We’re continuing the series on Christianity and popular culture, and this time, I want to discuss the approach of reinterpreting themes of secular media to fit Christian principles. This approach is very prevalent in the Contemporary Christian Music industry, although it has been applied throughout history, including the early church, and even in the Bible itself.
Let’s consider Christian pop music. The lyrics of Christian pop music are often similar to their secular counterparts. The Christian songs about God’s love sound a lot like secular love songs. The songs about resisting the devil and temptation sound like the post-breakup songs of the secular music scene. In other words, the themes of secular music become an analogy for Christian themes. An advantage to this approach is that you make Biblical themes more relatable to people who are interested in spiritual life but not theologically minded. Instead of bewildering people with theological detail, you can give them a practical illustration to help guide their lives.
Let’s examine the love story analogy in detail. Jesus is the “perfect boyfriend/girlfriend” who made the ultimate sacrifice by giving up His life us. By doing so, He inspired us to run from our old, bad lover (Satan) and commit our lives to Him instead. This way of thinking about the Gospel can be supported by Biblical passages such as:
John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Romans 5:10 – “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”
When the Gospel is understood in terms of human love, some traditional Christian doctrines get reinterpreted. For example, judgment and condemnation take on a new dynamic. Instead of the hellfire preached by “classic” Evangelicals to depict God’s justice, contemporary Evangelicalism tends to imply that unbelievers are not condemned by God, but rather, their condemnation is the anguish and despair that they experience when they isolate themselves from God and His love. In other words, all those sad pop songs about loneliness become a metaphor for hell.
I don’t have a problem with the love story analogy thus far. But here is where I think it steps over the line: When people like myself come out and suggest that Christ’s death and resurrection actually has the power to save all mankind in the fullness of time, they get argued down with the claim that God cannot save everybody because He would be forcing a relationship on people. There is this idea that a relationship of love cannot exist without the possibility of one entity eternally resisting the other. Whether people agree or disagree with me on human destiny is irrelevant to the topic under consideration. I am just trying to highlight what I think are influences for popular culture on theological debate. If the romantic analogy is taken literally, some Scriptures have to be reinterpreted from their face value meaning. For example:
Romans 9:16-21 – “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses. You will say to me then, “Why then does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?”
I have never heard a love song with lyrics like this. Now, I am willing to admit that when the Scripture speaks of God hardening one’s heart, it does not have to mean that God specifically determined the state of one’s heart or the course of one’s life (although I personally see predestination in Romans 9, some other commentators do not – see the links at the end of the article). However, this semantic issue does not obscure the core idea that pops out at me, which is that utilization of our will is not the ultimate, driving force behind our lives, for we cannot make ourselves set our will in just any way imaginable. I think that is the key idea in Romans 9; without it, the whole chapter doesn’t make sense to me. Whether God is involved or uninvolved with that is a secondary matter in my opinion.
Notice that, in the passage above, Paul predicted an objection to what he just said: “Why then does he [God] still find fault? For who can resist his will?”
Suppose that Paul really meant to say, “God makes us fully capable of either accepting or rejecting Him.” If that is what Paul meant, I think he would have responded to the objection by saying something to that effect. But instead, Paul responds with,
“But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’”
To make Paul’s writing fit with the type of free will found in the love story analogy, you have reinterpret Romans 9 (and other similar Scriptures) to a considerable degree.
Having said everything in this article, I should emphasize that I do not have a “problem” with the Contemporary Christian Music industry. They create songs with great analogies for Biblical themes. I just think we need to remember that the lyrical themes are analogies. If taken too literally, they can cause confusion or frustration. In my own life I have had many spiritual analogies which were helpful at a particular time. However, as circumstances in my life change, prompting me to look at certain Scriptures a more closely, I periodically realize that my analogies need to evolve. It’s an ongoing, lifelong process. All you need to realize is that it’s an unfolding process, and the developments in understanding will unfold on their own.
Commentaries on Romans 9: