Why Christians Are Not Ready for a Mainstream Gay Film - Part 4 - The Part-Time Critic

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Why Christians Are Not Ready for a Mainstream Gay Film - Part 4

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, 


Summary So Far:
This series of posts has been my attempt to inquire into what Christian responses would come from the inevitable gay character or story line in a major franchise blockbuster film. In the first post, I encouraged us to not underestimate the impact of this cultural moment, as I think it will represent a major cultural shift in an area, blockbuster franchises, that has been a major unifying force in secular society.  In the second post I explained that many Christians will respond with moral outrage, boycott, and a renewed emphasis on creating an alternate Christian sub-culture. I believe this retreatist reaction would be intellectually naive and an act of hypocrisy. In the third post, I contended that while the retreatist position is a genuine threat, the majority of Christians (based on recent history) would respond by just assimilating to the change through vocal approval or quiet acquiescence. So when the moment comes that Marvel announces its first major gay character, what would a faithful Christian response look like? If we shouldn't retreat or just accept it, what should we do? 

To help answer this question while also giving some practical guidance, I will write the rest of the post as a list, a list of "10 Commitments for Faithful Engagement of Secular Culture". If one wanted to make them sound even more religious, let's say they are the "10 Commandments of Engaging Secular Culture." Let's go.


TEN COMMITMENTS FOR FAITHFUL ENGAGEMENT OF SECULAR CULTURE

1. Cause: Make Loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength the mission for engaging with secular culture.
The very first commitment a Christian should make in engaging with secular culture (watching blockbusters, listening to pop radio, etc.) is that it is first and foremost about worshiping God. It is not primarily about entertainment, refreshment, education, staying connected, or any myriad of reasons people provide for why they do it. The entire task of engaging with secular culture must be seen as an extension of loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.

I am convinced that we cannot fulfill the mission to bring the truth, beauty, and goodness of the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the entire world and make disciples unless we engage with secular cultures. For the Christian, Christ is the ultimate example. Humanity, writ large, has created a culture that is a mix of truth/untruth, beauty/ugliness, goodness/evil. It was into that culture (specifically Jewish, Roman, and Greek) that God himself took on flesh and lived among us, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Christ lived and engaged in the culture he found himself in, not simply out of duty or entertainment, but as a natural outflow of God's love.

If we are to love God and bring glory to his name then we are to obey his commands and follow his example. For the Christian, our lives are now in service of Christ's mission. Does this mean that we can't get pleasure or education through secular culture? Of course not. It can be healthy to laugh at television sitcoms, be thrilled during a fight for the cosmos in a Marvel film, or enjoy the rhythm and melody of a top 40 song. This first commitment means that those should always be the byproducts and never the prime product. The faithful Christian must be vigilant, for the moment they make their entertainment or their reputation as someone who is "up to date with culture" more important than loving God is when they have begun down the path of cultural assimilation or retreat.  

2. Criterion: Make the Triune God of the Bible your source of all truth, beauty, and goodness.
A natural and logical outflow of the first commitment is the adoption of the Triune God as the standard from which to evaluate secular culture. The historical narratives, theology, poetry, epistles, and prophecy of the Bible reveal a Triune (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) God that is the true, beautiful, and good Creator of the universe. Communal and personal encounters with God also help affirm to the Christian these universal attributes of God. It is no surprise then that when the Christian turns to God's creation that they also find truth, beauty, and goodness. 

However, despite a creation initially made right, it was through humanity's rebellion (failure to follow commitment #1 essentially) that God's creation is now a place where truth and untruth, beauty and ugliness, goodness and evil now mix together. In order to discern what the world should look like - how to set it right again - the Christian must look to the Triune God as the standard. This doesn't mean that everything coming from outside Christianity is wrong - not at all. However, it does mean that everything is evaluated in light of the Triune God: what is love? what is mercy? what is community? For the Christian watching Marvel's next movie, there will undoubtedly be explicit or implicit claims about the nature of true love, the meaning of life, or any other major question life poses. The faithful Christian must be vigilant to examine the truth, beauty, and goodness of secular culture in light of the Triune God, in light of our example in Christ. 

3. Convictions: Make efforts to develop an increasingly mature worldview that is founded upon and nourished by the gospel story.
Examining secular culture in light of the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Triune God is a lot easier said then done. For example, what exactly am I supposed to think about explicit lyrics in songs? Do I just say, "What would Jesus do?" and reason that if Jesus wouldn't listen to it, then I wouldn't? However, when I read the Gospels, I see that Jesus often conversed and dined with people who probably used course language. Though we can certainly find worthwhile principles from how cultural issues are handled in the Bible, we must acknowledge that many of the hard questions (Can we watch R-rated films? Is it okay to listen to an explicit song if I just listen for the beat? Can we dance or is it too sexual?) we ask about contemporary secular culture just aren't always directly answered (often we are asking the wrong questions to begin with).

