Secular Art and Christian Truth: A Christian Nerd Perspective
I am a huge nerd.
Maybe you are too.
I’m a Christian, but there’s no reason to assume that about you. I hope you are, but not because I need you to be a Christian to absorb or enjoy this material. I hope you are because I have found that it is the greatest and most hopeful way to experience humanity - that is, being human. The foundation of my faith is the hope, freedom, connection, love, and perspective that comes from it and the fact that Jesus Christ died and was resurrected for me. For you.
I’m a nerd and a Christian, and there is a need for Christian nerdiness.
I don’t know that Christians are all that good at communicating the best parts of what I just said about my faith. I know that the church is really good at making people feel shame - the guilty sting of their ungodly ways. To a point, the feeling of guilt and the knowledge of our imperfection plays a crucial role in our understanding our need for God. I know a lot of really crappy and sinful things have been done in the name of Jesus Christ - things that I can only imagine make the Son of God shudder. To be fair to my fellow Christians, I have heard many people communicate the positive aspects of the Gospel, for instance the love of God that initiated Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection.
But many of those that communicate the good of the Good News fail to do it in a way that is relatable and speaks to the context in which people live. Yes, in many ways, the Gospel - and its moral implications - are a universal language. We all feel the weight of our sin, and we all are endowed with a conscience that informs us of a higher moral standard. We live in a time where Bibles are more accessible than ever. The truth about Christ is tremendously available, but that has not sparked a proportionately tremendous revival or awakening.
Part, and I do mean part, of the reason we have not seen widespread acceptance of this very available truth is that we fail to adapt the way we speak it to the way people hear it. The message should never be compromised, and I will say that again. The message should never be compromised. That said, didn’t Paul use sports terms to discuss Gospel truths? Didn’t Jesus Himself speak in agricultural terms to help people understand? It was common for biblical authors and leaders of the early church to use metaphors that helped their audiences digest the great mysteries of God.
A lot of Christian leaders will agree with me here and only here. The line between Christianity and culture is one that they dare not cross, often stating that nothing good can come from outside of God - ergo the church, Scripture, and Christian writings/arts. To try to find truth in the world, they argue, is the same as diluting real truth and compromising Christian morals. I honestly can see that (1) they are remaining true to their own convictions and (2) their perspective does make sense in a way. I disagree, but I see what they are saying.
The truth is that finding moral truths in secular writing is a somewhat dangerous undertaking. There have to be checks in place in order to help me avoid the pitfall of thinking that the morality I find in these works is indigenous to them. The fact is that if something is morally good, that moral goodness comes from being like God. If something lacks moral goodness, that lack of moral goodness comes from being unlike God. In other words, God’s character is the source of all moral goodness, not a director, screenwriter, author, or actor. As Christians, we liberate ourselves from a very limited catalogue of art when we decide that there are redeeming factors in secular works. Interestingly, we see the apostle Paul support this approach.
Acts 17, and why this is okay.
Acts 17 finds Paul and Silas bouncing around the Mediterranean region, preaching the Gospel. The problem is that this was a widely unpopular thing for them to do, especially among the Jews. So while they were in Berea (Northern Greece), some of the Jews in Thessalonica came and “stirred up trouble” (v. 13, New Living Translation). He got in one little fight, and his mom got scared. She said, “You’re moving with your auntie and uncle in Bel Air."
But he did run - like 500 kilometers - to Athens. No, that isn’t as far as a cab ride from West Philly to Bel Air, but for the ancient world, that was a long, long distance to cover. As Paul rolled into town, he saw idols everywhere, which troubled him. The guy was a Jewish-leader-turned-Christian, so he was bound to be pretty put-off by idols. Nevertheless, he did the Paul thing - spoke publicly and in the synagogue, with both Jews and Gentiles, about Jesus Christ. That’s what Paul always did, but in Athens, he changed his methods a little. That change is the spirit of what we are doing in this book.
Paul was brought to the high council of Athens (not his last time in this type of scenario), who asked him what he was talking about. Paul recognized the people of Athens as religious people (see again: all of the idols in the area), and went on to do something drastic. He appropriated their religion and two secular authors in order to bridge the gap between the Athenians and the Gospel. First, he quotes Epimenides, a man from Crete that was considered a prophet (verified by Paul in his letter to Titus, 1:12). Paul quotes this pagan “prophet” by saying:
“For in him we live and move and exist.” (Acts 17:28a and Epimenides’ Cretica)
Paul continues, by quoting another pagan, Aratus the poet’s praise to Zeus:
“As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” (Acts 17.28b and Aratus’ Phaenomena)
It is in the spirit of this one verse that I write. I want to focus on something that is implied here, but not necessarily said outright. Paul quoted two pagan - very pagan - sources: a pagan “prophet” and a pagan “worship song” of sorts. The reason he was able to quote them under duress and off-the-cuff is because he knew them well enough to do so. I want to make a two-fold point here. First, it is okay to consume, even meaningfully, art and media that is not expressly Christian. Second, the reason it is okay to do that is so that we can have a better context for those we intend to reach with the Gospel of Christ.
Do not let this essay enable you to consume things that are bad for you spiritually.
Some of the works that could be examined through this lens are as unchristian as pagan “prophets” and praise of Zeus. We can enjoy those works, but ultimately, we should be intentional in why we consume them the way we do: connecting Christ to the culture in which we live. Paul drew upon both art and religion that were incredibly contrary to the message he carried, but he did it by recognizing that the Athenian people were trying to find truth in all of their fiction. We can draw this conclusion because in Acts 17:23, he says the God of the shrine to the “unknown God” is the very God he is telling them about.
He was purposeful and intentional in how he consumed and understood secular arts and pagan religion. I do not think we can say the same of the church today when it comes to secular media of any kind. Either we consume it entirely and mindlessly, just enjoying watching Tyler Durden beat people up and burn a city or Riggs and Murtaugh killing way more people than cops should, or we avoid it completely by citing our calling to be “in, not of the world.” There is something in between the pop culture feasts and famines, something holy and something that adopts the spirit of redemption that the Christian faith should strive for.
Celebrate content, not intention.
It is really not lost on me that many (though not all) of the various works that I could cite in this study had absolutely no intention of communicating what we understand to be biblical truths. Most particularly, I have a favorite study, one of Captain America/Iron Man, which is my favorite one of my favorite subjects. Maybe it is something I will write on here, or maybe it is something I will save and publish someday. Regardly, the creators of the content, Marcus and McNeely (writers), the Russo Brothers (directors), Chris Evans (Captain America), and Robert Downey, Jr. (Iron Man) did not all sit down and discuss how to best illustrate a point Jesus makes in Luke 9. I know that.
But that doesn't mean they didn't still illustrate it.
I respect these creators too much to try and impose the biblical principles I am drawing from their work onto their intentions when creating that work. That goes for almost every attempt to reconcile pop culture with biblical truth. Sure, Tolkien was most definitely a Christian writer, so we will probably be pretty close to his intentions with this approach. At least, we can say he wouldn't mind the inference of spiritual concepts in The Lord of the Rings and his other works.
Even though we can't always say that the creators intended to convey the biblical concepts we discuss, we can say why those concepts are so present in secular art. It's pretty simple, actually. Because there is a universal moral Source (God), human beings share common morality. That morality blends into instances where we want to see the good guy win or the bad guy redeemed. We are hardwired to want to see morally sound outcomes. Those are the stories we yearn for because that is the story we are currently living out until God's ultimate victory over ever evil and impure things.
Close it out.
There are obviously things in the secular entertainment world that have absolutely no place in a Christian’s home, mind, or heart. I am not advocating that you consume things that damage your soul for the sake of finding commonality with a broken and twisted world. No, I am saying that there are virtuous and morally-driven stories that reveal to us a simple fact: people want to see good prevail and evil vanquished. The reason why is because we are currently in the second act of that very story, and the New Testament authors were insistent that the third act will begin soon. If the zeitgeist is such that there is an emergent language with which we can communicate the absolute morality of God, the evil and broken nature of ourselves and our world, gospel concepts (Messiah, sacrifice, redemption, etc.), and other theological concepts, why would we avoid learning such a language?
If you are a consumer of popular culture, be intentional about how and why you consume it.
If you are a conscientious objector to culture, consider why you feel that way.
Regardless of the camp in which you find yourself, it is undeniably true that there is a world around us that yearns to see the victory over evil that Jesus Christ promises.