Disclaimer: This post is written from and assumes the historic Christian position on sexuality. It is not primarily interested in discussing validity of the position (for a decent overview of that position, see my summary of the book Mere Sexuality.) Rather, the focus is on how that historic position should interact with a wider culture that is increasingly challenging the historic Christian position from from outside and inside the Christian church.
Dear Christian Brothers and Sisters,
This series of posts is designed to share my thoughts on how the inevitable gay character or story line in a major franchise blockbuster film will bring challenges to evangelical Christianity and survey the possible responses that can be made. In the first post of this series I outlined why this cultural moment is not only inevitable but will be a major cultural challenge for Christianity. In the second post I explained why I believe a retreatist reaction from most Christians would be intellectually naive and an act of hypocrisy. In this post, I will examine the second major response most Christians make - assimilation - and why it is just as disastrous as retreat.
If I am being honest, I think the retreat response to cultural change has been increasingly marginalized within evangelical Christianity. I find that less and less, Christians have a stomach for boycotting, for getting cut off from secular culture, and for accepting art from a Christian subculture that is clearly derivative or inferior. There is still a significant impulse within evangelical Christians for a disordered and hypocritical retreat from secular culture, but that's just not the biggest threat I see going forward. The biggest threat facing evangelical Christians is assimilation. Rather than choose to fight and protest the change, the biggest threat will be for Christians to just give in and accept the change. When the disadvantages of a retreatist response are increasingly obvious and the benefits to accept cultural change are obvious and great, I believe most Christians will choose to assimilate to the new cultural norm with either vocal approval or quiet acquiescence.
This response is just as disastrous as the retreat response. Why? The assimilation response capitulates to culture change by laying down the greatest weapons a Christian can bring to secular culture: The ability to celebrate, critique, and create art that is true, beautiful, and good.
The Failure of the Assimilation Response:
To assimilate means to adapt - to absorb what is external to you and make it internal. There has always been pressure for Christians to assimilate - to make external cultural views and practices their own. The New Testament is replete with stories of people struggling to follow the call of Christ and stay faithful to his way in the midst of cultures calling them to opposing beliefs and practices. For ancient Christians, not participating in Roman temple practices, making sacrifices to the emperor cult, and other various issues were immensely difficult. Imagine your non-Christian neighbor gets news that their son was killed in a Roman battle and word spreads that the battle was lost because there are Christians in the city who refuse to please the Gods through sacrifice. Would you bow to the pressure?
In the last 100 hundred years, American culture - accelerated by the sexual revolution of the 1960's - has massively shifted their sexual views and practices. The acceptance and rise of co-habitation, divorce, pornography, and non-traditional marriages/partnerships has been relatively quick. When I was young boy, the vocal and public support of same-sex marriage becoming the law of the land would have been laughed out of the room. Heck, even President Obama saw the idea of gay marriage as not politically worthwhile in his first term (I don't believe his change of mind - I think he always supported it - just waited for the politically right time to show it). Now, the odds are that vocal and public support of opposition to same-sex marriage is likely to get shamed out of a room. The point here is not to litigate the legitimacy of either view, the point is to emphasize the massive cultural shifts in sexuality that have taken place over the last 100 years.
I'd like to think that Christianity has responded to these shifts primarily with the truth, beauty, and goodness of the historic Christian view of sexuality. Unfortunately, it seems more of the church has adopted (assimilated) the changing views of culture than the culture has adopted the views of the church. The growing affirmation of same-sex behavior and unions within American Christianity today is not a shocking turn within the history of a pure church, but part of a long line of cultural assimilation within a severely compromised church. Sometimes the assimilation is clear, as seen in churches changing their historical doctrines on marriage and sexuality. Most of the time though the assimilation is more in practice than in doctrine.
