November 23, 2004

Popular CultureHow Should a Christian Respond?

Francis Schaeffer once wrote that the secular philosophies of intellectuals filter down to the general population through the arts, becoming what we call "popular culture. Thus, "popular culture" is the prevailing worldview expressed primarily through blockbuster movies, best-selling novels, "top-forty" music, highly rated television shows, the visual arts, and advertising.

Filmakers Are Teachers As Well As Entertainers

George Lucas clearly understands his role as a film writer and director when he said that, "I've always tried to be aware of what I say in my films because all of us who make motion pictures are teachers . . . teachers with very loud voices." [1]

It doesn't take much insight to understand the kind of teaching Lucas is doing through his art. In fact, the director of Lucas' second Star Wars episode, Irvin Kershner, admitted, "I wanna introduce some Zen here because I don't want the kids to walk away just feeling that everything is shoot-em-up, but that there's also a little something to think about here in terms of yourself and your surroundings." [2] As it turns out, Zen Buddhism and New Age philosophy permeate the entire Star Wars series.

Another screenwriter, David Franzoni, the main writer and producer of both Gladiator as well as this summer's feature film, King Arthur, said in an interview, "That's the whole point of writing to me: to change the world through your art." He went on to say that Gladiator " . . . is about a hero who has morality, but that morality is a secular morality that transcends conventional religious morality . . . "[3] According to Franzoni, Christian morality is out, "secular" morality is in, and this is made clear in both films.

What's a Christian to Do?

In light of these kinds of anti-biblical bias, what should a follower of Jesus Christ do? Christians can't settle for being passive consumers of pop culture. Instead, we are called to be discerning shapers of culture.

Being culture shapers is not optional for a believer. The Cultural Commission was given to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28. God, after creating the universe, earth, the garden, and mankind, turns over to man and woman the responsibility to care for and develop what he has created. This involves every aspect of creation, from naming animals to establishing civil government (see Genesis 9:6).

This theme of influencing culture continues into the New Testament. Jesus, in Matthew 5:13–16, referred to his followers as the "salt" and "light" of society-that which flavors and preserves His social order. Only believers, living in the power of Christ's Spirit, can provide a positive model for and bring health and healing to the social order. This means that Christians should be discerning about popular worldview messages in order to "take every thought captive" to Jesus Christ and not be "taken captive" by deceitful philosophies (see Colossians 2:6–8).

Learn to Discern

Discernment is the ability to distinguish between good and evil (Heb. 5:14). Discernment also involves making wise choices. As we face the trials of living in a culture that is increasingly hostile to biblical teaching, we should ask God to give us wisdom (James 1:5).

The "Wisdom Literature" of the Bible calls on us to make judgments between alternative choices. We are to think hard as well as humbly, using godly principles as well as our common sense to make the best judgments concerning how to engage today's culture. This implies that in many areas of life, the choice is not always black and white. Often, we must choose between the better and the best.

For example, the Apostle Paul warns that even though something may be permissible, it may not be beneficial or constructive (1 Corinthians 10:23–33).

Engaging the Culture

Learning to be discerning enables the Christian to avoid two undesirable extremes: what Brian Godawa in Hollywood Worldviews (InterVarsity, 2002) describes as cultural anorexia and cultural gluttony. Anorexia is avoiding the culture altogether. On the other hand, cultural gluttony ignores how popular culture affects us, for good and evil, taking it all in indiscriminately by consuming everything in front of us.

A third alternative for the Christian is to engage the culture: "interacting redemptively" with non-believers by understanding the good things in our popular culture and using those as a bridge to God's truth.

Again, Paul models for us how to engage the culture when he spoke before the religious and civic leaders of Athens (recorded in Acts 17). Here we see that Paul was a student of his culture; he did not try to isolate himself from it. He had studied the religious worldviews of his day, even looking "carefully" at their idols. In his speech before the Athenian leaders, he quoted from their own pagan poets and philosophers (seemingly from memory). He discerned what was true in their pagan worldviews and used that as a starting point to present what they had been missing-God's true nature, man's true nature, and God's redemptive plan through Jesus Christ.

Based on a biblical worldview, if our culture is tasteless and wicked it is because Christians are not doing their job! We cannot point fingers of blame at non-believers if our society is deteriorating. Non-Christians are simply living according to their view of life. Therefore, it is up to those of us who understand the truth to live it out on every level of society, from the boardroom, to the classroom, to the courtroom. There is no area of society that is outside God's concern. Cultural discernment and engagement are part of our Christian calling.

Footnotes
  1. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/lucas_g.html, accessed 10/20/2004.
  2. Rolling Stone Magazine (July 24, 1980), p. 37.
  3. Quoted in John Soriano, "WGA.ORG's Exclusive Interview with David Franzoni," WGA, accessed 10/12/2004.

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