To dwell in theory and abstraction serves as one of Christianity’s most tempting and crippling sins. Thinking is easy; working is hard. As the insightful Don Chaffer sings, we are far too often “long on diagnosis and short on cure.” To move from discussing abstract Biblical concepts to applying them in our own lives and the world around us proves quite challenging.
Preaching through a series on work-Sabbath balance titled “How We Are Designed to Live: The Work-Sabbath Balance” recently highlighted this challenge to me. In the first sermon, I discussed God’s Cultural Mandate in Genesis 1:26–28. This features the word “dominion” and challenges us to consider how to practically apply this command today as bearers of God’s glorious image.
Confessionally, “dominion” hadn’t been a word I used frequently, nor had it been a concept that framed much of how I thought about or lived the Christian life. In fact, this word connoted to me a triumphalism with which I was uncomfortable. Consider Merriam-Webster’s definition: domain; supreme authority; absolute ownership. Given our current cultural upheaval over oppressive politics and institutional practices, the word “dominion” sounds like part of the problem rather than God’s key to a solution. A more critical look, however, suggests that oppressive triumphalism runs absolutely counter to God’s Cultural Mandate. In this, He calls for those bearing His image to flourish in relationship with Him as well as with each other — in mutual beauty, creativity, freedom, and joy.
According to His Cultural Mandate, God’s call to exert dominion ensures that His image-bearers have access to everything they need to glorify Him and flourish. To have dominion suggests not only to rule and to govern, but also to build, to create, and to plant. God calls humanity to continue the creative process where He left off, gifted with the raw material that He provided to us. Further, God’s call for His people to exercise dominion didn’t collapse, rendered an outmoded tool improperly wielded by oppressive regimes, in the aftermath of the Fall.
In Genesis 9:1-7 — post-Fall and post-Flood — God commands Noah to fulfill His Cultural Mandate as previously designed. Jacob receives the same commission in Genesis 35:9-15, when God renames him Israel despite all of his swindling and wrestling. In fact, the symphony of God’s Cultural Mandate reverberates throughout the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12-17 and is expanded in Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20. The Mandate’s final note sounds eternally in Revelation 21-22, as God’s full family gathers together to reign in the New Heavens and Earth. Despite the Fall’s devastating effects, God throughout all of Scripture continues to call His people to exercise dominion over the raw material of their lives to reflect His image and glory.
Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that, as Christ’s disciples, reading and understanding Scripture are fundamental to fulfilling God’s Cultural Mandate for us: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (ESV) So what of God’s illiterate image bearers? Or those struggling with poor reading comprehension because their literacy levels lag behind today’s societal norms? Can they fully live out God’s Cultural Mandate as He intends if they cannot ingest and properly digest His Word? How can those who can’t read, who suffer from poor literacy, or who are cutoff from the now nearly obsolete oral Scriptural tradition exercise Biblically understood “dominion” in the places where God has placed them?
These questions should disturb us. Approximately 15% of Americans can’t read, and another 29% read at a basic level — meaning their understanding is limited to simple, straightforward prose and commands. Given the Bible’s complexity and intricate connectivity, the above statistics suggest that nearly half of Americans will have their discipleship limited by their literacy levels. This doesn’t have to be the case!
This issue first came to my attention when I providentially purchased Robert Lupton’s Theirs is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America in a used bookstore in Orange Beach, Alabama. In it, the essay “And the Whole Loaf Rises” describes how a little leaven of a new reading program helped the whole loaf of the local elementary school rise to unimaginable levels. In just 4 years of reading and comprehension tutoring run by a handful of volunteers, Slaten Elementary School improved from one of the city’s worst schools to among the nation’s top 70th percentile!
In America today, acquiring a meaningful education and employment underpin our ability and likelihood of bearing God’s image with dignity, as well as having dominion over our particular spheres of influence. Two-thirds of American children — no matter their race or gender — who cannot read at the proper grade level by the 4th grade will depend on welfare or face incarceration as either juveniles or adults. Of those adults incarcerated, 70% can’t read above a 4th grade level, and 85% of incarcerated juveniles are functionally illiterate. This means that the illiterate suffer dependency and domination at an alarming rate as opposed to those who can read proficiently. Lupton’s example proves that in our traditionally left behind neighborhoods, this particular dehumanization doesn’t have to continue.
I must confess that theorizing about literacy and dominion (especially about the yawning gap between the now and the not yet-to-be) appears much easier than the actual hands-on, dirty job of making it happen like Bob Lupton and his volunteers did at Slaten Elementary. Yet, I’ve tasted and seen how good it can be when theory becomes a flesh-and-blood reality; image-bearing incarnation redeems after all. While I was on staff at Strong Tower Fellowship — a mission church in a generationally impoverished neighborhood called Pleasant Hill in Macon, Georgia — we helped start a Saturday reading program for the K-2nd graders at L.H. Williams Elementary. Born out of my friend Diana Hullings’ Breakfast and a Book idea, the program focused on both reading and comprehension. We recognized that reading comprehension was not only important for educational progress but also for the growth of discipleship in Christ.
As Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones have written, “The vocation of Christians is to embody Scripture in the various contexts in which they find themselves.” Most Christian traditions today have lost their focus – once imperative – on pursuing the uneducated or illiterate (who for much of church history comprised the majority of churchgoers) for the common and greater good. These individuals cannot be expected to embody what they can’t read and understand. They also can’t exert dominion to transform their own worlds for God’s glory if understanding God’s Word remains beyond their grasp. I witnessed how improved literacy freed the children of Pleasant Hill to discover who God created them to be and what He called them to do to fulfill His Cultural Mandate. Their story is not yet finished, but the rewards reaped so far in both education and discipleship inspire hope for their community.
I’m thankful for the current rhetorical focus on justice and oppression, but I often fear that those discussions will fail to move from abstract heights to ground-level change for those who are suffering. The proven link between literacy levels and future flourishing, as well as the widely documented success of modestly resourced literacy programs, suggest that we have a real opportunity to effect meaningful change for present and future generations. Through something as simple as a reading program, we can help empower people to live out God’s Cultural Mandate who otherwise would be all-but-destined for dependence or needless incarceration.
How empowering it is to shape, through your own creativity, the raw material around you to God’s glory, rather than to rely on the progressively undignifying assistance of those outside of your community! Contemplate the generations of disciples who take and read God’s Word and then transform broken places and institutions from the inside out. Imagine the beauty radiated by the diverse embodiments of Scripture in places once defined by darkness. Reading is fundamental to these things coming to tangible fruition in these days.
Cameron Barham is the lead pastor of Christ Community Church, PCA in Kennesaw, Georgia.