Redeeming Culture 101

“This major,” she said, “will ruin your life.”

Our class chuckled nervously at this goofy lady at the front of the room. It was our first class in the New Media program, and this was the first time that any of our instructors had said anything so grave.  “I’m serious. New Media teaches you to look at movies, TV, music, that sort of thing, with a critical eye. You’ll never be able to just watch ever again.”

Two years later, as my roommate and I rewound thirty seconds of the same film over and over, trying to figure out how they shot the darn thing, I realized that she was right.

The reason I tell you this story is simple: because I’m about to ruin your life.  Over the past few months, we’ve been redeeming various forms of culture with you; today, for our first post of 2015, I’m going to show you how to do it yourself.

There are four things to remember before you get started, though:

  1. It’s all about Jesus.  If you’re not pointing to Him and giving Him glory, then you’re just engaging in mindless entertainment.
  2. Bible First.  Going along with that, if you aren’t steeped in God’s word, you’ll come up with some weird and crazy stuff.
  3. Pray, pray, pray.  Ask for God to send the Holy Spirit to illuminate your heart and show you where Jesus is present.
  4. There is truth there.  You just have to find it.

Redeeming Questions

A good way to redeem culture is to ask the right questions.  The answers to the following should point you in the right direction:

  1. What do I like about this?
    God has wired our hearts to resonate with certain story and narrative elements.  Because of that, the best and most popular cultural narratives resonate with that story most strongly.  We don’t just like something – we like it for a reason.  That reason is different for every piece of culture, and can be different for each person, but figuring out why you like something will give you a clue as to why it resonates in your heart.
  2. What universal desires or dreads does this address?
    When Paul visited Athens in Acts 17, he told the Athenians at the Areopagus, he quoted some of their own poetry back to them.  “In him we live and move and have our being,” he quoted, along with “for we are indeed his offspring.”  Paul knew that a desire to be loved by a good father is universal to everyone.  Keep your eyes open for these universal feelings.
  3. What questions does this bring up?
    In asking these questions, you may find that the cultural work in question brings up more questions. That’s good. For instance, Paul in Athens hit upon a big question that the Athenians had: “who is the unknown god, and how can we please him?” You may not be able to answer the question, but simply asking it can point you in the right direction.
  4. How is this story like The Story?
    Of course, before you can answer this question, you’ll have to know what The Story is. The story of the Gospel is a deep and important one, but it all boils down to four events: God made, man fell, God redeemed, God will restore. Paul was able to answer that question, because he knew that the story of the unknown god was actually interwoven with the real God. That unknown god, he said – the reason that they were never satisfied with the massive pantheon they worshiped – was the God who created the Universe, who placed a desire for himself deep in their hearts, and who draws all men to Himself.
    Look here for:

    • How a character is like or unlike the characters in The Story (God, humanity, the church)
    • How a relationship is like or unlike the relationship between us and God, or among humans
    • Similarities between this story and Bible stories – what is the message of THAT story?

What if the answers aren’t correct?

That’s ok.  Remember:

  1. There is no perfect analogy.
    Even Jesus, perfect though He was, didn’t tell analogies that never broke down. The parable of the sower is great, but in that analogy, what happens to the seeds that stay in the farmer’s bag? What about the ones that fall on the good soil but don’t bear fruit? Remember that analogies are useful to convey truth, but they are not themselves true. The best of them all break down somewhere.
  2. Sometimes even good analogy doesn’t line up perfectly.
    Similarly, remember that in culture, some differences show up between culture and The Story. When that happens, you have a couple of options.

    • Ignore the differences. Sometimes the differences don’t matter to correctly redeem culture. True, Jesus doesn’t have a mane, but that doesn’t mean that Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia is any less valid as an echo of Christ. His similarities are stronger than his weaknesses.
    • Use the differences. Sin warps the good things that God has given, and the way it does so reveals a lot about God’s nature and the effects of sin. Point them out and bring them to the forefront: in Ender’s Game, Ender has a dark side that Christ doesn’t have; Jesus is perfect, but Ender succumbs to temptation. You can use this to show how important it is that Jesus resisted Satan’s temptation.

Watch out!

There are some pitfalls to keep an eye open for.

  1. Don’t make the Bible say what it doesn’t say.
    Just because it’s in a movie doesn’t mean it’s true. This doesn’t mean you can’t redeem it; it just means you may need to focus on a different aspect of the culture to redeem. Or use the differences!
  2. Don’t make the culture say what it doesn’t say.
    This comes across as insincere or untruthful at best, and a Jesus Juke at worst. It harms a good message. Don’t have an agenda.
  3. Irredeemable Culture
    There are very few things in culture that are truly irredeemable. There are some things that shouldn’t be redeemed – that is, things whose negative content outweighs the positive things that you can glean from redeeming it (pornography being a primary example). However, keep in mind:

    • Personal conviction. If it’s something you don’t feel right about experiencing, don’t watch or read it just to try and redeem it.
    • Others’ convictions. Don’t cause a brother to stumble; if it’s something that other people don’t feel right about, don’t make them experience it.
  4. “My way or the Highway”
    Culture isn’t scripture, and there’s more than one way to redeem it. Don’t assume that the truths you’ve gleaned from secular culture are the only ones that are there. You can learn a lot from the insights of others.

Go do it!

Start redeeming culture today. What can your bus ride say about God? How about the precipitation falling around you, or the love you feel for your family? Just remember:

  1. It’s all about Jesus.
  2. Bible First.
  3. Pray, pray, pray.
  4. There is truth there.  You just have to find it.
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2 thoughts on “Redeeming Culture 101

  1. Wow, there is a lot to learn here, even after all the times I’ve attended Film and Theology.
    I’m only a little facetious when I ask, Is there a workbook that comes with this post? 🙂

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