Now, even though I am free from obligations to others, I joyfully make myself a servant to all in order to win as many converts as possible. I became Jewish to the Jewish people in order to win them to the Messiah. I became like one under the law to gain the people who were stuck under the law, even though I myself am not under the law. And to those who are without the Jewish laws, I became like them, as one without the Jewish laws, in order to win them, although I'm not outside the law of God but under the law of Christ. I became "weak" to the weak to win the weak. I have adapted to the culture of every place I've gone so that I could more easily win people to Christ. I've done all this so that I would become God's partner for the sake of the gospel.
- 1 Cor. 9:19-23
I thank God I was raised by a nerd.
My Dad was an amazing man. To the world he was a great pastor. To the people that knew him he was a great friend and mentor. To our family he was a wonderful father and husband.
He was also a huge nerd, and I adored that about him.
My father loved fantasy, especially Lord of the Rings. He famously (in our family) had seen Empire Strikes Back 13 times in the theater. He loved good fiction, especially in movies and shows. He considered himself a Trekkie, once taking us on a family vacation to Las Vegas to visit a Star Trek exhibit. He loved to be transported to other worlds where his imagination could run wild. This culminated in him writing his own fantasy novel, thankfully finishing it before he died.
You really took your family to see me on family vacation? NERD ALERT...
What I really enjoyed about Dad's love of fantastical fiction was that he taught me to see value in it. We would regularly discuss how these stories could teach us aspects about God and life. Unlike most pastors in his generation, my father never bowed to the religious pressure of avoiding anything seen as "secular". He taught me that anything with redeeming value was worth consuming. And though my dad had very little grid for the prophetic, he knew God could speak through anyone at anytime.
Thanks to my father, my family never fell into one of the greatest failings of the American church: the total withdrawal from culture.
The last few weeks a number of new Christian films have released in theaters. This tends to be the yearly trend the month before Easter. Over the last few weeks Samson, I Can Only Imagine, and The Apostle Paul have come out. Being a pastor myself, I can tell you that many people in the church have excitedly run to these movies. The first two have turned out to be modestly successful. They've made money and have even garnered better reviews than most Christian films (of course, that's not hard to do...).
I have a confession to make, I haven't seen any of them. And while I actually have plans to see Paul I probably won't see the other two until they're on video, if I ever see them at all. Meanwhile I've seen Black Panther twice, and am already planning a trip to see Ready Player One on IMAX. My father's legacy of nerd-dom is alive and well.
There's a reason the Apostle Paul wrote that he became adapted to every culture he visited; he knew the greatest tool of evangelism was to connect with people on a personal level. In America the language is often pop culture, take it or leave it.
The Matrix, one of the best movies ever made, full of Biblical themes and a monster hit. Ignored by most Christians.
One of the biggest problems in the church has been its tendency to run away from culture instead of embrace it. The past 50 years in America have been especially egregious. Religious leaders in the 60s and 70s, recoiling in horror from the rebellion they saw in the youth during that time, completely withdrew their churches from the main culture. During that time we saw the rise of the Christian counter-culture. Christian TV, Christian movies, Christian fiction, Christian music, all these differentiated genres started up during that time.
Before that point in history, Christians just made movies. They just wrote music and books. There was no differentiation. All art, Christian or otherwise, was just art. And that is always how it was intended to be.
I'll be honest, I have a real problem with Christian pop culture. Let me be clear that I think movies with Christian themes can be awesome. I think music about people's walk with Jesus can be amazing. Some of my favorite books are full of obvious Christian themes (like Narnia). I think it's extremely valuable for people to express the beauty of their revelations about God through their artistic talents.
But Christian pop culture as its own stand-alone thing, is awful. By nature it excludes the rest of the world, which goes against the very nature of Jesus! Jesus sat at the dinner table with the "sinners" of his day, offending the Pharisees. Jesus didn't just hang out in the temple every second of every day. He didn't only eat with the religious. No, he was a man of the people, which is why they flocked to him despite the opposition of their religious leaders.
Why was The Passion of the Christ such a hit? To this day it still is the highest grossing R-rated and foreign language film of all-time. Before you answer "well it was about Jesus and people were attracted to that!" remember that the movie Son of God, also a modern Jesus movie, was a complete flop. What's the difference? Christian pop culture.
The Passion of the Christ wasn't produced by a Christian company for Christians. It was made by a Hollywood star who wanted to get raw. And boy is that movie raw! It holds back nothing. It's R-rated because Jesus' death was R-rated. It didn't water down to avoid offending the religious. And because it was free of the bondage of Christian genre culture it was something that 90% of Christian genre films/music/books are not. It was EXCELLENT.
I'll tell you why I'm not going to see Samson. I'm not going to see it because I know the story already. It's a wonderful story, full of action, intrigue, romance, and more. It would be an awesome movie! It could be like Gladiator or Braveheart. But I'm not going to see it because there is no excellence attached to it. I have no trust for the director of that movie nor the company that made Samson. I've seen their stuff, and I have no desire to support them anymore. I don't want to give my money to them to encourage them to keep making bad movies. Yes, I've heard Samson is better than most Christian films, and I'm glad to hear it, but that's not saying much. I don't trust Christian films to be good, so I'm not going to pay to see it at the theater.
I once heard this called the "greatest scene in movie history." Apparently this person had seen approximately 3 movies in their lifetime. My critic score: 6/10 for this scene, 2/10 for this movie.
