Christian Cultural Engagement

By Michael Mendis

Last month, Disney released one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year, their live-action adaptation of the classic romance Beauty and the Beast.  This movie caused quite a stir amongst the Christian community, as it was announced that Lefou, the bumbling sidekick of the story’s main villain Gaston, would be portrayed as gay.  Some Christians, including prominent evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham, called for a boycott of the film in response.  Other Christians denounced the boycott, arguing that it was the wrong way of handling the issue.

Conflict between the followers of God and the entertainment culture around them is nothing new.   Many Jews during the time of the Greek empire, for example, opposed the ancient Olympic games, as athletes competed naked.  In modern times, Christians have been skeptical of many aspects of pop culture, and have often struggled to keep up with all the latest trends and new forms of entertainment, from comic books, to movies, to video games.

This never ending challenge of cultural engagement is a vital part of what it means to be a Christian.  Jesus tells his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), a task that simply cannot be done by hiding within a bubble, never interacting with non-Christians or learning about the things they value.  We at Gospel & Gaming engage with secular entertainment culture on a regular basis; we reach out to gamers with the love and good news of Christ, and that means learning how to play games, and playing them with others in order to build relationships.  We stay on the cutting edge of the latest news and trends in the gaming industry, and listen to gamers as they tell us about the things that matters to them.  And that means we are in the thick of all the challenges that Christians face when interacting with culture: what parts of the popular culture (games, movies, TV shows, etc.) are OK for us as Christians to consume, and what aren’t?  How do we tell the difference between the two?  How do we build relationships with non-Christians without agreeing to do things that compromise our values?

 I solemnly swear that I am up to no good...

I solemnly swear that I am up to no good...

I myself certainly fail to provide a perfect example of what it looks like for a Christian to engage culture.  I look back on various decisions I’ve made regarding what movies I see and games I play, and I have questions about whether I made the right choice or not in various situations.  I have to ask myself how consistent I am in acting out what I say I believe.  For example, I avoid the Grand Theft Auto games--even though they are regarded by many as some of the best open-world games on the market--because it puts you in the role of a criminal who robs banks, deals drugs, and murders those who stand in your way.  The game encourages you to engage in morally offensive activities, such as holding up convenience stores for quick cash or picking up a prostitute, and offers little punishment for stealing a car and then running over civilians as you escape from the cops.

At the same time, I have very much enjoyed the Witcher games (Witcher 2 and 3, specifically).  On one hand, the role you play in the Witcher is much different from that in GTA; as the Witcher Geralt, most of your missions involve hunting monsters, unravelling mysteries, and aiding townspeople in various other ways.  While at times you can act as a jerk, and there are many tough, morally gray decisions that must be made throughout the course of the game, you aren’t encouraged or required to act in a reprehensible manner most of the time, certainly not to the degree that you are in GTA.  On the other hand, there’s no shortage of bloody, gory deaths in the Witcher as you hack away at enemies with your swords.  Sex also plays a significant part in the game as well; multiple lovers are available for Geralt to romance, as well as prostitutes in various towns.  Some of the game’s nudity is avoidable, but not all of it is.  In fact, the Witcher has even been referred to as “the Grand Theft Auto of fantasy games”.  In embracing the Witcher games while avoiding GTA, am I being inconsistent in holding to what I say I believe?  Where exactly are the lines that I should or shouldn’t cross?  Looking at it now, I don’t regret playing the Witcher games, but there are certainly aspects of those games that should have bothered me more than they did.

 Geralt may be the "white wolf", but his morals are strikingly gray.

Geralt may be the "white wolf", but his morals are strikingly gray.

