Affirming the Gospel in Secular Pop Culture
As I’ve engaged with popular Hollywood films here at The Collision, there has been occasional pushback (some respectful and thoughtful, some less so). “How can a Christian praise and recommend a secular Hollywood film that does not reflect a biblical worldview?”
It’s a valid question that touches on the larger and more fundamental issue of how Christians should approach art and entertainment. The simple answer is because Christians can not only learn many valuable life lessons and spiritual truths in “secular” films, but they can also encounter the Gospel.
Before exploring this concept, I should make two points clear. First, to say that Hollywood films can contain valuable Christian truth and themes does not mean all films do. Second, let’s narrow the discussion to worldviews and philosophies and assume the film is not filled with gratuitous violence, sex, and profanity (which belongs to a separate conversation). With that in mind, let’s examine whether pop culture created by unbelievers can contain Christian truth.
Rethinking Bad Labels
The first step is to reevaluate the binary distinction between Christian and secular art.
It’s been rightly suggested that “Christian” is a great noun but a lousy adjective. This mindset is intuitively accepted in most fields. A teacher, lawyer, or chef may be a professing Christian, but we rarely describe them as a Christian teacher, Christian lawyer, etc. This distinction does not mean that their faith is irrelevant to their profession, only that “Christian” is reserved as a descriptor of who they are (a follower of Christ) and not what they do (teach math at a public school) or make (Christian chefs don’t bake Christian pizza . . . although, if they did, it would surely not contain pineapples).
When it comes to the arts, we tend to make an exception. The unique use of “Christian” as a label has some practical benefits but also creates problems. When some works of art are categorized as “Christian,” the logical implication is that anything else is “secular.” We’re led to assume that Christianity in art exists in an all-or-nothing form; a film is either “Christian” or it’s not.
Compounding the problem is that the “Christian” label typically comes with narrow expectations. For example, when asked to describe “Christian music,” I suspect most people initially think of worship music with overtly religious lyrics rather than a mushy love song or nostalgic punk anthem about teenage skateboarding.
Categorizing art as either Christian or secular is commonplace, but it has not always been that way. It is a relatively recent phenomenon, more or less born from the CCM movement. Throughout history, painters of questionable faith were regularly commissioned for cathedral artworks, while pious religious artists created for patrons outside the Church. There was a general distinction between religious art and non-religious art, but it was a difference in purpose, context, and function, not between Christian/secular. When Christ transforms Christians into a new creation, every aspect of their life changes. In the same way that a Christian is no less a follower of Christ at their workplace during the week as they are at church on Sunday, Christian truth is not limited to just a strictly “religious” context.
All Truth is God’s Truth
Once we shift away from unhelpful labels, the next step is to recognize that Christian truth/ themes can be found in art made by unbelievers. In Matthew 5:45, Jesus says, “For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” In theological terms, this principle is known as common grace, the belief that all people are created in the image of God and live in the context of God’s creation. We can illustrate it like this: Some people build sandcastles to glorify God, others do so to glorify themselves, but all people are working within God’s sandbox.
Many great theologians—including Augustine, Aquinas, and others—affirmed the mantra, “All truth is God’s truth.” The reformer John Calvin wrote, “All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God.”
If all people—the righteous and the unrighteous—are under God’s grace, it should not surprise us when unbelievers stumble upon truth; and since all truth belongs to God, we should not hesitate to affirm it.
In Philippians 4:8, Paul writes, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Notice Paul doesn’t say, “Whatever is religious, whatever is categorized and packaged as ‘Christian,’ whatever is based on Bible stories….” Rather, he affirms that if anything—regardless of its label—is good, true, and beautiful, Christians should affirm and dwell on it. Anything that points toward God is to be commended, regardless of its source.
Paul models this conviction in Acts 17 when he quotes from two Greek hymns to Zeus. He clearly did not accept the original authorial intention of the pagan poems, but he perceived moments in which the Gospel was “breaking through.” He affirmed the half-truths present in the poems and then completed them with the full truth of the Gospel.
In fact, an interesting issue for theologians is the fact that many times throughout scripture the biblical authors use quotes and references from non-biblical sources. If these writings are in the Bible, does that make them the inspired word of God? If they are not inspired, then why are they included in the Bible? The way out of the problem is merely to acknowledge that nuggets of Christian truth can come from a wide range of places, even those we consider secular. The gospel truth that breaks through in these cases is not any less true if it is surrounded by falsehoods. When we no longer label films, shows, books, and music as Christian or secular, we have the freedom to affirm Christian truth wherever we find it.
The purpose of this post has been to explore whether Christian truth can come from so-called “secular” sources. In a follow-up post, I look at the practical implications and outworking of this conclusion and explore how Christians can find these Christian themes in pop culture.