This is part three in a series that seeks to reflect upon my grandmother’s words, “Keep your eyes open, my child, long enough to see the light in the darkness,” and how her council to me has come to shape my understanding of what it means to live as a faithful witness of the Christian gospel while also wading knee-deep into American culture. Find the rest of the series here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4.
To be sure, this is a strange idea for some. Many Christians maintain the old maxim that we are to be in the world, but not of the world – an idea rooted deeply in the words of Jesus, but an idea, I believe, that steers us further away from the kingdom of God than it does from the cultures from which it seeks to protect us.
I’ve suggested, thus far, that the church often fails to engage culture out of fear, and in effect creates a subculture or a cultural ghetto for itself. This happens, in part, when Christians withdraw from cultural goods in general, but most often within the realm of popular culture (the various forms of media produced by one’s culture). In response, many churches boycott movies and launch campaigns against musical artists and literary authors to combat the evils of popular culture, in effect treating America’s pop culture as the church’s enemy.
This is problematic for reasons outlined earlier, but this is only one side of the problem faced by the church regarding its engagement with pop culture (or the lack thereof). What I’ve been suggesting all along is that the current status of Christian engagement with the world (at least, from an Evangelical perspective) is lacking, not only from those who would withdraw from our culture, but also from those who would engage with it in what I have come to believe is the worst of ways: imagine-less imitation.
The Christian subculture that results in the withdrawal from one’s popular culture is further reinforced by those who would take the current forms of popular culture and seek to make them function in more “Christian” ways. Such attempts often fail not for their lack of effort, but for their lack of imagination and influence.
The pop culture form, when copied without thoughtful reflection and critical creativity by the church, fails to function as it should, leaving the Christian community to either settle for and excuse poorly produced cultural goods, or go elsewhere in search of more thoughtful and well produced items.
Additionally, the very group of people this media attempts to influence in a quasi-evangelical effort (those whom are often deemed to be on the outside) are rarely reached since Christians are often the ones consuming whatever cultural goods are being produced by the Christian entertainment industry.
The church’s insistence (at least in the American-Evangelical community) on preserving a Christian subculture namely by promoting the consumption of Christian products based upon a poor and imagine-less imitation of popular culture, is hurting the church. Such a steady intake of this lesser form of creativity is to the body of Christ what a diet dominated by fast food is to the bodies of Americans – it bloats us with empty calories incapable of sustaining us and often leads us toward disease and death.
I know this may sound incredibly harsh to some. I don’t entirely mean it that way. I appreciate those who are attempting to lead us closer to God through the things they create. The irony, however, is that a generation of Christians have imitated the very culture it claims is so full of darkness.
What would it look like if, instead, the church took to drawing upon the popular culture and creating – not imitating – something full of excellence and rich meaning? What if instead of promoting a “lesser form of darkness” – which I would argue often seems to be the case – the church took to joining with God’s constant movement of revealing the light already present in the darkness?
Look at the Scriptures once more and notice the ways in which the Christian narrative upholds a God who uses the various forms and mediums present in the culture to communicate, to create, to reveal, to redeem, and ultimately to restore the brokenness in our world. God uses that which is often considered dark and depraved to bring about light. This has always been, and continues to be, the work of God, and is to be the church’s mission as well if the church wishes to join God.
This is why it matters how the church goes about offering cultural goods to the rest of the world. Good movies, songs, or stories – that is, good media – possess the ability to tell meaningful and memorable stories that are often more complex than those told in the Christian-media industry. This is one of the countless reasons why many people consider some forms of non-Christian media more adequate at revealing the light (the gospel) than that which is labeled “Christian.” The world and the human beings living in it are complex, and we measure good stories by their ability to embrace and make sense of the diverse experiences one has throughout life.
So, may the church never fear the darkness. May it always and forever look for – and be – the light present in the darkness.
May the church never fear being creative. May it always and forever look for ways to create rather than imitate cultural goods, and in so doing more fully reveal the light present in the darkness.
And may a generation of Christians rise up to meet God in the dark places in our culture, and may our voices rise together with the Psalmist who proclaimed, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 42:1).