Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Christians, Culture, and Beauty and the Beast

In every age of history, Christians have had to wrestle with the issue of how to exist as a godly witness within their own culture. There are essentially three positions we can take.

1. To fully embrace culture as the place and time in which God has placed us and to just flow with the times.
2. To isolate ourselves from the culture, keeping ourselves clean, holy, and entirely separate from those within our culture, while society drifts further and further from righteousness.
3. To engage the culture in which we live, remaining a part of the larger society, while not accepting a personal compromise of biblical standards. 

To use another author's summary, Christians will receive, reject, or redeem their culture.

Which of these positions is right for a Christian? To start with the low-hanging fruit, the first position cannot be correct. It is too easily refuted by the clear teachings of Scripture and the warnings of Jesus. He said, "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (Jn 15:18-20). The apostle John wrote these words of Jesus into his gospel, but then repeated the theme in the first of his epistles to be sure that Christians didn't miss it: "Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you" (1 Jn 3:13). If a Christian fully embraces culture, accepting all of its twists and turns, no matter how corrupt or contrary to God's Word, he will be fully embraced by that society, but he will not be living as a faithful disciple of Jesus.

The second position is one that Christians commonly take. "Go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you" (2 Cor 6:17). "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 Jn 2:15). "They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world" (Jn 17:16). "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: . . . to keep oneself unstained from the world" (Jms 1:27). These are the type of verses commonly quoted to defend this position. A Christian's chief job is to keep himself clean, pure, and holy. This requires that he remove himself from anything that could defile his holiness. These Christians attempt to create their own subculture or counterculture within the world. They create "a Christian bubble." They will live in their Christian homes, attend their Christian churches, work their Christian jobs, study in their Christian schools, play on their Christian sports teams, and - in my view - live, work, and die having little to no impact on the lost world around them. Let the world go to hell; we will stay clean on our way to heaven. Nobody else will make it to heaven because of their lives. The only contact they have with the lost in the world is a guarded, condemning, self-righteous interaction - perhaps sharing a tract or pushing for repentance, but seeking only conversion or moral reform.

It is obvious by now that I believe in the third position. It is the only position that considers all of Scripture, in its proper context, the comprehensive plan of God for the world, and the very reason that we Christians are left here in the world at all - to make disciples of all peoples. This purpose requires contact - close contact. One of our responsibilities as Christians is to keep our lives holy and pure, but this relates to personal character and does not require isolation from our culture. The very sinners who most need to witness your godly conduct and hear your gospel message are not going to come to you in your "Christian bubble." From the time Jesus issued the Great Commission to his followers, he changed his evangelistic strategy from the "come and see" model he used with Israel to a "go and show" model with the Church. This is the proper understanding of the Christian's "in the world, but not of the world" mentality. It is not "in the world, but isolated from it." In Jesus' prayer for his followers in John 17, quoted out of context above, our Lord specifically prayed, "I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one" (Jn 17:15). He even clarified his prayer further, saying "As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself" (Jn 17:18-19). That is it! That is our position in a nutshell. The Greek word used there for consecrate is the same root word translated holiness. Jesus did not compromise his personal holiness by living in close contact with sinners. That was the accusation made repeatedly by the Pharisees (the religious people in their isolationist Christian bubble!). "This man receives sinners and eats with them" (Lk 15:2). "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner" (Lk 7:39). But Jesus sent us into the world to engage the people in the world with his gospel, while keeping our own lives aligned with his standards of personal holiness. He said to us, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden" (Mt 5:14). Our light is to be set "on a hill," in the place that it is the most visible to the world. Christians who seek to isolate themselves from the culture are those who "light a lamp and put it under a basket," rather than "on a stand" so it can "give light to all in the house" (Mt 5:15).

So as Christians, I believe, our job is to engage the culture. We are to live in it - close to it. We are to intentionally find ways to be close to the unsaved, the lost, the sinners. Yet our lives are to be markedly different from theirs. 

The current debate over Disney's remake of their "Beauty and the Beast" film is just another example of how Christians treat cultural engagement. The first group embraces Disney, the film, and all it is seeking to promote. It accepts the "exclusively gay moment" as just something else our culture has embraced. The second group is all up in arms about the film. How could Disney do this? Why must they ruin a classic film our family has loved for years? These are the boycotters. We won't stand for this! Make a statement to Disney! Fight for righteousness in our culture! Stay away and make Disney regret their decision to push forward the LGBTQ agenda. Dive back into your Christian bubble and let the world go to hell with its sinful values. The third position is where I find myself on this movie. 

In every culture, a discerning Christian can find redemptive motifs within different elements of culture that can be used as powerful catalysts in helping the lost world to understand the gospel message. Anyone who has read the work of Don Richardson will be familiar with the concept of "redemptive analogies," as illustrated in his books Peace Child and Eternity in Their Hearts. This idea is based upon the doctrine of general revelation - that God has put within the heart of all men a general sense of his existence, a sense that something has gone wrong in the world, and an ingrained hope for redemption. Even where this general revelation is rejected in the hearts of men, they will inevitably incorporate elements of this hope into some aspects of the myriad cultures that they develop in the world. If we as Christians can pick out these redemptive analogies, they offer an open platform for discussion and the opportunity for gospel engagement.

I myself have not yet seen the movie and am not yet settled on whether or not we as a family will watch or own the film. But I was so thrilled this morning to read the following article and hear a different Christian perspective on the movie. And I agree wholeheartedly with the position of noticing redemptive motifs within culture that can serve as a gateway to engaging the lost in our world with the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ!

I encourage all of you Christians in America to read this article and to consider your position in relation to Beauty and the Beast. Whether or not you will watch it with your family, for your own entertainment, or explain to your children why you cannot watch it, the fact remains that the world is talking about it. The culture is loving it. And the end of this film depicts a powerful, emotional, moving expression of the despair of death and the hope of resurrection. It displays the happy ending that all sinners are hoping for, but none will encounter without Jesus. I implore you to grasp this element of culture in your interaction with unbelievers and redeem it. Use it to draw out the hope of redemption that lies deep within the heart of all men. Use Beauty and the Beast to introduce sinners to the Redeemer of the World.

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