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Why Christians Go Postal Over Facebook, Jay-Z, Yoga, Avatar, and Culture in General
It was only last week that the Washington Post asked for my opinion on the New Jersey pastor calling for Christians to stop using Facebook. Had I known what would erupt this week, I might have agreed with him.
The big idea of my Post blog was that Facebook doesn’t cause adultery, people do. Calling for a boycott of Facebook is not the answer because the issue is the heart. Even if someone doesn’t commit adultery because of Facebook, if that sin remains in their heart, they will find another way to act upon it. Sadly, after the story broke, it was revealed that the pastor protesting against Facebook was, in fact, guilty of prior adultery, along with his wife. Of course, their adultery had nothing to do with Facebook, according to the news reports. So, while I pray for the couple to get beyond whatever may be troubling their marriage by God’s grace, it simply confirmed my big idea that sinners are ultimately responsible for sin.
Facebook, like many technologies and cultural phenomena, is an opportunity for my heart and the hearts of others you and I interact with to be revealed and transformed. Funny that this week, a simple comment I made appreciating the talent of Jay-Z generated hundreds and hundreds of comments across multiple threads on my Facebook page. Compare that to nineteen comments on my post regarding a news article about the Christian who is being raped, beaten, and tortured for his faith and needs some people to push for his freedom.
The backstory is this. While flipping through TV channels recently, I noticed an enormous concert by Jay-Z. The event was simply epic. Madison Square Garden was packed and people were raising their hands and singing along with religious zeal. By no means a hip-hop expert, but someone who did grow up listening to the earliest days of rap as a non-Christian, I have been aware of his influence for some time. He has sold fifty million albums, garnered ten Grammys, and was honored as one of the Ten Most Successful Artists of the previous decade by Billboard Magazine. He’s also helped to launch the careers or at least influence the music of Beyoncé, Eminem, Rihanna, Kanye West, Notorious B.I.G., Timbaland, Linkin Park, and Dr. Dre, among others. Some of these friends joined him on stage for the portion of the concert I watched, which was quite a performance.
Back to Facebook, where I posted that despite using bowling words, Jay-Z is a genius. I was very surprised to see how heated the ensuing debate became. Scanning the comments, it became clear that there was a polarization between two camps of thought about how Christians should engage culture. One side cited Philippians 4:8 and 1 Peter 1:13ff and advocated that Christians should not listen to music like Jay-Z. The other side cited 1 Corinthians 9, Romans 14, and John 17:15 and advocated that Christians have freedom in Christ and should be in the world but not of the world. All in all, it was a predictably ugly display of Internet flame-throwing where it gets personal fast and people say things digitally they would never say in a face-to-face conversation. Still, I’d like to address the issue of how Christians should engage culture—mostly for those caught in the crossfire of the two extremes.
This blog is not intended to defend everything I’ve ever said and done, as, like all sinners, there are things in retrospect I would say and do differently. This blog is also not intended to defend or impugn Jay-Z. He’s a gifted producer and musician, some of his lyrics are vulgar, and though it will likely never happen, if I ever got to chat with him I would be curious to hear what he thinks about Jesus.
Are You a Missionary?
What I’ve found over the years is that whenever I speak about something culturally related from a Christian perspective, a debate rages. This has been the case since the earliest days of my ministry. This is because I consider myself a missionary in culture. When we started our church we did so in what was among the least churched cities in the nation, seeking to reach the least churched demographic—young, educated, single, urban men. The truth is, these kinds of young men are generally missing from the American church. One thing these men of all races are doing is listening to rap music.
So, as a missionary, I find it a good thing to be aware of what is going on in culture in general as well as in music in particular. Though not a musician myself, I have some five thousand songs on my iTunes account from a wide range of genres and styles. Music is among the most defining and revealing aspects of any culture, and so in addition to enjoying some music, I study lots of music. This endeavor is helped, in part, by a communications degree from one of the top programs in the nation, where I spent a few years analyzing advertising, marketing, political speeches, film, music, and the like.
Here’s the big idea: it’s not about music, it’s about missions.
