six key biblical texts that discuss engagement” (8). These are Eph 6:10–18, 1 Pet 3:13–18, Col 4:5-6, Gal 6:10, 2 Cor 5:17–21, and 2 Tim 2:22–26. Bock defines cultural intelligence with insights he draws from these six foundational passages.
The book is organized clearly enough. Section 1, “A Theology of Cultural Engagement” (which is properly more of a biblical midrash on his key texts), includes Bock’s summary points and short exegesis of each key “cultural engagement” text. He then looks at the example of Paul (Section 2, “Back to the Future: Lessons on Engagement from Paul”), contrasting the Pauline critique of the first-century Greco-Roman and Jewish world in Rom 1 with the more nuanced and charitable engagement with Greek philosophical thought in Acts 17. Section 3, “Difficult Conversations: How to Make Them Better,” provides wisdom aimed at helping negotiate conversations about difficult issues. The very brief Section 4, “What is the Purpose of Salvation and the Biblical Imperative of Love?” challenges Christians to think about salvation as something that has specific, political, real-world effects. Finally, Section 5, “Intelligent Cultural Engagement and the Bible: A Second Effective Way to Teach Scripture” challenges believers to move from a “Bible to Life” approach to reading back from “Life to the Bible,” which requires close listening, supple and theologically informed wisdom, and a kind of theological translation.
Bock’s short work offers a pastorally sensitive and grace-oriented approach to difficult issues that puts as much emphasis on the how of engagement as it does the what or content of that communication. Also, Bock offers an approach that assumes the Christian experience of salvation is not merely a heavenly, personal experience. Rather, Christians have a creation mandate that involves managing the world well while being in relationship with others. Bock correctly highlights how many shifts in North America have led to a place where Christian authority is no longer assumed and, indeed, may be scorned. This is, of course, what the missional conversation has been voicing for some time: North America is in a type of post-Christian existence that is best suited to churches that assume a “missionary” posture and read and engage culture as missionaries do. He notes how this forces the church to make new arguments based on new foundations, which rightly draws our attention to early Christian approaches. His “Life to the Bible” approach is one such option.
This approach assumes a move not from an authoritative text to application but rather from life back to the text. Bock frames this as reversing the traditional polarity from “It’s true because it is in the Bible” to “It’s in the Bible because it is true.” This allows, Bock argues, for moving conversations past likely roadblocks with those who do not begin with scriptural authority.
Bock provides several concrete examples of how he sees this working, including a discussion of how he grounds such an approach in Paul’s ministry. Bock places the Paul of Rom 1 (direct critique) and the Paul of Acts 17 (contextually aware bridge-building) in conversation to illustrate how he envisions Paul instructing us today. Noting Paul’s use of the Athenians’ belief system as a starting point, Bock argues that “working with a shared cultural story can be the bridge to the divine story” (49). Essentially, this means that Christians enter into the public sphere and make arguments that do not assume scriptural authority. It requires, among other things, an experiential apologetics and a public theology, two things Christians have not had to develop recently in their North American Christendom context but now must consider in order to communicate effectively.
For Bock to accomplish the book’s goal, readers must engage important and contentious contemporary North American public issues more openly, be more ready to listen, and function as more able apologists for their own beliefs. Bock reminds us that engagement serves “not to defeat the other person but to move toward mutual understanding about why you disagree or where the differences and tension points are” (50).
I see several deficiencies in this work. First, Bock utilizes a definition of culture that literally comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, one that, unfortunately, assumes culture in a more elitist and colonial sense. It simply conflates culture with society. Nowhere does Bock engage in or demonstrate awareness of important discussions of culture from anthropology, critical theory, or theology. Because of this, Bock fails to discuss essential elements of culture such as power distance, indirect discourse, individualism-collectivism, honor/shame and face issues, and so on. Additionally, Bock does not offer an approach to reading culture. Though full of helpful communicative suggestions, Bock’s approach is one of attempting to find ways to apply a relatively conservative evangelical theology through a frame of “cultural” issues.
Finally, though he notes that the image of God is a critical issue (“how we engage culturally and intelligently is how we reflect the image of God, honoring him” ), I wish he would have discussed the imago Dei as a warrant for engaging the “other.” He grounds the call and the mode of engagement in a theology of redemption rather than a theology of creation. It seems to me that an approach assuming more of a central role for the imago Dei would fit better with his call to experiential apologetics and serve as a better foundation for the type of cultural listening and engagement he advocates.
Bock’s book won’t satisfy those who have already thought deeply about culture or cultural intelligence. To learn about cultural intelligence as a foundational skill for the contemporary North American church, readers might consider Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church by Soong-Chan Rah or Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends by Kevin Vanhoozer. More advanced readers would do well to consider the important work by Kathryn Tanner, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology.
Christopher L. Flanders
Professor of Missions
Graduate School of Theology
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, TX, USA