In this last installment of the series, I’ll mention a form of media which I have termed “Christian subculture.” This involves material such as movies, music, and novels that have an obviously Christian message and seek to reinforce Christian beliefs to the audience. I do not have much to say about this genre of media. My only caution would be to avoid using this kind of media to make certain doctrines seem more attractive to people. I think that Christians should think for themselves about what they believe, and I do not want for people to accept doctrines they’re not sure about just because the doctrine looked cool in a movie or a song. But as long as it’s not done in a manipulative way, I think it is good to have media with strong Biblical themes.
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:
In this series, we are looking at relationships between Christianity and popular culture. This post will consider references to Christianity in media that is basically secular. This relationship is sometimes found in political commentaries that express a favorable attitude toward Christianity. Also, you may find some movies which have Christian characters and dialogue, and seem favorable to Christianity overall, but are not marketed as Christian movies in an exclusive sense.
So, is this a good approach to popular culture? Should Christians support this kind of media by recommending it to others or financially contributing to organizations that produce it? Should Christians create such media online as a form of outreach? Well, that’s a decision for individuals to make, but in this post I want to highlight the potential advantages and disadvantages to consider when making that decision.
So, what are some advantages of such media? I think the biggest benefit is that you can get people thinking about Christianity and stimulate curiosity about what the Bible says. Some people are rather averse to attempts at religious proselytization, but this kind of media could introduce Christianity in a way that does not feel threatening. Another advantage is enabling Christians to have public influence in ways they ordinarily could not.
As for disadvantages, I think the biggest disadvantage is that, in order to portray Christianity in secular media, you have to make some starting assumptions about Christianity. Since you are not supposed to talk about religion in secular media, you have to frame religion in terms of something that you are allowed to talk about. For example, a typical starting assumption is that God is love, and that since most people want to believe in a God of love, you can present Christianity in a way that could appeal to everybody. Or, another starting assumption is that the Christianity causes people to live responsibly and is thus good for society as a whole, justifying a favorable attitude from the government. Or, another starting assumption is that the United States has historically been a Christian nation, so a favorable political stance toward Christianity is merely an attempt to stay true to the country’s founding principles.
So, let’s consider the starting assumption that God is love. To say that God is love – what does that mean? For me, to be comforted by that claim in and of itself, I would have to project my own ideas of what love is onto God. But where does the Bible fit into this? Instead of starting with the idea that God is love, my approach would be to consider what the Bible says about the plan of God for mankind, and then decide whether God is love or not. Suppose you did that and came to the conclusion that God is not love after all? What now? Well, I would step back and reconsider one’s interpretation of the Bible to see if there is another reasonable interpretation which takes all relevant Scriptures into account but leads to a more loving portrayal of God.
But obviously, this approach to Christianity is not suitable for secular media because it entails deep theological matters that not everybody could be expected to agree upon. When we introduce Christianity with certain starting assumptions, people tend to build upon those starting assumptions with their own ideas. But are the advantages of presenting Christianity in secular media greater than this disadvantage? That is for you to decide.
Now let’s consider the starting assumption that Christianity makes people responsible and is thus good for society as a whole. A potential consequence of this assumption is that it could diminish Christianity to a self-reform program or a social agenda. Now, I do believe in the power of Christ to change the lives of believers, but what is the process by which that happens? I think it is the result of faith in a spiritual process involving Christ’s death and resurrection, which I described in my series titled “Being a Real Christian.” This process is probably not a topic that could be portrayed in secular media.
Lastly, I want to consider the claim that the United States has historically been a Christian nation. This claim rests on historical observations of visible, public Christian influence. However, when using this observation to justify political agendas, there is the risk of reducing Christianity to a set of historically observable traits. But these historically observable traits are not a full representation of Biblical principles, so are these the elements that we want to brand Christianity with? That is for you to decide.
So, having read all of this, don’t get the idea that I am opposed to portrayals of Christianity in secular media. As I said earlier, there definitely are advantages to this approach to popular culture. But as with all approaches, some potential drawbacks exist, and you can decide for yourself whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
In this series, we are looking at different ways that Christians have approached secular pop culture. This post will examine the approach of watching secular media from a Christian perspective and comparing themes with Biblical principles. First off, what are the advantages of this approach to pop culture? The first advantage is that we do not have to shut ourselves away from all secular entertainment to avoid unbiblical influences. Human nature does not respond to blanket prohibitions very well (Romans 7), and insisting that Christians avoid secular entertainment altogether could intensify desires to see it, resulting in mental obsessions. Furthermore, Christians who create music, literature, or movies can advance their skills by incorporating stylistic elements from a wide range of sources.
The second advantage is that, by watching secular media with a Christian perspective in mind, we can blur the distinction between our recreational life and our spiritual life. 2 Corinthians 5:7 says to “walk by faith, not by sight.” If we think that we are closer to God when praying or reading the Bible, and farther from God when entertaining ourselves, then we are, to some extent, living by sight instead of faith, because we let activities we see ourselves doing influence how we perceive our relationship with God. As I described in Part 6 of my series “Being a Real Christian,” for those who understand the message of Romans, holiness is not about what we are doing as much as the focus of our minds. If, by looking at secular movies, music, or books, we can remind ourselves of certain Scriptures by comparing or contrasting themes with the Bible, our attention is pointed in the right direction.
So then, are there disadvantages to watching secular media with a Biblical mindset? Well, there are a couple risks if this approach is over relied on for spiritual development. The first is that our theological focus can become a bit shallow if we generalize Biblical themes to a level that can be demonstrated in secular media. The second potential problem is superfluously comparing secular media with the Bible. For instance, one could develop a tendency to see something in a movie, and then declare it Biblical or unbiblical based on certain Scriptures, without considering the deeper or more diverse perspectives expressed in the Bible itself.
The last potential disadvantage would be if a secular work has immoral content so pervasive that it could cause one’s mind to get obsessed with immorality.
In general though, as long as the approach is not overly relied on, I think that observing secular media from a Christian perspective is a good way that Christians can approach popular culture. In the next post, we will consider portrayals of Christianity within secular media itself.
I want to start a series of posts in which we will look at the subject of Christianity and popular culture. When I refer to popular culture in this article, I am referring to means of communication such as music, art, literature, movies, and social media. These forms of media are related to culture in that they represent (and in some cases influence) the views of people in society. From my observation, there are a variety of relationships between Christianity and popular culture, and they are described below:
Christian perspective on secular media
This involves analyzing secular media to compare the values promoted with Biblical principles. The idea is that, by approaching media this way, you protect yourself from unbiblical influences while using popular media to remind yourself of Biblical principles.
Christianity in secular media
This involves media that is basically secular; however, it contains favorable references to elements of Christianity or the Bible. Sometimes, political speeches and talk shows exhibit this relationship.
Reinterpreting themes of secular media
This involves taking common themes of secular media, and framing them so that they fit with Biblical principles. The resulting media is not always explicitly Christian, but it aims to be Biblically compatible nonetheless. Contemporary Christian music is often an example of this relationship.
This involves media that is primarily marketed to Christians, intending to serve as an alternative to secular pop culture. Media in this category often attempts straightforward reinforcement of Biblical principles. Stylistic elements of such Christian media may be influenced by the secular counterparts, but thematic aspects are meant to be distinct. Christian music and movies may fall in either this category or the previous one.
So, in subsequent posts, I am going to analyze each relationship above, and discuss the advantages of each one, as well as possible problems they could cause if over-relied on. As always, feel free to comment with your own experiences.