Several years ago I was honored to be able to participate In Globe International’s missionary certification program. It was a challenging and exciting experience. One night, I forget which, the guest lecturer discussed the ways in which a missionary would go about his or her business. At some point a question was asked and the response led to a discussion on the importance of learning and understanding the culture in which the missionary was sojourning. The speaker said something to the effect that “we have too many missionaries out there content that their culture is the right one; and unable or unwilling to learn how to tell the Gospel story in the language of their surrounding culture.”
That comment struck me like a brick hurled off the highest precipice. As someone called to live out the Gospel in America was I also called to learn about and understand the American culture? The question loomed. I was reminded of all the pastors and church workers I have met who were proud of their lack of knowledge about pop culture. “I don’t watch TV.” “I don’t listen to that kind of music.” “I don’t attend ‘R’ rated movies.” “I don’t have a clue who this person or that person is.” This statements have peppered my conversations at conferences and events across the US. Always the speaker spoke with a smug look of the holier-than-thou variety. And if the speakers or participants did mention some bit of pop culture detritus; it was to show how silly or stupid or crass our culture is. Many of my Evangelical cohort may not be sure of who the AntiChrist is; but most are sure when he comes, he will come from Hollywood.
No set of statements more closely reveals the how and why of America’s divorce with the church and Evangelical world. Up until the 1920s the church provided the animating stories for our culture and with each new wave of technology, it was the Evangelical who counted among the early adopters of said tech. From the printing press to the radio, Evangelicals were the first to use their new means of propagating the message of Christ. Yet in the 1920s the church seemingly threw up its hands and walked away. In many ways we have never come back (not really).
Yes, we have created our own cultural milieu with its own book stores, music, and movies; but as far as creating the kind of stories that impact all areas of America in the way that say Stephanie Meyer has with Twilight or Stephen King has with his TV and books or JJ Abrams has dominated the world with his cross platform multimedia empire, no. The closest thing we have is U2 or Bruce Springsteen or Stephen Colbert; each of whom are good Christian men who have had an impact but one that is on terms no Christian company would ever allow.
So I encourage you faithful reader to do something about this. I urge you to take time to watch 2 nights of telly in the next month. Watch the Grammys tonight. Watch the Oscars next month. Watch and enjoy. But please as you watch do not do with a holier-than-thou frown. Do not watch and judge all this silliness and tackiness. Do not yell about the artists who express differing views of life than you.
+ Watch for conversation partners. There is a great bit wrong but there are a great bit that are doing things, asking questions, and seeking answers. There are people out there who are looking to engage their audience and discuss the hard truths of life. Engage these artists. I have so learned so much about the Gospel through the songs of artists like Arcade Fire, or Frightened Rabbit. Neither of these are Christians but in their struggles I have found my struggles just viewed from a different angle. And this different angle has provided a chance for self-reflection that has deepened the hard work of prayer and bible reading.
+ Watch for opportunities to express the Gospel in the language of America. Regina Specktor has a great song about Samson. Many of the songs written by Craig Finn of the Hold Steady or Patterson Hood of the Drive By Truckers include saints and sinners recognizable to all of us. Listening in on these stories I see myself and my world more clearly. As Craig sings about the Resurrection of a drug-addicted prostitute I am about to enter into the story of Mary and Christ. Or when Patterson sings about the trials of a former drug dealer, I am able to enter into the story of the woman with bleeding for years. Craig and Patterson have an unique abilty to make others story our story and this is a gift. One we should celebrate, and emulate.
+ Watch for opportunities to experience joy and transcendence. I have had some great experiences in worship; but one of the most real moments of being able to transcend the troubles of this world came at the end of a Bon Iver concert. Similarly the works of Radiohead, and Fleetwood Mac have been known to transport me right out of my car and leave me crying tears of joy, sadness, and anger all at once. The Lumineers and Mumford have been known to snap me out of a funk caused by a bad day and transport me into a place of peace and joy.
There are of course some that would tell you that because the Bible is important, nothing else is. But I tell you that because God’s word and Word have come to us; all of us is important. All joy is God’s joy. All truth is God’s truth. All beauty is God’s beauty. All excellence is God’s excellence. The missionary and runner Eric Liddell has been quoted this way: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” The same can be seen in art.