Five Questions to Ask of the Christian Sub-Culture
During my first week on the job as a student pastor, a parent requested that I take a group of students to go see a particular faith-based film. As the release date for The Shack approaches, I am sure that many youth workers find themselves in a similar position. Leaders from a broad range of theological traditions have voiced their opinions and reviews about The Shack – with glowing affirmations, charges of heresy, and everything in-between.
For better or for worse, many youth ministries are driven by special events. Because their opinions of the Christian sub-culture directly affect the decisions they make about their ministry’s calendars, youth workers often find themselves on the frontlines of the controversies which often surround the releases of faith-based media. While these controversies may disproportionately affect youth ministries, they are the result of an issue that reaches far beyond the winsome walls of youth group.
The reality is, large numbers of believers from every generation have no framework with which to filter and critique the Christian sub-culture.
In response to this reality, I offer five questions to ask of the Christian sub-culture. My hope is for these considerations to bridge the wide gap between blind affirmation and knee-jerk rejection.
Question #1: Is it Scripturally Sound?
By definition, literature from the “Christian” sub-genre presents a portrait of what it means to follow Jesus. Accordingly, many believers regard works from the Christian sub-culture with an authority that is not reciprocated to mainstream works of film and literature. In addition to being “safe for the whole family,” it is important that artistic productions from the Christian sub-culture be scripturally sound.
Adolf Hitler was not a Christian; he referred to the Christian faith as one of “meekness and flabbiness.” But because he mimicked the Christianized culture of Germany and gave verbal assent to the God of the Bible, many in the churches of Germany came to support him as a champion of Christ’s cause. This strikingly potent example illustrates the influence that the Christian sub-culture has upon believers and, therefore, the importance of ensuring that its creative works align with Scripture.
Question #2: Is it Christ-Exalting or Self-Actualizing?
The content of the Christian sub-culture may be “safe” in the sense that it avoids on-screen nudity and four-letter words, but it becomes dangerous whenever it flips the script from Christ-exaltation to self-glorification or actualization. As Michael Horton quips, “The gospel never tells us something to do. The gospel tells us about something that’s been done.”
As mankind was lured into believing that an identity of our own making was to be desired above that which was freely bestowed by God, sin began to wreak havoc on the world (cf. Genesis 3:1-19). Art which is truly infused by Calvary’s grace does more than Christianize the ancient lie that our worth is determined by our accomplishments. Instead of encouraging us to stake our sense of worth and identity on fleeting pleasures, fickle pursuits, or a faulty righteousness of our own construction, the best faith-based art introduces us to the One whose pierced hands acceptingly deliver us exactly as we are.
We each need regular reminders of the promise and privilege found in Christ alone. May we choose art which leads us into greater surrender, rather than into greater actualization of the flesh.
Question #3: Does it Promote the Right Actions?
Good preaching does more than guide us into an understanding of sound doctrine. It gives us a framework for living out Scripture’s teaching. Similarly, we should necessitate that the faith-based media we take in exhort us towards biblical, God-glorifying applications.
For instance, while there is much to be celebrated in the movie God’s Not Dead, Trevin Wax points out that the importance of community in a local church is almost entirely absent from its plotline. “If college makes it plausible to believe ‘God is dead,’” he argues, “[Then] the Church should make it hard to believe anything other than ‘God is alive’… unlike God’s Not Dead, we must not leave out the world where God’s Good News comes alive—the people of God who corporately witness to a kingdom that has no end.”
The point of this example is neither to degrade God’s Not Dead, nor to criticize those who (like me) have chosen to see it. Instead, it is to express a desire for faith-based media to paint a realistic picture of what it means to follow Jesus. Our follow-up conversations to works from the Christian sub-culture should go beyond examining, “How then shall we think?” They should also (correctly) address the question, “How then shall we live?”
Question #4: Does its Quality Adorn the Gospel?
In 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, Paul instructs his audience to “work with your hands…so that you may walk properly before outsiders…” A person’s work is part of his or her platform to magnify Christ before a watching world. The quality of that work, therefore, reflects upon the goodness of God and the power of the gospel.
To be clear, God does not define quality by tangible terms alone. Jesus valued the widow’s mites more so than the large contributions of the rich, though her offering was worth considerably less money. According to Luke 21:1-4, quality is found in the authentic, sacrificial giving of one’s whole self, regardless of the outward deliverable.
Has our faith-based media been passionately and sacrificially crafted, or have corners been cut for the sake of ease or financial profit? Are they stories of good quality, or have they been reduced to an after-school special with prayer thrown in for good measure? Are the faults of Christians and the realities of sin depicted authentically, or does this literature simply pander to fantasies of how we wished the world was? By critiquing the care with which faith-based movies, books, and music have been crafted – a direct reflection of God’s glory – we are better equipped to reflect his glory to others.
Question #5: Does it Contribute to the False Notion of a Sacred/Secular Divide?
The gospel’s power is not found in cloistering God’s people in order to preserve them from the world’s influence. The gospel is powerful because it unleashes God’s people to be influencers of the world: agents in Christ’s mission to “make all things new” (cf. Revelation 21:5). Too often, the Christian sub-culture detracts God’s people from impacting the world, shuffling us instead into a new-found monasticism of artwork which is destructively separated from the culture at large.
“The alternative to this cloistered attitude” says Mike Cosper, “is to challenge Christians to excel in their respective industries… As James Davison Hunter argues in To Change the World, if we want to exercise influence in culture, we need to go to the center, the institutions where it’s most profoundly shaped. Instead of standing outside (in a subculture) and speaking in, we need truly excellent artists to go into the heart of cultural production… transforming it from the inside out.”
The world is in desperate need of high-quality, biblically-shaped, gospel-illuminating contributions in every realm of society. When we consume “Christian” media, let’s do more than take a comfortable seat on the sidelines. In all things, and especially in our choices of faith-based movies and literature, let’s advocate for a vision that commissions Christ’s people head-first into his mission: the global redemption of all things.
What other questions would you ask of the Christian sub-culture?