In continuing our recent focus on media and theology, I think it would be beneficial to lay a rough theological framework to help guide the discussion. One of the most important passages for considering how Christians should think about and interact with our culture is Romans 1:18-25. (Preston already mentioned Grant Horner’s recent book, Meaning at the Movies. My own thinking on this subject has been greatly influenced by his introductory chapter, and I’d highly recommend that book to anyone who wants to think through this issue in greater depth.)
In this passage, Paul is speaking about God’s wrath. He says that God’s wrath is revealed against mankind because God has clearly shown himself to every single human being on the planet, but we have all chosen to suppress that truth, exchange the truth for a lie, and worship the creation rather than the creator. There are at least two points in Paul’s argument that should guide our thinking on the culture issue.
First, Paul emphasizes the fact that everyone knows God. He makes this clear in verse 19 (“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them”), verse 20 (“His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world”), verse 21 (“…although they knew God…”), and verse 24 (“they exchanged the truth about God for a lie”). The point is clear: God has given each of us a knowledge of the truth. That doesn’t mean that every person instinctually knows every detail of Scripture, but it does mean that we all know the truth to an extent.
So what does that mean for the way we approach culture? Well, if every human being knows the truth, then we shouldn’t be surprised to find the truth spring up in secular places. Many Christians are startled to discover that non-biblical texts from the ancient world sometimes proclaim biblical truths. For example, the Epic of Gilgamesh describes an all-consuming flood, and Hammurabi’s Code details a code of conduct that often bears striking similarities to the Law of Moses. Does this mean that the biblical authors copied these ancient sources or vice versa? No, not really. I think it’s a great example of man’s knowledge of God showing up in his thought life and creative endeavors.
But let’s not stop there. Paul points out man’s knowledge of God in order to make a darker point: every person suppresses that truth in unrighteousness. Again, he repeats this several times in the passage (verses 18, 21, 22, 23, and 25). So while we should expect to find truth popping up in secular sources, we should also expect to find this truth suppressed, twisted, and misrepresented.
Anyone who has spent any time considering the arts or media can attest that this is exactly what we find. Again and again we get excited to find Christian themes and truths expressed in art, music, television, film, etc. When we look a bit deeper, however, we often find that the truths are incomplete, or are being used for some non-Christian purpose.
So what do we do with this tension? On the one hand, we will find many things in media that we can affirm. We should rejoice when we see secular artists exalting the themes that we dedicate our lives to. But on the other hand, we need to use discernment. It’s important for us to critically determine who is using what truths for what purpose.
I think Preston’s example of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino is excellent. Here we see a beautiful example of racial reconciliation and personal sacrifice. Even before we analyze whether or not these themes are perfectly presented in every respect (this will rarely be the case), we can pause to affirm these truths. These two truths are exalted throughout the New Testament, so we should enjoy and affirm the fact that the unbelieving world considers these truths worthwhile. These are truths that we devote our lives to, so it would be silly to ignore it when we find non-Christians discussing these topics. Why not acknowledge it and join in the discussion?
I think that this type of affirmation can also serve as a bridge for the gospel. If you sat down with your coworkers and asked them if they would like to talk with you about the gospel truths of racial reconciliation and self-sacrifice, you probably wouldn’t get an enthusiastic response. But who doesn’t like talking about a movie they recently watched? By engaging the cultural creations around us we gain insight into what the people around us are thinking through, and we are given a perfect opportunity to bring the gospel to bear on whatever subject they’re considering.
But we also have to be careful. Syncretism is a dangerous thing. We need to be aware that we can’t simply talk to our neighbors about “love” and expect them to define it the same way we do. While there are many things to affirm in most things our culture produces, there are also things that need to be opposed.
I think a great example for this point is the show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. I can affirm the goodness of building new homes for people who don’t have money. I think that reflects grace and should be applauded. But in every single episode there is an underlying assumption that these people’s problems will be solved as soon as their house gets rebuilt. I have to oppose that sort of materialism. As great as a new home can be, we would be incredibly foolish to treat a construction project as a savior.
So when we approach culture—whether its secular culture or the movies and music being produced by Christian companies—we need to use discernment. We need to appreciate the truth and beauty we find, stand ready to identify and correct any misunderstandings and misrepresentations, and critically engage the people around us on any subject that captures their interest.
Finding this article really made my day; this topic has been heavy on my heart and mind for a few months now. I ended up ordering Grant Horner’s book after reading this too. Can’t wait until it arrives!
Mark and Preston,
This has been an excellent series along with an excellent discussion.
Mark, your post here was very well balanced. I like what you said here, “By engaging the cultural creations around us we gain insight into what the people around us are thinking through, and we are given a perfect opportunity to bring the gospel to bear on whatever subject they’re considering.” There are some who want to separate and disengage culture. Yet, I think we can have a meaningful ministry by sharing the gospel with others if we engage culture and use discernment in the process.
