Observing Art and Engaging Culture for the Glory of God

If you’re a Christian, there’s about a 90% chance that you or someone you know has at least one “NOTW” car sticker and/or t-shirt. It’s almost impossible to drive around town for more than five minutes without spotting one. Not that it’s a bad thing; I have one of these stickers and a Jesus fish on the back of my pickup truck, in case you were wondering how on fire for God I am. But for every cool Christian teen/youth pastor that slaps the NOTW logo on everything they own, I wonder how many actually understand what it means to be in this world and not of it. Many believe that it means we as Christians need to completely separate ourselves from everything the world has to offer; this means no TV (except The Bible miniseries), no movies (besides God’s Not Dead and The Passion of the Christ), and no music (outside of Contemporary Christian radio). It means we can’t have secular jobs, and every moment of our free time must be spent at church. It means we don’t talk to the people of the world and we definitely don’t listen to them. This is the mindset of a great deal of well-meaning evangelicals, but I would argue that it is completely unbiblical.

As Christians, we are called by God to engage the culture so that we can be familiar with its philosophies and values. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 10 that “though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5, ESV). Paul affirms in this passage that we are not of this world, and our primary concerns are not of the flesh, but of the Spirit. He also says that we must be able to tear down every argument that the culture raises against God. This necessitates not only a firm understanding of the Scriptures, but an awareness of the beliefs and practices of the culture. There are lots of ways to grow in understanding of the way the world thinks and behaves. The two that are most important are: 1.) building relationships with nonbelievers, and 2.) observing the stories our culture is telling through media such as film and music. With the foundation of a Gospel-centered biblical worldview, observing and engaging the culture around us is vital to our ministries. Jesus has called us to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). How can we expect to do this if we have no idea how to interact with someone who thinks differently than us?

All popular art reveals the most prominent worldviews of the culture, and the best art will (sometimes unknowingly) point to deeper truths about humanity. We as a country are captivated by the bleak but powerful storytelling of shows like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, and with good reason. What makes these shows so interesting to the viewer is the portrayal of utterly wicked characters in a sympathetic light. The moral ambiguity of characters like Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper causes us to think about human nature in ways we might never consider otherwise. How could a seemingly decent person sink to such horrifying lows, and vice versa? The richest, most satisfying works of art in modern culture are full of real human beings. Everyone has a variety of positive and negative characteristics, but deep down, “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).

Another truth that is revealed by great art is man’s deep, ever-increasing desire for purpose, satisfaction, and joy. This can be seen in just about every character in every film and television series ever made. Why? Because everyone on earth longs for those things! Seriously, the next time you sit down to watch something, really think about the characters’ motivations for their actions. Whether it is Tobias Fünke dedicating his life to the possibility of joining the Blue Man Group, or Jimmy McNulty throwing his life away in an attempt to solve murders, characters are always searching for something to give their lives meaning. Now, step back and think about your friends, family, and co-workers. What drives those people to do the things that they do? What about you? Everyone who has ever lived wants to feel loved, so many people decide to take every chance they get to sleep around. Everyone wants to be happy, so they often look to drugs, alcohol, or money in order to find it. Everyone wants to feel like they are worth something; that their lives have purpose. So they devote all of their time and energy to school or work, or they just give up altogether when they realize that life is pointless. As Christians, we have found love, joy, and eternal purpose and satisfaction in Christ alone. How can we possibly keep that to ourselves as we watch the people around us ruin their lives in misguided attempts to find it? It is our responsibility to understand the plight of our culture and then impact it with the truth of the Gospel. Observing and studying the stories that captivate the culture from the perspective of a sinner who has been saved and transformed by the grace of God allows us to have meaningful discussions with lost people that ultimately point them to Jesus Christ.

You see a man covered in blue paint. I see a man covered in blue paint who is longing for purpose.

Although it is wise to read, watch, and listen with an active mind, it is important to note that there is nothing wrong with turning your brain off for a while and just being entertained. Film and television can be great sources of relaxation and family bonding. But every work of art has something to say; be careful not to be influenced by worldly messages. If you approach every work of art with a Christ-centered mindset, it will be much easier to appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into good storytelling and filmmaking, while still recognizing the flaws in the worldview it presents and relating the story back into a Gospel context.

Now, it is also important to figure out where we draw the line in deciding what a Christian should and shouldn’t watch/listen to. This has been a topic of debate for many years, but I would argue that it is actually quite simple: if the art you consume causes you to sin, run away from it immediately. Jesus himself said in Matthew 5:29, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” Now, as this applies to film or music, different people will have to draw the line in different places.  It is important to note that the portrayal of sin in art is not the same thing as the glorification of sin, but if being exposed to certain things causes you to fall into sin, then it must be avoided. If hearing profanity causes you to use profane speech, avoid anything with that sort of language. If seeing violence portrayed onscreen causes you to have thoughts of violence, then stay away from violent movies. Personally, I struggle with neither one of those issues, so seeing them in art does not bother me. However, I do struggle with lust – and if we’re honest, most of us probably do – so I always seek to avoid nudity and sexual content of any kind in what I watch. If you have the self-control to simply fast-forward past this type of scene, great. But be honest with yourself; if you can’t skip past it, then you must avoid the show/movie altogether, regardless of how culturally relevant it is. As Trip Lee said in a recent podcast interview, “Relevance is a really good thing, and understanding pop culture is a really good thing, but neither of those things is more important than your soul itself.” In addition to nudity, the other thing I always avoid at all costs is purposeful, explicit mocking of God. I am a huge comedy nerd; I love studying the art of comedy and familiarizing myself with the great comics of our time. It therefore saddens me greatly to see the rejection and outright mocking of God that is so common in the average comedian’s set. Of course this is to be expected, because the world hates God (John 15:19). This is reflected in the morals and philosophies of comedians as well, and it is interesting to listen and gain perspective on these things. There is nothing that a comedian can say about people, sex, social issues, or anything else in this world that would ever offend me; of course I disagree with them and pray for them, but approaching a stand-up special as an educational experience about the culture we live in prevents me from being shocked or offended at anything anyone might say. But as a Christian, it hurts my heart to hear the name of The Lord blasphemed and mocked by someone who has such a profound misunderstanding of who God is.