The God of the Bible is a sender by nature. He is a missionary God who has sent his people into the world since Abraham. In the Old Testament he sent prophets like Isaiah, Daniel, Jeremiah, and Jonahover cross-cultural boundaries. He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to earth to live as a man, in a particular time and place, with a particular people as a missionary in a sinful culture. The Father also sends the Holy Spirit to Christians so that we, like Jesus, might also live as missionaries in culture. The gospel that portrays this most clearly is John, where Jesus says roughly forty times, “The Father has sent me,” and then says in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
As a missionary, I do not view culture passively, merely as entertainment. Rather, I engage it actively as a sermon that is preaching a worldview. I teach my children to do the same. Their computer is fully visible in the middle of our kitchen and dining area, with protective software to help ensure they are not prematurely exposed to content they cannot handle, dangerous people, and also such things as pornography. The television used by our five children is also mounted for all to see in the most visible section of our home to help ensure we actively oversee our children’s cultural intake. That television also has a password that my wife or I must enter if anything is to be recorded or watched beyond a certain age-appropriate rating.
We also watch shows with our children. Those shows are recorded on a TiVo so that we can stop and have discussions during them, helping our kids understand the ideology that is being presented and how to think about it critically. We want our kids to be innocent but not naïve. Naïve Christians are the most vulnerable to engaging culture ignorantly and unpreparedly. If a Christian kid does not know how to walk as a Christian in culture, it’s no surprise that once he or she leaves their parents’ home after graduation, they are statistically likely to fail continue walking with Jesus.
The attitude we have for our children is the same we have for our church. This is why we have a pastor leading film and theology discussions. This is why we have a large contingency of Christians who are in the music business but do not wave the flag of Christian music. Rather, their theology informs their songwriting and artistry. Like our children, our goal is not to create a safe Christian subculture as much as to train missionaries to live in culture like Jesus. This helps explain why we baptized, by God’s grace, almost a thousand new converts last year alone—people who simply would not have connected with a typical Christian church existing in a cultural cul-de-sac.
Syncretism vs. Sectarianism
Regarding missiology, the question is, how are Christians to be missionaries in their cultures? Historically, and biblically, there are two erroneous extremes that Christians swing between: syncretism or sectarianism.
Syncretists go too far into culture, abandoning or diluting the gospel in the name of relevance. Liberals in the early twentieth century did this by pandering to the high culture of academic modernity and abandoning belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, the supernatural, and the divine nature of Christ. The shells of mainline churches are their legacy. Most recently, the Emergent Church did much of the same as they chased after the postmodern mood of our culture by questioning the virgin birth of Christ, the inerrancy of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, and God’s design for heterosexual marriage.
Sectarians are better known as fundamentalists who impose man-made rules on people in the name of achieving holiness by avoiding sinners and hiding out in a “Christian” culture. They are prone to seeing others sin more easily than their own sins of hypocrisy and religious pride, while arguing about morality when they should be explaining how to be redeemed. Whereas syncretists go too far, sectarians don’t go far enough. Neither follows the entire example of Jesus, though both would disagree passionately.
The general concern of sectarians is that to be in culture is to be in sin. All Christians are commanded by God to avoid universal sins—offenses the Bible condemns for all people in all cultures—as well as particular sins, or offenses that are sinful for some people under some circumstances but not for all people under all circumstances. Christians are to do so without unfairly condemning or restricting the freedoms of fellow Christians who involve themselves differently in controversial cultural matters. For example, I personally disdain cigarettes, but I cannot forbid everyone in my church from smoking, because the Bible does not. This is, in part, what Paul means throughout the New Testament when he speaks of weak and strong Christians. In truth, every Christian is both weak and strong. We all have some areas in which we need to restrict our freedoms because of our weaknesses, while we are able to use our Christian liberty in areas in which we are strong.
Unity, Not Uniformity
I recognize that Christians will have different personal convictions in matters of culture and I welcome those differences that are not sinful, because what pleases God is unity, not uniformity. Uniformity undermines mission and often is promoted by erroneous restrictive and permissive theologies. Restrictive Christians go too far and name everything a universal sin, forbidding some cultural activities that the Bible does not, such as listening to certain musical styles, getting tattoos, watching movies, smoking cigarettes, consuming alcohol moderately, enjoying some sexual pleasures within marriage, and body piercing. Conversely, permissive Christians tend to name everything a particular sin and bless activities that the Bible forbids, such as drug use, fornication, homosexuality, and cohabitation before marriage.
