In the February 21, 2014 edition of the New York Times, reporter Lauren Sandler tells a very interesting story of the partnership between an evangelical pastor and a film festival director who is also a secular Jew. Pastor Dave Cover of the Columbia, MO mega-church The Crossing is making an effort to be part of the cultural conversation by having his church sponsor a documentary film at each year’s True/False Film Fest. He meets together with festival director David Wilson and together they decide to which film the church will award its sponsorship. The church sponsorship does not go to traditional evangelical Christian fare, but rather to meaningful secular documentaries. (Furthermore, the sponsorship is awarded to the subjects of documentaries, not to the filmmakers.) Sandler writes:
The 14-year-old church’s doctrine affirms biblical literalism and discipleship. Mr. Cover preaches what filmmakers might see as a three-act narrative in the Bible: first the story of creation, then the fall of humanity and finally, the tragedy of wanting things rather than God. Talk to Mr. Cover’s parishioners, and you’ll hear his notion repeated verbatim.
Mr. Cover articulates an evangelical message familiar to this generation’s culturally savvy churchgoers. “We don’t want to be behind a castle wall, have a moat, go out by twos to witness,” he said. “We wanted to enter the culture as people who found ways to tell the story.”
After he attended screenings at the festival, it occurred to Mr. Cover that the narrative he preaches was written into most of the films he saw.
Pastor Cover has it exactly right. I will freely admit that this article is my only acquaintance with him, but I was impressed by his savvy way of relating to culture as a Christian.
There are two extremes of thought when it comes to the Christian’s relationship to the culture. One viewpoint suggests that Christians are to be completely separate from the world. The world is viewed as evil through and through. The world is basically going up in smoke and Christians are here just to stay out of the fire and (from outside) shout to others in the midst of it, “Come out of there! Come over here where it’s safe!” A lot of evangelical Christianity operates under this mindset. The belief is that we need to create our own Christian art forms that are “safe” and “clean.” Art doesn’t matter as much as safe and clean. Sometimes truth is sacrificed because of this. As much time as possible is spent in the Christian subculture, listening to Christian music, reading Christian books and magazines, and watching Christian movies and TV shows. The goal is to convert everybody else to consuming these same things and being a part of our separate subculture.
At the opposite extreme is the viewpoint that since we’re all saved by grace, it truly doesn’t matter what we do. If I look at pornography, visit a strip club, read 50 Shades of Grey, it’s totally cool because my relationship with God is not dependent on my works. I just want to be cool and be exactly like other people out there in the culture.
Between separatism and cultural accommodation, there is a middle way: being in the world, but not of the world.
See, I think that we as Christians are not called to be separatists from culture. We are called to be part of the conversation of what is going on in culture. Knowing and understanding what is going on in culture first of all enriches our lives. Engaging with art adds meaning to our lives. We do not need to fear art any more than we fear science. Truth is real and since it is real, we should expect to see it resonating even in an unbelieving world. Gravity doesn’t just go away because you declare you don’t believe in it. The realities of original sin, fallenness, the longing for redemption, the presence of God in the world–these also do not go away just because people declare their unbelief. Like any truth that is repressed, these truths have a way of poking their heads up in the midst of real and serious art. And so, serious art strengthens our witness in so many ways. It strengthens our faith in our beliefs. It brings us connection with other people as we share common experiences around art. It opens up conversations about meaning in our lives. It surfaces the deep longings of our hearts that we are otherwise so quick to push under.
Art is very important. However, I think it’s also important to state that the Christian relationship to art while not being a prudish one of separatism is also one of discernment. It is a relationship that says with the Apostle Paul, “‘Everything is permissible for me’–but not everything is beneficial” (I Corinthians 6:12, NIV). In our walk of discipleship with Christ, we do well to agree that we are free in Christ to engage with art. We don’t need to be afraid of art. But we also do well to know what our trigger points of temptation are. Art may be shot through with truth, but it is also shot through with many things that are not helpful to our growth in faith. My personal belief is that as each Christian regularly reads the Scriptures and prays, God will make clear what that Christian can handle and not handle. I do think there are some areas that are always wrong for a Christian (such as pornography), but there are others that are disputable matters. For me, one way I try to stay “in, not of” the world is through utilizing the fast-forward button. I find many of the quality cable television shows these days to be incredibly meaningful and thought-provoking. I am richer for having watched them. However, they also tend to include a lot of graphic sex. I don’t feel that watching such scenes is helpful to me as a Christian. So when such a scene comes onto the screen, I fast-forward or avert my eyes. If someone finds that to be a prudish response, I really don’t care! I know that for me that is what I need to do to appreciate the very best things about these shows and to leave the rest to the side.
In some way, each Christian is called to both engage with culture and show how the Gospel calls Christians to be distinctive from culture. How we choose to live that out comes through dialogue with God through Scripture and prayer.