But if Mel Gibson makes another movie about a Bible story, I'll be first in line!
I want to be clear. I love the Bible and I want its stories to be told. I love the movie Prince of Egypt, about Moses. It was produced by Steven Spielberg, the greatest director of all-time. It was excellent, and I loved it. So do my kids.
I love the Narnia movies. They are blatant in their Christian themes. They are also made excellently by a Hollywood studio. Not by a Christian culture company.
My favorite books of all time are Lord of the Rings. They were written by a devout Christian in J.R.R. Tolkien. I think they are the most excellently crafted fiction of all-time, full of Biblical values and life lessons. Yet you'll never find them in the Christian fiction section. (Tolkien books have actually been banned by many Christian schools and churches. So stupid!)
I love worship music, especially anything by Bethel Music, Hillsong, and Jesus Culture. Listening to these takes up almost all of my music listening time. But I haven't turned on K-Love or Christian radio in 10 years. The difference is excellence. The difference is culture. The worship I listen to is raw worship, made by churches and artists unrestrained by the conditions of Christian music companies. Most Christian music is designed not to offend, and in that it loses its power. I love Christians in bands like P.O.D, bands that didn't change to accommodate Christian pop culture. And as a result they impacted culture-at-large, and in the early 2000s they were one of the biggest bands in the world and were regularly played on "secular" radio. That's how you reach the world.
Art by Christians can change the world. Mozart was a Christian. So was Beethoven and Shakespeare. Rembrandt and Raphael were some of the greatest artists to ever live. Johnny Cash influenced a generation. U2, for a time the biggest band in the world, is openly full of Christians!
Ay Bono, do you regret not being on Christian radio? Why are you laughing?
Today Chris Pratt is one of the biggest stars in the world. He's a born again Christian. So is Denzel Washington. They aren't alone in Hollywood.
Tell me, who has more influence? Those who are going out into the world, or those refraining?
When I was 21 I read the passage in Cor. 9 that I put at the top of this blog. I read it and took it seriously, and from that point on I committed to knowing culture. And I've found that I love pop culture. I love films and have even been a film critic for a local paper. I also love music, especially 90s rock, classic rock, country, and R&B. I regularly listen to podcasts talking about the latest in pop culture, keeping me abreast of the latest stuff so I can know. All of this keeps me culturally relevant, and as a result I have yet to meet a person I have not found something to connect about.
When I worked at Starbucks and in restaurants I was never the "Christian guy" who didn't know how to relate. They knew I was a pastor. They knew I loved Jesus, but I'd wow them when I could sing the Nirvana song that was playing in the kitchen. The people I worked with loved that I could talk for hours about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I cared about the things they cared about. I was interested in the same thing. And while most of them didn't know Jesus, I was able to still love them. They trusted me. At the last restaurant I worked at I was labeled "my favorite pastor" by a guy who was openly Wiccan. Yet he loved me and even bought my book. I could talk to him about Jesus because I showed him that I was more interested in relationship with him that I was in being right. Many of the people there were agnostic, yet they'd let me pray for them when they were hurt or sick, and when some of them were healed it opened their hearts even more.
I have never been interested in being a part of the Christian genre culture, because I know from experience that it doesn't reach the lost. In fact, they couldn't be less interested.
Alright, who thought it'd be ok to remake one of the worst movies of all time (Left Behind)? And is that NICOLAS CAGE!? Is this a joke? Am I on Punk'd?
(Sorry Nic. Loved you in Matchstick Men though!)
To conclude, I am not putting down any person. I believe most people, if not all, who write Christian books, make Christian genre movies, or play music designed only for Christian radio, are wonderful people truly wanting to make a mark on the world. They are not the problem. The problem is the acceptance of something less than excellent in order to avoid offense. The problem is the mindset which says "secular=bad, Christian=good." The problem is religion, which convinces people to run away from culture. It's a spirit and a lie, meant to keep the church from truly impacting the world it was always meant to change.
The problem is the exclusion that Christian pop culture and genre has created. We don't need to be isolated as Christians, we need to be out in the world! We are the Salt! Salt doesn't just preserve, it flavors. We need to be able to speak to people about the things they love. We need to understand them, because we can't love them well otherwise.
My hope is that Christian genre and pop culture eventually cease to exist. That the greatest Christian artists once again seek to reach all of culture. That their songs are heard alongside Taylor Swift and their movies are the biggest blockbusters full of the biggest stars. It is then, and only then, when we will lead culture again. When we lead by excellence and trust that the best will rise to the top, as it always has.
If you like the latest Pure Flix or Hallmark movies, there's nothing wrong with that. Watch them and enjoy them! But if you like movies so much you should also see the other big hits. Know what the people are watching so you can relate to them.
If you love K-Love, awesome! Keep listening. But at least give the latest Taylor Swift a chance. It doesn't matter if you don't like it, it matters that you know about it.
We cannot afford to be culturally ignorant. No one wants to learn from a prude. No one is ever going to trust a church that is looking down on them. To love a people is to know them. We cannot love the world if we do not know it.
It's time we go back to following the example of Jesus and Paul. The church needs to learn to be all things to all people once again, as we were always intended to be. If Paul, the greatest missionary of all-time, saw the need to adapt to every culture he went to, who are we to think we know better?
Justin Carpenter has a passion for Christ and His body. Justin longs to see the body of Christ be equipped and sent out into all the world preaching the gospel of the kingdom with authority and power.