“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they may accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (I Pet. 2.12)
If it is true that we are moving beyond postmodernism into a neo-pagan culture, then the first thing we need to do is to evaluate the values and media of our culture. Further, if it is true that we are living that we are living in a neo-pagan culture, the next thing we must do is realize that we ourselves are neo-pagan too. We, the called out, do not live a-culturally. In a world in which everyone does what is right in his own eyes, the church is to hold a higher standard than the ethical disposition of culture, but we are still very much part of its rituals, its thought-processes, its desires.
Without this self-evaluation, we risk an inability to understand or to connect, and we earn (deserved) ridicule. Despite its frequent claims, the church today is not the same church as in the first century; rather, it is the product of the successes of 1950s and ‘60s Christianity. For instance, the 1950s church believed in a building for every congregation—a structural hold-over from pre-modern Catholicism. (We should note that some churches are starting to stray from this model because of the logistical trappings of budgets and property ownership interfering with their stated church mission). It also attempts to erect a church in every city, a political distinction that carries very little spiritual importance but assumes growth is related to proximity. Many churches hold Sunday evening services, a concept invented during the industrial revolution when the departure from agricultural work and toward factory work required some people to labor on Sundays. None of these are essential to church-iness, yet many Christians defend these elements as if they were sacrosanct. If we continue to maintain the pretension of first-century Christianity, assuming some changeless a-historical identity, we will widen our cultural gap and find ourselves doing 1950s Christianity—and doing it badly.
Some syncretism with the culture is unavoidable—and to an extent, desirable. An impotent a-syncretism leads us down the same road as Tertullian, screaming “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?!” while complete syncretism fades the volume of Christianity to the same level as every other voice. Proper syncretism means taking “from the spoils of Egypt,” those things true, good, and beautiful in culture and abandoning the rest. This was exactly Augustine’s model when it came to studying pagan literature. Knowing we cannot divorce ourselves from culture, he suggested we should use the language of the culture (i.e. art) to convey a more sufficient worldview. Were Augustine living in the 21st century, he would advocate using the language of mass communication (i.e. entertainment) to then communicate the truth of Christ. This does not mean we synchronically embrace change uncritically (nihilistic, revolutionary postmodernity); but neither do we reject change uncritically (as if we were still living in modernity). We should critically examine change and be willing to experiment with new methods of sharing and living out the Gospel. Ideally, we want evolutionary, not revolutionary, change—that is, change that is still anchored to history rather than removed from it. Evolutionary change will not forcefully take over pop culture via Christian sub-cultural media or legislation. It will slowly transform it, baptize it, and use it for the Kingdom through engagement in the overall culture.
In this respect, Christianity is—and should be viewed as—an intellectual movement as much as it is a personal faith. It elevated man out of the ashes of pagan immorality in the first century because it provided a rational view consistent with the understood universe. Being the power to salvation for both Jew and Greek, it consistently remained the dominant worldview for roughly two thousand years of Western culture. And it elevates man even today out of contradictory worldviews that cannot account for the human spiritual and psychological need for purpose and meaning.
What movements need are articulate voices—the minds of educators and the hearts of evangelists—and we will need no less to reintroduce the world to Christianity. We need to restore the role of robust, reasonable faith in each of the academic disciplines and re-educate the culture with the practical results of the Christian worldview. We must show our neighbors that not all beliefs can be equal, just as not all consequences are equal (racial science can lead to eugenics just like Christian dogmatism can lead to tyranny). We must show our neighbors that there needs to be an external standard for our beliefs (otherwise I will be easily led to Buddha or to fascism or to meaninglessness). And we must show our neighbors the anti-humanistic philosophies inherent in New Age Theology, Hinduism, and Marxism and contrast them with the personal God of scripture (for God is love). Most of all, we must show our neighbors a life of love and godliness so that the pagans may see our good deeds and glorify God.
The reintroduction of Christianity doesn’t need rebranding or repackaging. If the problem really is that we haven’t been engaged—that we have been sleeping—then the call is to wake up and to strategically take the message wherever we can. The most immediate solution is to do so personally: with people living next door. The long-term solution is to do so institutionally—at home and in the church.
