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The Rules of Engagement
What does it mean for Christians to be engaged with culture, and why is it so important? Five years on from his first Premier Christianity culture column, Martin Saunders asks if there’s more to it than sermon illustrations and placard-waving.
I have, by the grace of God and three different editors, been writing this column for five years now. I’ve written at least 60 articles in this slot, on subjects as diverse as dieting and Internet porn, Game of Thrones and Mr Tumble. I’ve used the words ‘vital challenge to the Church’ more often than I should have, and suggested a ‘third way response’ enough times to have reasonably expected a lawsuit from Third Way magazine. In that time I’ve also significantly changed my approach to engaging with culture.
The problem with the Internet is that it never forgets. In 2001, I wrote my first ever piece of Christian cultural commentary for the Premier Christian Radio website. Entitled ‘Is Harry Potter a moving staircase too far?’ (shudder), it raised grave concerns about the ‘grey areas’ in the first film depicting JK Rowling’s schoolboy wizard. It even included the line: ‘Harry Potter is a large doorway to the occult, and if we lead children to it, there’s a possibility they may nudge it open.’ Nearly 15 years later, that article still regularly comes back to bite me, and while I’ve mellowed significantly, one can only imagine what my 22-year-old self would have made of Fifty Shades of Grey.
For many Christians, however, this is still a semi-accurate caricature of what cultural engagement looks like. We’re naturally suspicious of film, television and video games; visual media with the power to ‘corrupt’. We worry about the world views espoused in music and literature, and displayed by the flawed role models who fill our newspapers. There’s the Church, and there’s the world, and the one should be very nervous of the other, only making raiding runs into enemy territory to grab gospel-affirming movie clips or song lyrics to spice up a flat sermon.
PAUL SOAKED HIMSELF IN ATHENIAN CULTURE IN THE HOPE OF FINDING POINTS OF CONNECTION WITH THE GOSPEL
Even for those of us who unashamedly love movies, music and all of the arts, Christian cultural engagement usually means one of two things. Either we pull out lines, scenes, images or quotes to affirm our world view or, at the other extreme, we suggest a sort of gentle (or not so gentle) boycott of the things that don’t. So Rev. gets two thumbs up (until the protagonist starts to veer off the rails, at least), and Jerry Springer: The Opera draws a disapproving glare, or even a protest. I’ve suggested both of these responses in previous culture columns, of course.
All of which is fine, I suppose, if we want to hold to that old Christian saying (a heavy rewrite of John 17:16- 18) that we’re to be ‘in the world but not of it’. But the longer I’ve been writing this column, the more I’ve started to believe that taking such an arms-length view of the culture around us can seriously undermine our attempts at mission.
WHY CULTURAL ENGAGEMENT MATTERS
Good evangelism starts with listening. We don’t launch into telling people our story before we’ve given them a chance to tell us their own. Otherwise we come across as religious zealots, convinced of our particular version of God, and determined to force him upon anyone who will listen. I believe that part of that listening process should include listening to the cultural context in which the people we’re trying to talk to live their lives.
There’s an oft-quoted biblical precedent for that, too. In Acts 17, Paul famously speaks in the meeting of the Athenian Areopagus, and demonstrates his knowledge and understanding of Greek culture: their cultural story. And that’s not all. He uses it to connect with the story that he’s come to tell them, seamlessly weaving together the words of Greek poets and his own gospel presentation. And, as verse 34 tells us: ‘Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.’
This is of course the standard set text on cultural engagement, yet perhaps its familiarity causes us to overlook it. At first glance, Paul appears to take a quote (it might as well be a video clip) from Greek poetry, and use it in his sermon as an illustration. In fact, Paul had precisely the right quote, from the right poem, at his fingertips and he used it in connection with a sculpture – another work of art – that he had observed while walking around Athens. It seems to me that far from picking out a couple of cultural proof texts, Paul soaked himself in Athenian culture in the hope of finding points of connection with the gospel he sought to share.
In his references to both poetry and sculpture, Paul is actually very affirming of their creators. He points out where he believes the Athenian artists have already got it right and builds on this platform. Their altar ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’ gives him a perfect platform to speak in a language the people understand, and on a subject that they find interesting. He demonstrates that he has listened to their story, and agrees that there is truth and wisdom in it.
