What is the relationship between Christians and culture?
This is arguably one of Christianity’s oldest questions. It traces its roots to the earliest believers living within one of history’s most intense cultural environments—the Roman Empire. The New Testament is peppered with references to this relationship, owing a great deal to the writings of Paul. The “apostle to the Gentiles” spent a considerable amount of time traveling throughout the Empire, immersed in its culture in pursuit of expanding another kingdom altogether.
While architectural styles have changed, what remains is the ubiquitous presence of culture and the dominant force it exerts on all human beings. That reality is partnered with another—the clash of worldviews that grows out of differences within culture.
The case could be made that nowhere are these realities more evident than in the cultural subset of the arts. In particular, the visual arts (television and film) together with music and online content (think YouTube) wield a remarkable amount of influence on our world. Yet many would point to the conflicting values that underlie the arts and Christianity, drawing the conclusion that the two are incompatible. “Never the twain should meet” goes the argument.
This seeming tension becomes even more evident during the awards season. In the United States, every year begins with a slew of award shows including the Golden Globe Awards, the Grammy Awards and culminating in the grand Academy Awards. By one count 25 award shows centered on film and music in the month of January and February alone.
So how do we assess our relationship to and participation in these moments, during which modern culture’s most coveted recognition is awarded? And what perspectives can potentially guide our thinking on how we Christians relate to culture in general, and to the arts more specifically?
Perhaps a more appropriate place to begin is “in the beginning,” ages before the early church. “In the beginning,” reads Genesis 1:1, “God created
. . .” Among the realities we ought to grapple with is the one that describes God as one who creates, as one who is creative. Anyone who has experienced a fiery sunset would agree that God is an artist.
Moreover, history is witness to the fact that God does not reserve those abilities to Himself. Humankind was designed with the creative gene intact—a gift from the Creator who understands that artistic expression (in its many forms) is an important part of being fully alive.
Before discriminating between the way humans choose to express their creativity—which is necessary—it is important to realize that art in itself is not at odds with the Christian experience. In fact, artistry is very much in line with the identity of God, which He has intentionally passed along to us.
What then, in regard to the awards season, which highlights the most recognized expressions of creativity? Do we tacitly celebrate and appreciate every film, every song, every hit television series simply because its creators are using the very abilities that God has woven into our DNA?
Clearly not. Much of artistic expression generated by Hollywood and Nashville is laced with elements that have no beneficial or redemptive value. Many times gratuitous depictions of the human journey are included less to give an accurate view of life and more to drive viewership, to elicit a certain edge that will tap into fallen human nature. I would strongly argue that this approach is quite detrimental to society and would never advocate for it.
However, we would do well to recognize that many films and songs do indeed unveil important aspects of the human experience. Perhaps better said, they reveal aspects of the human experience that are important to the people of that time. In the film industry this is especially true of films nominated for the coveted Academy Award.
The arts offer a very real glimpse into humanity, and as Christians with a mission to reach people, that should interest us. As one author puts it: “When specific pieces of art, music, and literature resonate with the masses, it should provoke our attention and study.”1 He continues by pointing out the apostle Paul’s approach as he engaged with people throughout the Roman Empire. “In examining the things that their artists had created,” he writes, “Paul was able to exegete their culture and uncover the deep desires of their hearts.”2
If anything, the lineup of films and songs that have garnered the top spots should provide Christians with a timely insight into people. That insight, in turn, ought to shape the way we engage with society in our effort to further the message and mission of Christ.
The arts, though, are more than cultural mirrors. In essence they are simultaneously conduits for and representatives of current culture as well as formative agents of culture. They both describe and shape culture by reinforcing certain themes and norms.
Christianity has had its better days in understanding its role in this reality. Art historians, I imagine, would be the first to point out that Christian art dominated the cultural landscape of Western civilization, arguably, for the lion’s share of two millennia. As such, artists were able to focus public attention on various spiritual themes, influencing both discourse and norms.
To a great degree, within most Christian settings, this has changed. Influence opportunity has been replaced with a tendency toward separation—lest the church be somehow soiled by the arts.
And yet Jesus made a very specific request of the Father in His well-known prayer captured in John 17. “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one,” Jesus prayed (verse 15). Jesus understood that if the kingdom of heaven was to advance, His disciples would need to be in the world, anchored to Him and influencing society at the same time.
Along these lines, Paul again weighs in, this time in his letter to the Corinthians. “To those under the law I became like one under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law. . . . To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor. 9:20-22).
Neither Christ’s prayer nor Paul’s testimony encourages us to take in every creative expression on the horizon. Discretion, as well as a value system anchored in a biblical worldview, is critical as believers engage culture and the arts. And yet the commission we call great has not changed. We are still called to understand our world and influence it for Christ.
In years to come, as red carpets are rolled out, pay closer attention to themes and lyrics and ask some critical questions. What do they reveal about us? What insight do we gain into the human experience and better ways to connect with others? Give it a try. Eternity may just depend on it.
Costin Jordache is the Communication Director and News Editor for Adventist Review Ministries.