Since popular culture is what we’re already swimming in, then we should pay particular attention toward our teens and young adults, who are the targets of pop cultural media. People watch Family Guy, Game of Thrones, and Twilight not because of prurient elements but simply because the stories are entertaining. Entertainment is the key: it taps into the human condition of comedy and tragedy, which is why it is so universally attractive to all people. And as entertainment has always existed, though perhaps not to the volume it is set at today, we have several options.
On the one hand, we can vainly attempt to keep our children from consuming bad art and entertainment. This tactic should be employed at home for some things that have no value: mindless productions like Jackass and Kick Ass (generally all things having to do with the posterior that motivate us to behave like beasts), reality shows, and nearly everything on music television. By itself, however, censorship will have no effect, especially if they can consume entertainment at a friend’s house. And when they are grown, they will consume whatever they want with little regard for its impact on their minds, hearts, and souls.
Or we can try to create our own morally-upright sub-culture. We can further insulate ourselves by reading Christian fiction or even by creating Christian film. But morally-upright culture, without proper artistic education, will just become morally-upright, bad art.While I enjoy films like Facing the Giants for its God-centered characters and practical moral living, its horribly bad acting and overly optimistic plotlines eliminate it for contention as serious art. It may be good but it is not beautiful—and therefore is not good. Its Christian moral message is undercut by its un-Christian lack of excellence. But The Dark Knight can be even more Christo-centric than Fireproof if we search for the God-given truth at work within it that makes it good—and therefore beautiful and true. But we cannot merely watch The Dark Knight for entertainment purposes nor Facing the Giant for its family-friendly viewing. Insulating ourselves will still keep us from having a seat at the intellectual discussion.
We would do best, I believe, to train our children and students to identify worldviews and teach them how to analyze and defeat them. But we will have to change the way we think. We need to enjoy thinking analytically. If entertainment is available without thought, we need to cultivate ourselves so that thinking is entertaining. We will need to look at every experience with our children as a potential moment for instruction. We will also have to change the way we live. We weep and wail about Noah because someone might believe it or because it is not faithful to the Biblical narrative or because we feel our faith is under attack. But do we know the worldview behind the film? Are we robustly engaged in not only its faithful adherence to scripture but also in what ideas emanate from the story? Better, what worldview are we living out at home? Worrying about the state of the culture is nowhere near as effective as examining the state of our homes: evaluating how much TV we consume, how we make ethical decisions, if we play an instrument and encourage our children to do so, if we read good books, and the like. By first saving ourselves from cultural decay, we will (forgive the cliché) transform the world.
While we don’t need to rebrand our faith, we do need to re-envision how we practice it. We need first of all to listen (really listen) to the voices of culture expressed in music and film. This will require us to selectively filter through the noise to find those harmonies that communicate the truth. And since all truth is God’s truth, we should be able to then connect Philip the Evangelist to Philip Seymour Hoffman, George Lucas to St. George, and Plato to Plotinus. We should also become active participants in the cultural dialogue, using our talents to create and disseminate morally-upright, beautiful art as a means of glorifying God. Make music, write hymns for use in worship, write poetry, teach classes. These creative talents are not only beneficial to mankind, but they are essential for developing analytical skills within ourselves that will also help us to reason lovingly with the unbeliever. This is not easy; just like learning a foreign language takes time, so too will disciplining ourselves to be salt and light. But through the process and on the journey we become useful tools for the Kingdom, relevant to the world and beautiful reflections of God.
The problem is not the media. The problem is not that we need more Christian media. The problem is that we are men and women without culture. We are only going to become cultured people when we learn to apply the grace of Christ to every aspect of our lives. When we do this well, as Paul and his successors in the centuries after him did, the Parthenon will crumble once again and in its place will stand a vibrant church.
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This essay is a conclusion of a series of essays on postmodernism and neo-paganism. While some of what is written is original to me, many of these insights come from John Mark Reynolds, the writers and thinkers at Biola University, and the countless authors studying worldviews and laboring to gain an authentic Christian voice in culture. It is to them that I owe these thoughts and my thanks.