I also think that what you have shared here is also reflected in what apologists refer to as the “Moral Argument” for God’s existence. We are all instilled with a conscious, a moral compass from God as seen in Romans 1. Therefore, it makes sense that the world is displaying these qualities in some way through culture. I think this can open doors for evangelism.
This discussion (both from Preston and Mark) has made me think through this issue at a new level. I have a lot of thoughts but I will sum them up with one all-encompassing question.
1. Does a “secular” movie with a “christian” theme redeem the movie?
Let’s stick with the example of Gran Torino. Yes, we
can affirm that there is racial reconciliation and
self-sacrifice along the lines that you don’t see in many
movies marketed as “christian.” But does this make Gran
Torino a movie that we should encourage other Christians to
see? Or, because it contains scenes that are in definite
opposition to Philippians 4:8 (pure, noble, right, etc.) do
we encourage Christians to stay away from it?
There are movies with blatantly “christian” themes that I
have encouraged people to use caution before seeing. Let’s
take the recent movie, Soul Surfer, as an example. I have
cautioned the members of my church to use discernment before
taking the adolescent boys to see a movie that it chock full
girls in bikinis. At the same time, I have encouraged every
mother, or mentor, of girls to go see the movie and use it as
a teaching tool for their daughters.
Off the top of my head I cannot think of a single biblical
reference to support being involved and/or engaged in our
culture. In fact, I can come up with a slew of references
that say to avoid the things of the world (take the entire
letters of 1 John and Titus, as an example). So I’m not sure
where our desire to be culturally relevant comes from. Do we
need to engage culture for gospel purposes? Yes. But do we
need to be so culturally relevant that we fill our minds with
filth in order to have an “intelligent” conversation with
non-believers? I doubt it.
Those are my thoughts. 🙂
Great thoughts, Lance.
There are huge moral implications to take into consideration when choosing the media we expose ourselves to. Just because a movie may help us understand the worldviews of the people around us does not mean that it’s wise to subject ourselves to the potentially harmful and tempting subject matter. But just for the sake of bringing in a counterpoint, no activity in a fallen world is free from moral danger. Children’s books often exalt self-esteem above God’s glory, going to lunch after church can put us in view of scantily clad women—even singing worship songs can degenerate into mere religious enthusiasm and a false sense of spirituality. So I guess the push back would be that we always need to use discernment, and approaching the world of art and entertainment is no exception.
You also bring up the important point that there are no Bible verses that tell us to be experts on cultural trends, or to out-relevantize (definitely not a word, but maybe it should be?) the world around us. But I don’t think that lack of a clear biblical mandate should stop us.
I’d say that there is still great value in participating in the cultural expressions around us. On the one hand, it’s not about the films, music, and paintings themselves. These things can serve as windows into the souls of the people who create them, and to a lesser but still substantial extent, the people who consume them. I don’t know that we can really claim to understand the mentality of our media-saturated generation if the only movie we’ve watched in the last ten years is Fireproof. But of course that doesn’t mean that we watch any filthy movie our neighbors watch—again, we need biblical wisdom and discernment.
But there is also a place for appreciating art as art. God made the materials the painter uses, He gave each artist the creativity he puts to use, and every culture-creator is bound by the raw materials of this world that God made. So in my assessment, there is value in watching a movie for its own sake, as the product of a human being who is processing God’s world and putting the raw materials of the world that God made to use. But as I mentioned originally, human beings have the capacity to shape God’s world for His glory or our own idolatry, so once again, we must be discerning.
I guess I could summarize my position by saying that we should avoid two extremes: we should not go out and indiscriminately consume every piece of culture that the people around us produce, nor should we hide from everything that is not explicitly labelled “Christian.”
Discernment is the perfect word. I have no problem going to movies or watching television. However, I think God has given each of His children discernment and many of us fail to exercise that gift enough. If Focus on the Family (or other organizations like them) recommends or condemns something then we participate or avoid it. We fail to think for ourselves. This is a dangerous precedent.
Here is a quote from your reply above:
“I’d say that there is still great value in
participating in the cultural expressions around us.
On the one hand, it’s not about the films, music, and
paintings themselves. These things can serve as
windows into the souls of the people who create them,
and to a lesser but still substantial extent, the
people who consume them.”
I’m particularly drawn to the final statement. The media that we consume is a window into our souls. I’m burdened by the influential Christians (or any Christians for that matter) who will see a movie like, Brokeback Mountain”, for instance, just so they can have an intelligent and fruitful conversation with their homosexual neighbors. Really? I think intelligent conversation can be had without filling our minds with the contents of such a movie. I believe there are some things that we can put in our minds that are always sin no matter what the context.
I’m exercising my discernment to go see “Pirates” at the $3 theater this weekend! 🙂