Recognizing the Gospel in Secular Pop Culture
Can Christian truth come from Hollywood? Can reflections of the Gospel appear in stories told by unbelievers who are living in active rebellion to it?
In a previous article, “Affirming the Gospel in Secular Pop Culture,” I deconstructed the mindset that art exists in a rigid binary of “Christian” or “secular.” Instead, I argued that Christians should affirm the good, true, and beautiful wherever they find it, even when it is produced by unbelieving creators. Since all people—Christians and unbelievers alike—live under the common grace of God, Christian truth can “break through” in often unexpected places, such as a Hollywood blockbuster. When it does, Christians should not hesitate to affirm it.
This is the obvious next question: How do we recognize it?
While far from exhaustive, below are several general guidelines:
Christians do not need to affirm an artwork wholesale.
Christians can affirm reflections of the Gospel in mainstream films without giving a wholesale endorsement of all the imagery or ideologies the film presents. A recent example is Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon. In my review, I praised the way the film provided vivid imagery of sin and the need for a selfless sacrifice to vanquish that evil. At the same time, there were also motifs of self-empowerment and self-salvation that are inconsistent with biblical truth (not to mention fantastical elements such as dragons and magic). These themes should be acknowledged, but they do not take away from the power and value of the earlier imagery. We need not agree with every element in a film to recognize the truth it contains. By approaching a film from a biblical worldview, Christians can affirm the “half-truths” and fill in the gaps with the full Gospel truth like the Apostle Paul did in Athens (Acts 17).
Christians don’t need to find the full Gospel in every story.
If non-Gospel elements do not diminish the Gospel truth a film presents, then the inverse to that guideline is that the entire Gospel does not need to be present for Christians to affirm biblical truth. In a sense, not even individual books of the Bible pass this rigid standard. While the four Gospels present the necessary narrative and truth of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection, the full story of the Gospel also involves biblical truth from Genesis to Revelation—the first creation and the new creation. It is the remarkable unity of the grand narrative of scripture that ultimately reveals god’s salvific activity.
Christians should be diligent not to dwell too long on any one isolated part of the Gospel narrative. The viewer who watches nothing but fluffy redemptive stories and the viewer who marinates in grim stories of depravity are both in danger of being led astray from the full picture of the Gospel. As the author of Ecclesiastes writes, there is a proper time for everything (Ecc. 3:1).
How does this principle play out in pop culture? Faith-based films tend to force the entire Gospel narrative into its limited runtime, often resulting in a jumbled, overstuffed script in which no one element is given adequate breathing room to resonate with the viewer. Perhaps a better approach is to narrow the focus to one part of the narrative. An example is Joker (2019), a film I had mixed feelings about. It is bleak and offers no hope of redemption. It is a grim exploration of human fallenness. Is it the Gospel? No. But it reflects part of the Gospel. The movie showcases human depravity. While it does not point toward a savior, it demonstrates the need for one. Without the Fall there is no Cross; without human sin there is no savior.
Christians might need to wrestle through complex and “messy” material.
The most meaningful truths presented through films are rarely evident on the surface. I will admit that I am fairly muted toward the Christ-figure motif. While it can be a powerful theme, the rush to “baptize” a story any time a heroic character sacrifices himself for others can also be a bit trivial. Harry Potter and Iron Man both sacrifice themselves for their friends or the greater good, but does anything else about their story arcs reflect Christ? Too often, the Christ-figure motif becomes a game of “Where’s Waldo” that rarely penetrates our hearts or minds at a meaningful level.
Recognizing the Gospel in secular stories often requires Christians to delve deeper than the surface-level plot and meditate on the complex and “messy” material. The classic science-fiction novel (and soon to be Hollywood blockbuster) Dune comes to mind. In a simplified sense, the complicated story revolves around a messianic figure who wrestles with the weight of his destiny. The character’s ultimate journey does not resemble Jesus’ beyond his messianic role. For that reason, Dune offers an enlightening contrast to Christ’s temptation in the desert or His anguish in Gethsemane. While cheap emotional stories make us feel “warm and fuzzy” in the moment, the stories that make us work—to seek, and doubt, and question—are usually the ones that truly impact us.
The Gospel cannot be contained, restricted, or locked in a box. It bursts forth like a wildfire and ignites the world all around us. Traces of it can be found even in the most unlikely places for those who have eyes to see it.