I could list plenty more examples, but the point is clear: cultural engagement is messy.  Even the best things in this life are tainted by sin, and sorting out the good from the bad is no easy task.  The good news is that God has enabled us to do just that through the Word that he has given us.  The apostle Paul tells us:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Now, you won’t find Scripture telling you whether any specific movie or TV show is OK for a Christian to watch, or how many uses of sexual innuendo are acceptable in a game before a Christian is morally obligated to put down the controller.  Rather, what it gives you is a foundation on which to stand and general wisdom that can be applied to a wide variety of situations.  So what I’d like to do here is to lay out a few biblically grounded guiding principles that are worth bearing in mind as we wade into the challenging environment we call culture:

  1. Seek common ground.  When talking with people about entertainment culture (or plenty of other topics, for that matter), our goal is not to win an argument or verbally beat people into agreeing with us; that’s no way to share the love of Christ and win people over.  Try to find places where you agree with a person, rather than launching straight into the issues that are most likely to cause rifts.  Treat others with the respect that is due our fellow image-bearers of God.  Starting a conversation with things that you agree on helps keep us from dehumanizing those we talk to, and can make it easier to have more difficult discussions later on.  Paul’s address to the people of Athens (Acts 17:16-34) serves as a great biblical example of this.
  2. Know your weaknesses.  Everyone has their own weaknesses and temptations that they face when engaging culture.  For some, it may be a temptation to harbor lust when viewing a racy scene; for others, a tendency to lash out in anger when things aren’t going their way in a multiplayer game.  Whatever it is for you, learn what you’re temptations are, and be willing to say no to something that isn’t good for you personally.  Yes, it can be a bummer, but being obedient to our heavenly Father sometimes means abstaining from the things this world has to offer.  And don’t forget that some things that aren’t good for you to consume are OK for other Christians; God has gifted all his children in different ways, so that no one of us has to shoulder the burden of addressing every challenge that culture presents.
  3. Don’t fear making mistakes.  As we engage with culture and discuss it with those around us, we are going to make mistakes.  Period.  There are going to be times when we fail to act as a good ambassador of Christ in our conversations.  Some may find themselves being too legalistic about what is OK to consume, painting in broad brush strokes that don’t reflect the nuanced reality we live in; others of us will find ourselves all too willing to consume something that we shouldn’t, and make excuses for why it’s fine.  God still uses us, even in these situations.  His kingdom is not deterred by our failures; rather, he is pleased to use us, in all of our brokenness, as his agents of change in this world.  As we make mistakes, we learn from them, and we keep moving forward in the confidence that each person’s role in God’s plan, while small in the grand scheme, is nonetheless important and a wonderful gift that he has given to us.
  4. Point out both the good AND the bad.  Whether we are evaluating culture in our own minds or having a discussion with others, we always need to be honest about both the good and bad things we find there.  When we enjoy a game or a movie, we shouldn’t paper over the things within it that don’t line up with God’s Word; when we don’t enjoy it or feel that there is much legitimate criticism to make of it, we should still give credit where credit is due and recognize common grace where it exists (after all, James 1:17 tells us that “every good and perfect gift is from above”).  Doing these things will not only give ourselves a more accurate picture of the world around us, but will also better enable us to interact with people who don’t share all of our beliefs on morality or faith.
  5. Read God’s Word and pray regularly.  This one may be cliché, but it’s important.  The challenges that come with cultural engagement--having the discernment to know what media you should and shouldn’t consume, speaking honestly and fairly about the good and bad you find in games, and so forth--aren’t going to be overcome with our own strength.  We need the wisdom and power of God in order to do the work that he has called us to.  And we have to trust him with the results.  That means we need to be in frequent communication with God, praying for the wisdom we need and reminding ourselves of the truths that he gives us in his word.  When God was giving the Ten Commandments to the Hebrews in the desert, he told them:  “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut 6:7).  Engaging culture as a Christian means viewing it all through the lens of Scripture, and that lens will only be there so long as we are immersed in the Word, whether reading it on our own or sharing it with one another.

In conclusion, I’d like to remind us of these words of encouragement found in the book of Revelation:

“Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’” (Revelation 5:13)

The work that God has given us here to engage with the culture around us is not an effort that is done in vain.  Christ is on his throne, and no matter what setbacks and uncertainties we face, we can move forward boldly and confidently, knowing that his kingdom is coming and cannot be stopped.  He is making the world a better place through us, and making us ever more like himself, with a love for the people of the world and the culture they create.