This is why Christians must commit to developing a Christian worldview that makes the gospel the center (commitment #2), but is able to wisely extend the truth, beauty, and goodness of the gospel into today and tomorrow's culture. This is no easy task and this is why Christian education, inside and outside the church, is vital. To develop mature gospel-centered views on our culture requires a life-long commitment to developing the mind. It requires a life-long commitment to allow Christian mentors, teachers, and people of expertise to help inform you. It requires a life-long commitment to develop a community of friends sharing your same mission to converse with you and challenge/encourage your views. 

In my worldview Bible class, I like to give students multiple chances to evaluate secular culture - asking what is true, beautiful, and good in it. I enjoy using Sam Smith's song "Stay With Me" as a good example of the difficulty of the task.  In our discussion, some are quick to point out that we shouldn't listen to it because it's written by a gay man while others just say, "It's a catchy song, it's good, why think any deeper?" Prying further, I ask the class what the song is primarily about, "Why is he asking people to stay with him?" Eventually they catch on that the song is primarily about how empty one-night stands are, how Smith realizes they aren't real love and won't stop his pain, but they are better than being alone. "Is that true" I ask the class and almost always get a "Yes!" "Does that mean we listen to it?" - mixed response follows. I imagine that if I was able to continue this exercise with students on a weekly basis for the next decade, they would develop much more mature responses to any TV show, film, or song they consumed. 

In short, in order to accomplish the difficult task of evaluating secular culture in the light of the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Triune good, the faithful Christian makes a life-long commitment to developing a Christian worldview that is informed by a community of friends, mentors, and teachers. 

4. Critical: Make the effort to critically engage with any secular culture you consume.
I think the biggest reason why most Christians assimilate to secular culture is because they are directly or indirectly unwilling to critically engage it. Many Christians believe that it's just too much of a hassle, will make them look like a Pharisee, or will just ruin the entertainment value. For my answer to those Christians, I think they should go back and read commitment number one. Other Christians just feel ill-equipped to critically engage  - not knowing what to say beyond, "I liked it" or "It didn't bother me." I think those Christians have mostly ignored commitment number three.

The faithful Christian engages with secular culture critically. There should be a curiosity, and in my opinion, optimism in approaching any kind of culture - "What truth, beauty, and goodness can I possibly find here!?" This curiosity and awareness sets the tone for the Christian to then contemplate what they are engaged with, sift and evaluate it appropriately, and then react accordingly.  

In my sophomore year of college I began to take a great interest in critically evaluating films, thinking I might have a future as a film reviewer. To get better at critiquing films, I used to bring a notepad into the cinema and jot my thoughts down as I watched. I then devoured reviews by critics and made note of the types of questions they asked and things they focused on. After a couple of years of this I eventually stopped bringing the notepad and reading less and less critics. Why? I didn't need them anymore - my mind now naturally took notes and asked hard questions while I was watching the movie. Although it was unnatural at first to watch movies critically, it was something I began to train myself to do. I've done it so well and so often now that I can't imagine watching movies any other way. 

The faithful Christian will spend a life-time learning and developing a Christian worldview, and to do this they must learn to think critically about art and culture: how to interpret songs, films, shows, etc. This does not mean that every Christian is required to become full-blown culture critics. It means that being faithful to the call of Christ is to be aware and critical of the cultures we are engaged with. It means that we are not simply consumers, but we are listeners. For how can one influence a culture they haven't even listened to?

5. Celebrate: Make the effort to celebrate what is true, beautiful, and good.
It is only the Christian that has committed to critically evaluating secular culture who can truly celebrate what is true, beautiful, and good in it. As stated before, a Christian that celebrates and enjoys secular culture without being rooted in the truth, beauty, and goodness of Christ is not really celebrating, they are merely being fashionable. Many Christians mistake their enjoyment of secular culture ("I love Game of Thrones too!") for celebration. For the faithful Christian, critical evaluation must always precede celebration. I would recommend that the more specific the celebration is the better. A blanket claim of "Seinfeld is a good show" is less helpful than "Seinfeld has a way of pointing out the absurdity of so many of our relationships and practices. The way the show portrays the characters as reaping what they sow is truthful as well." 

