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.