This is a seminar I gave at this year’s SITC. It’s an update on some previous ones I gave and heavily influenced by Ted Turnau…

I am going to assume that all of you in some way interact with culture, and more likely than not ‘popular culture’, whether you listen to music, watch films, TV, read books, newpapers, magazines, use the internet, travel in lifts…
It is very difficult to live in Western society and not come across ‘culture’ in some form every day, especially if you live in a city.

There are 2 ways Christians have classically reacted to popular culture.
1.Some Christians reject culture outright. If it is something produced by non-Christians then it must be bad. It is inevitably going to be tainted by sin, and so to avoid ourselves being tainted we must avoid popular culture. Anything with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll can’t be godly, therefore avoid it.
2.Others don’t really consider engaging with culture from a Christian perspective in any way. It could be that they have a compartmentalised view of life, Christianity and church over here, entertainment and culture over there. Or they just have never considered it. This approach more or less soaks up uncritically what culture tells them.

My guess is that most of us would fall into category 2, if any, whereas previous generations would more likely be category 1 (see ‘Son of Ranbow’).
However I hope we’ll see that neither approach is biblical.

Two key passages that are going to help us with this issue of understanding and engaging with culture are Psalm 19 and Romans 1:18-32.
It is quite clear then from both the Old Testament and the New that creation does speak of God, so much so that Paul can say what may be known about God has been made plain to mankind through his creation.
Revelation is all around us.
We cannot get away from it.
It is literally the air we breath.

When God created male and female in his image he gave them what is known as ‘the cultural mandate’ to fill and subdue the earth.
What they were to do was continue the work of creation that God had done.
They were to reflect God in creativity as they took God’s creation, the earth and molded, shaped it and so on.
This is what happens a few chapters later as people start creating things, including music.
That’s what culture is – reshaping creation.

If creation is revelation about God, and culture is an engagement with that creation, reshaping it etc then culture is also an engagement with revelation.
We are constantly in conversation with God’s revelation of himself as we engage with culture, interacting with it, responding to it.
Culture is a response to that revelation as we encounter it all around us.
In that way all culture is profoundly religious, if we take religion to be responding to God.

But look again at Romans 1.
What do we do with the revelation that is all around us?
We suppress it.
The truth is everywhere around us, but we twist it.
It speaks so clearly of God, says Paul, and we make it speak simply of created things rather than the creator.
This is what’s known in the Bible as idolatry.
We replace God with something else and turn our worship to that thing as it takes prime position in our lives.

So culture is taking the truth of God that is revealed in creation and interacting with it in some way but ultimately twisting it as we suppress the truth to some degree or other.

Because of this we will naturally find both good things and bad things in culture, both truth and lies.
That is an important thing to recognise about the work of Satan.
He is not a creator, he is a distorter of creation.
His lies are parasitic on the truth.
They would not exist if there were no truth to be twisted.
And they would not be believed if there was not some truth element to the lies.

This means, though, that we will find good things in culture, truth that we can wholeheartedly agree with.

And so when engaging with culture, be it films, books, TV, the first question to ask in discussion with people is;
1.What rings true?
There is another important concept that we need to grasp if we’re going to engage properly with this element of culture.
Although lies need truth in order to exist things could have got to a stage now where the truth was so twisted that it was completely unrecognisable.
Indeed some Christians would argue that this is the case.

But when we watch films I think most of us would see that this isn’t the case.
How many of you have been moved by a film? Cried? Laughed? Had your heart warmed?
There are elements in films that ring true, that are clearly good.

When someone sacrifices their life for another, although sad for the loss we will feel that that was right and good and heroic.
When someone shows compassion on another, when a couple get together overcoming the odds and find love, our emotions are stirred and we feel happy.

The reason for that is something called ‘common grace’.

God, in his mercy, has not let things get as bad as they could get.
He has not completely given us over to the consequences of sin.
That is reserved for hell.

Instead he has held back sin to some extent, and still continues to bless people, even those who reject him.

Read Acts 14:17.

That is why we still experience love and friendship.
Why we can enjoy humour and the wonderful creation.
Why even though there is so much war on this planet there are times of peace and prosperity. Why we see people who know nothing of Jesus still laying down their lives for others.
Why people who don’t know the revelation of true love shown in Christ yet can love other people.

So when you’re watching a film ask others ‘what rang true?’, what was good, what was right about the film, what made sense, what could you associate with?

But we all in our conversation with this revelation suppress the truth.
This means there will be elements in culture that are lies, that are false.

So ask the question:
2.What rings false.

Although there will be elements that resonate, that are true, there will also be elements where that truth is then twisted, false answers are given to the problems.

Generally films work on a problem/resolution story line.
Classically this happens in Romcoms.
Boy meets girl. Boy likes girl, girl likes boy. Boy does something stupid, girl slams door in boys face. Boy stays out all night on porch showing commitment to girl, girl finally lets him in and they live happily ever after.

What resonates as true in a lot of these films is the desire for love and relationships.
The Bible shows that we were made to be in relationships and to love others.

There is a point in the film where what looked like a great relationship goes wrong.
Something happens to destroy the harmony.
It looks like the relationship won’t get back on track.
Something needs to happen to restore the relationship or else everyone leaves the cinema depressed and no-one buys the DVD.

You can most often spot the idolatry in the answer to this problem.
Perhaps its the relationship itself that is the answer to all life’s problems. Perhaps its sex.

In the film ‘Heartlands’ the main character loses his wife to another man. Overcoming a temptation to just accept his lot in life (which he seems to have been doing up until this point) he heads off on his moped to win back his wife. Over the Pennines he travels to reach Blackpool where his wife has gone. On the way he encounters all sorts of different people, and through this he ‘finds himself’.
Eventually he reaches Blackpool and confronts his wife. She has decided to leave the man she ran off with. Colin tells her that he ‘loves her so much…’ but he has now seen so much of the world and he wants to keep on discovering more… without her! He has ‘discovered himself’ and who he is is someone not in relation to his wife.

This is the lie.
The answer given is be ‘who you are’ in isolation to others.

The thing is often people will be able to spot the lie.
Something about it won’t quite add up.
Everyone knows that relationships don’t work like they do on TV.
You very rarely see the first day of the honeymoon.
Things are very different then! (exception … but left out of the film!).
Julianne Moore says ‘no-one has s ex like they do in films.’
And people know that, but they so want what’s in the film that they are ready to believe the lie.

However in conversation you can bring this contradiction out.
If they’ve raised what you know to be the lie in the film, you can ask ‘does it really work like that?’ ‘will the relationship really solve all their problems?’

In engaging with culture it is important to celebrate the truth that is reflected.
All truth is God’s truth as one man put it.
God is revealing himself in the world around us and so culture in conversing with that creation is bound to, by the common grace God pours out, to hit on the truth once in a while.

But we also need to identify and challenge the lies.
Help people to see where things aren’t true.
Shake the shakey foundations, the contradictions and the tensions.
And then show how God’s story addresses those issues and gives answers, although they may not quite be in the answers people might expect.

If you want a great example to look at watch the Quantum Leap Episode called ‘Runaway’…