The more Christians are able to celebrate the specific truth, beauty, and goodness of secular culture, the more we are able to find common ground with non-believers. As people begin to see where Christianity and secular culture overlap in good ways, they can give Christianity a fresh look or understand why a particular show or song carried so much power or gave them so much hope. The faithful Christian is not afraid to celebrate the true, beautiful, and good wherever they may find it.

6. Condemn: Make the effort to condemn what is false, ugly, and evil.
Just as the faithful critical Christian is not afraid to celebrate, they should not be afraid to condemn. I know that word conjures up very negative connotations of angry picket sign-holders, but that's not what I am intending here. What I mean is that Christians should not be afraid to call out falseness, ugliness, and evil when they see it. If a song or movie presents a false idea (i.e. life is about money), treats something ugly as beautiful (i.e. sexual objectification of women), or calls something good that is evil (i.e. having sex with multiple partners), then Christians should say it - they should condemn it as such. 

7. Charity: Make the effort to celebrate and condemn with humility and love.
Critically evaluating culture is not easy (see commitments #3 and #4). Because we are always learning, growing, and are afflicted by many biases, we should always be humble in our celebrations and in our condemnations. I once heard it said that we should hold those views with confidence, but hold them lightly. I like that. There are many times you will evaluate culture and not be sure if it's worthy of celebration or condemnation, and that's okay. Do your best to articulate your views with charity and allowing for other possible positions or arguments you did not consider. A faithful Christian not only seeks to evaluate secular culture, but to do so in clear, loving, and humble language. I firmly believe, this is one of the best ways we can be salt and light to our world.

8. Conversation: Make the effort to have conversations with others.
Not only should we engage with secular culture, but we should engage other people with it too. Remember, the Christian's ultimate goal is the worship of God and we engage with secular culture not just for ourselves, but so that we can connect and share Christ with others. Let's say Marvel announces their first gay character. You go and see the movie and critically evaluate it in light of the Christian worldview you have developed. Depending on your circumstances, you can use this as an opportunity to talk and converse with your Christian and non-Christian friends about this cultural event. Let's say you share with your friends that there is much to celebrate but also take a moment to voice your concern that the movie portrays a sexual view that you believe is not beautiful or true. Another Christian friend disagrees with you and condemns the entire movie while another non-Christian friend celebrates the entire movie. What do you do?

First, I think it's a great first step that there is a critical discussion happening! Second, I think the best step forward is to converse as to your reasons for your views. This conversation should be done with humility and love - knowing that another person's view could help you see more clearly what is true, beautiful, and good. Third, with wisdom, humility, and love, make sure to draw your views (with the use of reason) back to your entire reason for being, your source for all that is true, good, and beautiful - the Triune God.

9. Cut: Make the hard decisions to cut out secular culture when needed.
I'm 35 years old and I'd like to think that I'm strong enough in my faith to consume anything the secular culture puts out and to be so objective and critically minded that it doesn't influence me. That's a fantasy. The faithful Christian must be aware of the quality and quantity of the secular culture they are consuming and the influence it has upon them. The easy example here is the presence of explicit sexual content in movies. I know I have to draw limits here as the images can strongly influence me in ways that override my number one commitment - loving God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. I don't always succeed at it, but I am getting better. For others, negative influences can come from the language and views expressed in popular songs, the views of marriage and sexuality present in television shows or novels - the point is to know yourself and your temptations/limitations.

We often consume so much secular culture through the social media, youtube, netflix, itunes, and other sources that we are like fish in water - unaware at how much we are surrounded with views contrary to our faith. In order to protect their primary commitment to God, the faithful Christian must balance their engagement with secular culture. If a Christian finds that their engagement is influencing them negatively and threatening their love and commitment to Christ, then the decision to cut out engagement should be made. This can be done for seasons and re-evaluated constantly. This would considered a "properly -ordered" and seasonal retreat.

10. Contribute: Make the effort to contribute to secular culture, not just to consume or criticize it.
Finally, rather than just being consumers and critics, the faithful Christian seeks to contribute to the secular culture. The intention here is to find common ground with the forms that secular culture take and use them as vehicles to share truth, beauty, and goodness. Christians should seek to be faithful cultural contributers wherever they are at in life: at the university, hospital, newspaper offices, business buildings, schoolhouses, movie studios,  etc.
In conclusion, I hope and pray that today and tomorrow's Christians see the folly in retreat and assimilation reactions to secular culture, and instead to choose the harder path of faithfully engaging. What would all ten of these commitments look like in relation to a major blockbuster franchise featuring a gay character or storyline? I have an idea, but I think we have to wait and see how that milestone is presented. When it does happen though, I hope we are all prepared and ready to love Christ through our loving conversations.


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