I would argue that all Christians should adhere to that last practice of avoiding anything that blatantly mocks God, and it is probably best for everyone to avoid sexual content as well. But as for everything else, it is a matter of personal conviction by the Holy Spirit. The Christian should be able to look past the language of Kendrick Lamar’s music, or the violence of The Sopranos, in order to see the greater message that this world is longing for something, or rather Someone, to give them peace and purpose. But for those who cannot take in this kind of art, don’t judge those who can, and vice versa. On this topic, two passages of Scripture come to mind. The first is Mark 7:18-21, which says, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him?… For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” To declare the act of watching movies or listening to music to be sinful in and of itself is a serious oversimplification. My heart is wicked, and I find myself sinning constantly; I don’t need a TV show to convince me to do it. When I sin, all of the blame lies with me, not on the movies I choose to watch. Now, as I said earlier, it is up to me to have discernment and to avoid the things that might entice me to pursue my sinful desires, but that is still entirely a heart issue, not an art issue. (See what I did there?) Secondly, I would like to bring up Romans 14:2-3, 13-23.

“One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him… Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”

In this passage, Paul writes about the issue of what Christians should and should not eat, but it is safe to apply this principle to all matters of Christian liberty, including the movies we watch and the music we listen to. If you feel strongly that you cannot handle the art of popular culture, that is fine, and it would be wrong for me to judge you. In fact, I applaud you for boldly following your convictions. However, it would also be wrong for you to look down on me for following mine. Ultimately, this is about loving our brothers and sisters in Christ and not causing anyone to stumble. If you like sitting back and watching the latest episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia while enjoying a nice can of wine, but your brother in Christ is led to sin because of these things, then by all means, avoid doing them or talking about them around him. Building up and encouraging the Body of Christ for the glory of God is the ultimate goal here, so we must take away anything that would hinder us from reaching that goal.

Lastly, I would like to address the false dichotomy that has plagued the Church for ages: the division of all things in life into the categories of “secular” and “sacred.” If you live your life by this principle, then you simply do not have a Christian worldview. Contrary to popular belief, working as a teacher, or a barber, or an accountant is just as “sacred” as any Church-related profession. Jesus has called us to make disciples right where we are, and for most of us, the workplace is our mission field. Building relationships with the people we see everyday and sharing God’s love and truth with them is really our entire purpose for living. But if we view work as “secular,” then we would have to keep our spiritual life separate, in the “sacred” realm of the church. A true Christian worldview will permeate every area of your life, including work, relationships, and art. When we consume art, whether it be Lecrae’s latest album or the Coen brothers’ latest film, we are to approach it with the purpose of worshipping God and learning about ourselves and the culture in which we live. It is quite easy to study popular art and discover truths about our culture, but it is also possible to be led to intimately worship the Lord by what some might write off as “secular.” For example, one of my favorite episodes of The Sopranos, season 2’s “From Where to Eternity,” caused me to worship God more than any Christian film I have ever seen. In the episode, Christopher is pronounced clinically dead for about a minute and then revived. During that time, he believes to have seen hell and received a message from a demon that he and his bosses would end up there soon. Upon hearing this, Tony quickly dismisses the idea, but it begins slowly eating away at Paulie. Paulie then spends the majority of the episode desperately trying to find peace and freedom from this message that is haunting him. His desperation eventually leads him to see a psychic, who only reminds him of the horrible life he has lived. He ultimately blames the Church for not protecting him from hell despite his generous donations to their cause, and he moves on with his self-centered life. This character wanted nothing more than to be made right with God and stay out of hell, but he thought it was all up to him to make that happen. This thought process led to anger, depression, and near-insanity. Watching this brought me to tears, as I praised and thanked the Lord that my salvation is not up to me, but God’s grace alone. If He had not done all the work to save me, then I would be a lot like Paulie, doing everything I could to save myself, to no avail. Biblically, that message is infinitely more beneficial than “have faith in God and you will accomplish all your goals and win every football game,” or whatever that movie (you know the one I’m talking about) was trying to say.

To the Christian artist, I say this: boldly proclaim the Gospel in your life, and make art that reflects the work that God has done in your heart. Don’t be afraid to embrace the label of a “Christian” artist. Labels don’t matter as long as you make good art that glorifies the Lord. To quote Robert Henri, “The presence of good art will unconsciously refine a community and poor art will do it incalculable harm.”

As Christians, it is our duty to understand the culture in which we live, build relationships with those who don’t know Christ, and impact the world around us with the Gospel. By engaging the culture, we are to shine a light in the darkness; not begin thinking and acting just like the world. We must remember Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Recommended Reading:

Mike Cosper – “The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth”

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