While holding to doctrines that uphold historic Christianity, many evangelical Christians live their lives in opposition to them. I don't mean they make mistakes, I'm not talking about that. We all make mistakes and sin. I'm talking about evangelicals who say sex should not be outside of marriage, yet continue to enjoy the secular hookup culture - of dating and enjoying multiple sexual partners. I'm talking about evangelicals that claim to uphold Christian views of sexuality yet craft disingenuous justifications so that they can support politicians who outwardly flaunt Christian views. I'm talking about evangelicals who claim biblical worldviews, yet adopt the secular view that sexual attraction defines our identity, sexual fulfillment comprises our meaning, and sexual restraint comprises an attack on freedom. Christians that uncritically consume media that celebrates infidelity, peddles sexual images for pleasure, objectifies human beings, sexualizes every aspect of life, and endorses ideologies and views about sexuality that Christ would find shameful.
This uncritical assimilation of secular culture has caused incredible damage to the church. Because the church is the primary vehicle that God uses to bring transformation to his world, uncritical assimilation is damaging to the world as well. Assimilation, just like retreatism, is cultural capitulation - both responses have given up on any true connection with the wider world; where retreatism runs, assimilation lays down. This capitulation is disastrous because is destroys the three major cultural avenues the Christian has becoming salt and light to the secular culture: celebration, critique, and creation of art that is true, good, and beautiful.
Celebration, Critique, and Creation:
The Christian believes they have discovered and experienced the bedrock of truth, beauty, and goodness in Jesus Christ. Christians, empowered and transformed by the Spirit of Christ, are sent forth to bring the truth, beauty, and goodness of Christ into all the world. This truth, where embraced, transforms this broken and hurting world. This community of Christians fulfilling this ultimate mission is what we call the Church. As Christians go throughout the world they encounter various cultures that to varying degrees reject and embrace Christian views.
But isn't acceptance and assimilation a form of celebration? Isn't the acceptance and enjoyment of shows like Modern Family or Stranger Things or Game of Thrones or The Bachelor a form of celebrating culture? No, not if your impulse is to uncritically assimilate to every cultural change. The ultimate issue between being faithful or unfaithful isn't the viewing of the show or the listening to the song, it's in how/why you view the show.
What makes something worthy of celebration? In general, standards are set for what it means to be loving, meaningful, worthy, honorable, etc. When something meets that standard - like a soldier laying down his life or a film encouraging us to live a better life - we celebrate it. As noted earlier, the standards of secular culture continue to shift and change like a whirlwind - such that a progressive for its time show like Friends can now be seen to be massively offensive. If the Christian simply assimilates to whatever the secular culture changes to then they have no real standard for celebration. All celebration becomes subjective and relative to the changing views of secular masses. Not only does the changing tides of secular culture make standards for celebration completely subjective, but it does so for standards of critique as well. A Christian that celebrates and enjoys secular culture without being rooted in the truth, beauty, and goodness of Christ is not really celebrating culture, they are merely being fashionable.
I believe that what gives the Christian the opportunity to be salt and light to the secular culture is because they refuse to be caught up in cultural fashions. Where an outside culture embodies or embraces the truth, beauty, and goodness of our world, Christians are called to celebrate it. Where an outside culture rejects the truth, beauty, and goodness of our world, Christians are called to critique it. For example, wherever art acknowledges the truth that sin is both ugly and attractive (a duality that Martin Scorsese is particularly good at) the Christian is right to celebrate it. However, where a culture veers from truth, beauty, and goodness - critique is called for. One could simultaneously celebrate a show like Seinfeld for finding the truth, beauty, and goodness in so much of life and relationships, but also critique it for its untruthful, ugly, and impoverishing views of life and relationships. Uncritical assimilation to secular culture forfeits the power to speak transformatively through celebrating and critiquing what is and isn't true, good, and beautiful.
Remaining connected to secular culture through faithful celebration and critique also allows a Christian to create their own truthful, beautiful, and good art not just as a counter (as in the retreatist response) but as a contribution to secular culture. One of the reasons The Passion of the Christ had the impact on the wider culture that it did was because it was presented not just from a subculture of Christianity, but as a contribution to the wider secular culture. If Christians are to fulfill their ultimate mission, we must remain connected to secular culture in a way that doesn't capitulate, but celebrates, critiques and contributes in transformative ways.
When the moment comes that Disney or Star Wars features their first main gay character, retreat or assimilation is not the faithful Christian response. So what does a faithful response look like? What should you specifically do with culture like that? That is the purpose of my final post in the series. I will outline several practical principles and steps you can take to be a faithful cultural consumer.