I think this should also be our starting point for cultural engagement. When we think about modern culture, we might naturally gravitate towards some of its ‘evils’ (more on this in a moment), but there is so much good to point out. Whether it’s the on-the-nose Christian allegory of the Narnia stories, Thor or the final chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the spiritual themes of The Shawshank Redemption, Selma and Les Misérables, or the songs of U2 and Mumford & Sons, there is so much that is actually complementary to the Christian narrative.
Beyond those specifically Christian-affirming examples, add Frozen, Life of Pi (both the book and film) and The Help, all of which are brimming with wisdom and truth that are entirely complementary to the gospel.
There are also stories in culture that paint a bleak picture of humanity, and which clearly illustrate the need for God and his grace; the modern equivalent perhaps of that Athenian altar. Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road is one good example, in which God is noticeable by his absence. It is as if God checked out when the apocalypse happened (Tom Perrotta’s post-rapture book The Leftovers does the same thing in a different way) and has left behind a world entirely bereft of hope.
In a very different genre, Liam Neeson’s recent ultra-violent action flick Run All Night shows the emptiness of a world view without grace, as members of New York’s Irish mob retaliate following one another’s deaths until they are all annihilated. We can use these stories as evidence for our need for God: a bigger picture way of thinking about them, which allows us not to get too hung up on the swearing and violence they might contain.
CRITIQUING WHAT DOESN’T WORK
I’m not suggesting, however, that we should wholeheartedly embrace the culture around us. As people who are called to ‘seek justice’ (Isaiah 1:17), it is only right that we speak out when something in our culture promotes the opposite. We shouldn’t stay silent about Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that seems to promote and glorify violent, unloving sexual relationships.
Sexually explicit or violent lyrics, video games that glorify killing and films like Saw and all its sequels, which ask consumers to enjoy the creative destruction of human beings, should be critiqued. Junk food culture like this doesn’t do us any good as individuals or as a society, and Christians should feel able to point that out.
People of faith are most famous for taking offence when culture goes a step further and decides to critique or poke fun at us. I think God is probably big enough to deal with that without us needing to leap to his defence. Most mentions of blasphemy in the Bible are either aimed at God’s own people or found in accusations levelled at Jesus himself. In fact, I think we’re much better served saving our critiques for when culture totally misses the point.
In Athens, Paul twice comments on the ignorance of his contemporary culture’s great and good. He calls them ignorant for not knowing who God is (v23), and again for thinking that the true God can be manufactured by human hands (vs29-30), like some sort of superhero for people to look up to. So, as we read, watch, listen to and absorb our culture, we can follow Paul’s example when God is glaringly absent.
Christopher Nolan’s recent film Interstellar is a good example of this. The film pushes humankind to the furthest reaches of the universe, then performs gymnastic leaps of logic, which manage to make humanity its own saviour and prove ultimately unsatisfying. The Hunger Games trilogy does a similar thing, and likewise suffers from an almost hopeless conclusion.
GOOD EVANGELISM STARTS WITH LISTENING
I believe that when we point to these kinds of stories, whether in the context of a sermon or a conversation down the pub, then our perspective – that the absence of mystery and divinity in these stories makes them weaker – will resonate.
KNOWLEDGE, NOT ASSUMPTION
Being able to talk with some authority about our culture’s stories requires us to invest in that culture. A conversation on a film, TV show or book we have never seen will always have limited depth. That’s why I believe that, like Paul, we should get to know and understand the culture around us in some detail. That might not always mean visiting the cinema to see the latest 18-certificate movie (Fifty Shades being a pertinent example), but it could mean reading around it and taking time to listen to the perspectives of Christians who have.
When we have listened to those stories and found elements within them that we can either affirm or critique, there are lots of creative ways of building bridges to the story we want to share. Rather than using a clip from a film to make a point (cinema’s version of the proof text), how about watching an entire film together as a congregation or small group and using this as a springboard for discussion? Instead of referring to a song lyric, how about using the whole song in an act of worship?
Once we’re engaged in listening properly to culture’s story, and to affirming, redeeming and constructively critiquing it, those creative methods of engagement will surely flow. As they do, however, we should never lose sight of why we’re doing this. Our mission as Christians is to follow Jesus and to help others do likewise. That’s why it is vital that we understand the culture in which we’re ministering, and the stories with which we seek to connect our own. To simply consume culture without seeking to interpret it is, for me at least, still a moving staircase too far.