How Should Christians Approach Works of Culture?
How Should Christians Approach Works of Culture?
Everyone has a favorite book, movie, or piece of art. Even Christians who largely decry the cultural productions of this world admit that they enjoy some of these things. And there is no surprise why: because all of us, Christian and non-Christian, are human beings and have the same senses - able to enjoy good food, delight in a sound rest upon a comfortable bed, and marvel at the wild mountain scenery of Montana. Cultural productions, in a very basic sense, seek to evoke wonder and delight at the amazing things that God has given to us.
It is true, however, that many cultural productions tend to pervert and demean this wonderful world which is now groaning under the curse of sin. So, this is a legitimate question for Christians to ask: How should we approach cultural works in general? How should we discriminate between what is exploitative and what is good, right, and true? Can unbelievers still produce cultural works that can give glory to their Creator?
The Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:8-9 sets forth a standard for all Christians to follow: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me - practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
This is a good general rule for us to follow when evaluating works of culture. It does not mean that we should avoid cultural works that show evil behavior, for even the Bible itself depicts evil behavior - yet it does this for the higher purpose of setting sin against what is good and true, so that we are led to detest evil and love righteousness. Paul is encouraging believers to reflect not only on the wonderful gifts of salvation that they have received from God, but also on all other things that are good - including the benevolence of God and His glorious works of creation.
This is why when we reflect upon works of culture, we need to ask if they affirm something about who we are as human beings, who we are as God created us. And even unbelievers who deny God can frequently display this, because even though they rebel against Him, they cannot deny their own humanity. I would choose to call this type of affirmation “the human condition.” Any work of culture that accurately depicts some facet of who we are as human beings - whether in happiness, sadness, sickness, sorrow, prosperity, and poverty - is a worthy work to contemplate. Even works which end upon a pessimistic note serve to illustrate the truth of our sinful brokenness, which ought to drive us to our Savior who provides all comfort and redemption. This is one way in which God's common grace operates.
Of course, we need to be discerning and wise. Different Christians interact in different ways and levels with various works of culture that are worthy of being seen. Some may be able to bear more difficult things to see, while others will prefer to engage with easier materials. We need to continually bring God’s truth to bear upon worthy cultural works in order to fully elaborate upon them and point out where these works can benefit from a Biblical perspective, while sympathizing with the cultural work’s main thrust since it does accurately depict some facet of our humanity. That is why we must not seek to be “entertained” (in the shallowest sense of the word), for this type of mindset abandons all discernment and allows perversions to rush in uninhibited. But we can appreciate what is good and true and right, and thus be “entertained” (in a solid sense) by the wonder of God’s creation and the context of His redemptive work.
Let me conclude with a concrete example. Why do so many people enjoy The Lord of the Rings? It is because J.R.R. Tolkien creates a magnificent world full of amazing splendor and profound characters that lift up our minds to contemplate the important themes of our world: beauty, friendship, love, redemption, courage, and victory over evil. Expertly crafted prose (and poetry inserted in various places!) help us appreciate the value of beautiful language. The LOTR affirms who we are as human beings by raising up the things that define us and establishing them as attributes worthy to be adored. That is why it is a classic - all the classic works do this.
This is a rather broad overview, of course, and so in future posts I’m thinking about delving into more particulars - such as how to approach literature, and how to approach film. It does take effort to train ourselves to become wise and discerning enjoyers of cultural works and resist the manifold temptations to become lazy and shallow in our leisure time. But the rewards are great, because a proper enjoyment of culture, for Christians, is nothing less than a pursuit of our wonderful Creator and Lord, seeking to know Him better and love Him more intimately, all because of the salvation which Christ has freely given us.
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