I’m not advocating either a permissive or a restrictive approach to debatable cultural issues. Rather, I am encouraging Christians to involve themselves in culture not merely for the purpose of entertainment but primarily for the purpose of education. As a missionary, you will need to watch television shows and movies, listen to music, read books, peruse magazines, attend events, join organizations, surf websites, and befriend people that you might not like to better understand people whom Jesus loves. For example, I often read magazines intended for teenage girls, not because I need to take tests to discover if I am compatible with my boyfriend or because I need leg-waxing tips, but because I want to see young women meet Jesus, so I want to understand them and their culture better.
Garbage In, Garbage Out?
Sadly, a theology of “garbage in, garbage out” remains quite popular but has numerous flaws. First, there is no such thing as a pure culture untainted by sin and sinners, including Christian entertainment, which has had its share of scandalous behavior. One such example is the fact that as I’m writing this blog, the leader of a major Christian television network has publically confessed to adultery. Second, it is uncertain what distinguishes clean “Christian” and unclean “secular” entertainment forms and why Bibleman is so much better than Spiderman.
Engaging culture requires discernment by God’s people to filter all of the cultures they encounter, Christian and non-Christian, through a biblical and theological grid in order to cling to that which is good and reject that which is evil. As we engage culture (watching films and television, listening to music, reading books, shopping at stores, and so on), we must do so as theologians and missionaries filled with wisdom and discernment, seeking to better grasp life in our culture. We do this so we can begin the transforming work of the gospel in our culture by contextualizing the good news of Jesus. Not compromising. Not changing. Contextualizing. Practically, this means doing what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22–23, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” The truth is that every ministry is contextualized, the only difference is to which culture and which year of that culture. Everything from pews to chairs, sound systems, projectors, suits, and a printed Bible in the English language are very recent missiogical contextualizations in light of the two thousand years of Christianity.
For those who are familiar with my ministry, this all may seem very confusing in light of comments I have made on other cultural issues. For those who have raised objections and questions in a gracious manner, with all sincerity I want to say thank you! They help me learn how to articulate more effectively my deeply held biblical convictions about Christ, Christians, church, and culture. They help me learn and grow, which I appreciate and need.
One helpful taxonomy I have used for years to help teach on missiology is as follows:
· Receive – There are things in culture that are part of God’s common grace to all people that a Christian can simply receive. This is why, for example, I am typing on a Mac and am going to post this blog on the Internet without searching for an expressly Christian computer or communication format.
· Reject – There are things in culture that are sinful and not beneficial. One example is pornography, which has no redeeming value and must be rejected by a Christian.
· Redeem – There are things in culture that are not bad in and of themselves, but can be used in a sinful manner and therefore need to be redeemed by God’s people. An example that has resulted in a great deal of media attention is sexual pleasure. God made our bodies for, among other purposes, sexual pleasure. And, although many have sinned sexually, as Christians we should redeem this great gift and all its joys in the context of marriage.
As you can see, each issue requires discernment. Liberal syncretists tend to receive too much. Fundamental separatists tend to reject too much. So, while I would reject yoga because it is a Hindu worship act, it is possible for the Christian to redeem some of the exercise principles, as my friend, Rose, extols. Likewise, it’s not a sin to watch a film such as Avatar, enjoy the technological mastery, and learn about how to tell a great story. But, it is imperative for a Christian to not embrace the blatant pagan worldview that does not distinguish between Creator and creation, upon which the entire storyline of the film is constructed.
That said, is it possible to appreciate the musical and entrepreneurial talent of Jay-Z without praising his character or beliefs? Yes. Is it possible to watch and listen to Jay-Z to learn about culture, what people are valuing, and why some men have much larger audiences than any preacher because of how they present their message? Yes. Should Christians agree with the every message he and other artists present? No. Should Christians who like rap check out guys I have enjoyed getting to know a bit, such as Lecrae? Yes. Should all Christians listen to Jay-Z? No. Should Jay-Z sit down and talk to me about Jesus? Yes. Jay-Z, whenever works for you is good for me, and if need be I’d even watch a Nets game.
For further reading, I have addressed this topic at length in my book Radical Reformission(2004), in numerous sermons since, and last week a Mars Hill pastor wrote a blog about how we engage culture .