“It is time to recognize that the true tutors of our children are not schoolteachers or university professors but filmmakers, advertising executives and pop culture purveyors. Disney does more than Duke, Spielberg outweighs Stanford, MTV trumps MIT.” (Benjamin R. Barber, M.I.T. graduate and Professor of Civil Society at the University of Maryland, More Democracy! More Revolution!, The Nation, Volume: 267, Issue: 0013, October 26, 1998)
It’s a little strange to me that for a nation which claims 80% of its citizens as Christian, there is only a fraction of positions or roles in the entertainment community that, if I had the talent or drive to do so, my conscience would allow me to participate in. Sure, there are still a number of famous actors and musicians and comedians who will state that they are indeed Christian, but, for most of them, it’s fairly difficult to know them by their fruits (Matt. 7:20).
In the text I preached from this past Sunday, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, the Apostle Paul says about the believers in Thessalonica that “our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” (vs. 5) Notice that Paul doesn’t say that the gospel came apart from words. The gospel always comes with words. But the gospel never enters your heart simply with disempowered words. Those words are invariably accompanied by Holy Spirit-given power and conviction. Now, might we slip in moments of weakness? Of course. Our sinful nature is unrelenting. And so we repent daily. That said, there are many self-professed “Christians” who exist with gospel words rattling around inside of them, but no power or conviction of the Holy Spirit being evidenced in their life.
What does this have to do with Christian entertainers? There’s a chasm of difference, properly called “repentance” and “faith”, between the person who sins and confesses their sin to God, runs to Jesus for forgiveness, and flees their sin, as opposed to someone who willfully and publicly makes a living through behavior incompatible with the gospel.
As I consider my favorite TV shows and movies throughout my life, my favorite comedians, my favorite musicians, I wonder how many of these roles I could comfortably perform in as a Christian. While morality is not the essence of Christianity, it’s a necessary byproduct of Christianity.
In the history of sin, there has always been sinful public entertainment. For instance, while there is some debate amongst commentators, John the Baptist’s beheading likely came about as the result of men being very pleased by overtly sexual public entertainment. “On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for them and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked.” (Matt. 14:6-7) She probably wasn’t tap dancing. Similarly, the tremendously violent entertainment that occurred, occasionally at the expense of the early Christians, at the Roman Colosseum in Rome in the first several centuries A.D. is well-documented. Unapologetically sinful entertainment forms will always exist this side of heaven.
While entertainment often looks like that, and perhaps increasingly looks like that, it certainly does not have to look like that. Every comedian will tell you that vulgar humor is cheap and easy humor, but it’s certainly not the only humor. Similarly, reigning Billboard magazine Artist of the Decade, rapper Eminem, in one of his most famous lyrics, wrote, “Will Smith don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell records; well I do”……at which point he continues by returning to his notoriously vulgar language. While some of the shock value entertainment of the late 90s and early 2000s has seemed to fade, entertainment in America has now reached a strange place filled with reality television, recycled classics, and a yet unquenched thirst for something which postmodernism has labeled a “metanarrative” (i.e. deeply connected story) which is now blatantly being referred to by storytellers simply as “meta” (cf. movies like Scream 4 and Cabin in the Woods). In other words, very few good new stories are being told anymore. I do NOT for a second think that society’s shift to biblical illiteracy and our current inability to tell good stories is merely coincidental. The term “metanarrative” was actually developed from biblical scholarship and critical theory. People who do not know the ULTIMATE story of the Bible and all of the universal themes fascinatingly told in its collected stories simply cannot know how to tell stories with the same brilliance.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Today we live in a world where we find many Christian churches trying to pattern themselves after cultural art. There was a time when the Christian church largely drove the world of art and entertainment. Much of the lasting art of the Renaissance, for instance – music, painting, sculpture, literature, drama, architecture – was commissioned by the church. Notice how different that is from the main, most influential medium of art and entertainment today – feature films. Most all movie production commissioned by the church today will go straight to DVD and/or star Kirk Cameron. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Growing Pains. And I haven’t disliked some of his recent work. But the fact remains that Cameron’s most influential and critically acclaimed work will be his role as mischievous 80s teen Mike Seaver.
There has been good art created by Christians. Really good. C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia remains a classic in children’s literature. His contemporary and friend, J.R.R. Tolkien had a slightly different philosophy on Christian literature. He believed that when a Christian wrote, if he had true Christian faith in him, it would naturally come out in his art. He didn’t need to make it as transparent as Lewis. Yet, you don’t have to examine his Lord of the Rings trilogy or The Hobbit too carefully to see that biblical themes permeate his masterpieces.
Paul told the Corinthian Christians, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31), and to the Colossian Christians, he said, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:17) Christians aren’t to just write Christian music, they are to write good music. Christians don’t just write Christian literature, they write good literature. Christians don’t just make Christian movies, they make good movies. Created in God’s image, they are given the duty of subduing the earth by using their God-given talents to arrange the world to create beauty, all to the glory of God.
Let me put this a slightly different way. I like my role as a pastor, but if I were to do it all over again and really wanted to influence the world, I’d probably make movies. Or, for instance, if 100 million dollars fell into my lap today, I don’t know that I’d build hundreds of churches. Maybe. I do love and appreciate churches. But I’m afraid that in a matter of time I’d have hundreds of mostly empty ones. I think I’d probably build a good movie studio that told great stories…..all to the glory of God.