I remember looking through college applications (half heartedly – but that’s another story) and noting a particular Christian University that required students to sign a pledge to never attend the movies. To be sure, this University bi-law represents a throwback to an earlier Fundamentalist piety (presumably insisted upon by wealthy, older donors to the College), but it highlights how far popular Evangelical piety has swung in the opposite direction.
Today, young Evangelicals do not merely argue that movie-going is permissible, but that it is a moral imperative. We may call this trend Cinevangelism. Christians, they argue, must be involved in culture to reach the culture for Christ. They believe that if they engage culture with a critical eye, then nothing unwholesome can touch them. Profanity, violence and explicit sexuality are no longer problems if viewed with an eye to God’s glory. Nor are Christians viewing such movies to critique the values of “this passing evil age.” The goal is to mine them for Gospel truth.
If the old Fundamentalists bent over backward to avoid non-sacred culture, the emerging Evangelicals are bending over backward in an attempt to sacralize all culture. This trend is very evident in the “Gospel According to” book series published by Westminster John Knox. Installments include “The Gospel According to Harry Potter,” Star Wars, the Matrix, the Simpsons, Disney and probably others. Movieministry.com offers small group studies and sermon illustrations on many of the current films in theaters right now. Current studies include Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Public Enemies, My Sister’s Keeper, Terminator: Salvation, and Angels and Demons. Ted Baehr of movieguide.org comments that, “a church group can highlight biblical teachings by using anything from Dodgeball to Saved! to Kill Bill.”
This was the method of the Apostle Paul, they say. At the Areopagus in Athens Paul connects culturally with his audience by quoting the philosophers Epimenides and Aratus (Acts 17:28). Moreover, he quoted them in affirmation rather than critique. True. But Paul did not find “Gospel truth” in these poets. Some knowledge of God and his law can be found in nature, and these truths are impressed upon the human conscience, despite the best efforts of sinful man to repress that knowledge (Rom 1:19-20), but the Gospel is not revealed in nature (Rom 16:25). On Mars Hill the apostle offered a critique of the hedonism of the Epicureans and challenged the pantheism of the Stoics. For whatever positive themes might be present in modern stories, we are not following the apostle’s example if we suggest that Lucas, Rowling or the Wachowskies unwittingly wrote Christian allegory when their intent was quite otherwise.
The misstep of our Christian cultural aficionados is a failure to challenge the underlying assumption of the Fundamentalists: that only sacred culture is legitimate, and therefore cultural pursuits need evangelistic justification. They have simply broadened the category of what they consider evangelistically useful. I believe that we should live our entire lives to the glory of God. I believe also that Christians should be involved in the arts as a legitimate vocation. But does this mean that we need a Christian theory of movie-making or movie-going? Sometimes, when I come home from a long day of work, I just want to unwind. Popular entertainment can serve this purpose well, and it is useful in itself, but we can never check our Christian morality at the door of the theater.
I think contextualization is important. We need to understand the language and idioms of our culture to communicate the Gospel effectively. But you are deceiving yourself if you think that it is helpful to watch Saw I-IV and distill “the Gospel According to Jigsaw” in order to effectively witness to your unsaved friend. Also, there is nothing wrong with a pastor occasionally dropping a well known movie reference to illustrate a point. But I suggest that it is illegitimate to preach a sermon series on “Cat woman: finding your true identity.”
Ultimately such an approach is counter productive. Culture is about particulars. It is about trivia. The Gospel deals with transcendent, eternal truth. But it is more than that. The Gospel is also its own story rooted in its own particularities. “The Word became flesh.” God has revealed himself to us in his story – a redemptive plot full of dramatic interest. The Biblical drama is neither foundationalist nor post-foundationalist; it is neither modern nor postmodern. All other stories are ultimately fables of “this present evil age” while our script belongs to “the age to come.”
Such an unrelenting focus on pop-culture forces the center to the periphery and holds what is periphery as the center. Carl Truman has a barn-burning post on the modern infatuation with “culture”, which is spot on. In it he notes that,
“On every corner, huckster theologians who have made their careers out of creating this mess are selling you the problem as if it is the solution, and theology now abounds with Orwellian newspeak: chaos is order; contradiction is consistency; valueless trivia is vital truth.
And let’s face it, no-one ever loses in today’s evangelical market by backing the peripheral rather than the central, or by overestimating the triviality of the tastes of the Western Christian consumer. Is a Christian bookstore going to make money selling a book on the Incarnation or on prayer, or one on Christian approaches to body image, or The Simpsons, or how to improve your sex life?”
This past week Joel Stein wrote a piece in TIME where he tells of his experience sitting in on the Saddleback Church improv team. The director Brian Barns explains that their goal is to give “people a way to get friends to the church who have turned down an invitation to a service.” Stein comments, “This made sense to me until I thought about the kind of person who would say, ‘I’m not interested in eternal salvation, but I’d love to spend a Saturday night in a small conference room watching Christian improvisational comedy!’”
There is nothing wrong with a Christian pursuing a vocation as a stand-up comic. I am concerned with the official ministry of the Christian Church. Our lives are saturated with pop-entertainment. The Church’s goal is to offer something that transcends our vapid “culture of marketing and the marketing of culture.” If we fail in this then we really haven’t challenged our American identity as mere consumers.
Finally, the emerging emphasis on pop-culture is not really working. Michael Horton notes that,
“A host of recent studies confirms that the ecclesiastical ideology of ‘mission to postmodern culture’ works least among the people who are supposed to be the most impressed: the so-called Gen-Xers and younger. Even aside from the all-important challenge of biblical fidelity, not even the demographics support the hype that almost tyrannically controls contemporary approaches to mission and worship” (Give Praise to God, p. 443).