Culture, Grace, and Glory
Not long ago I reread C.S. Lewis’s classic, The Chronicles of Narnia, which traces the adventures of several young children who enter a mysterious other-world filled with evil witches, talking animals and unusual lands. By the time I arrived at the last of the seven Narnia books, The Last Battle, where the young boys and girls are transported into “Aslan country,” a land of heavenly peace where righteousness has triumphed over evil, I was in tears. I remember thinking, “If Lewis can paint such a fantastic picture of heaven with his imagination, what will heaven really look like?” Picturing heaven as something more majestic and inviting than Lewis’s superb vision brought me joy and an attitude of worship.
Such is the impact of good art, the kind of art that leaves one hungering for truth and, ultimately, God Himself. As a literary artist, Lewis believed that the imagination was a gift of the King (Aslan, in Lewis-speak) worthy of the glory He so richly deserves.
Culture is more than a society’s art but its art is perhaps the best barometer of its worldview. Art is the communication of the soul and one glance at the world’s artistic creations bears this out tremendously. I recently spoke at a summer youth camp where the conference t-shirt included a picture of Edmund Munch’s painting The Scream, which shows a terrified skeletal man in a world filled with hopelessness and uncertainty, represented by the swirl and discordant mix of colors and designs, free of much detail. That century-old painting resembles much of today’s postmodern, nihilistic climate; much of popular film and music serve as our reminders. Artists such as Lewis, seeking to proclaim the truth of redemption in a fallen world, stand out in a world searching for meaning.
I have often wondered if some in Christ’s church today have lost the holistic vision of redemption that includes all of reality—culture and the arts included. Great reformers like John Calvin centuries ago articulated a theological perspective that believed the coming of God’s kingdom meant the redemption of more than souls but all of creation itself. Which raises a provoking question: Are we aware of the great cultural mandate God has given us to take the Gospel into all corners of this world?
The “church at the crossroads” may be a proverbial theme but it is a crucial one. The church has not assumed the cultural mandate today as it has in the past (e.g., Reformation). We risk becoming irrelevant, not because we preach a message that lands on deaf ears, but because our Gospel’s world seems so small, private and single-tracked. We have compartmentalized the faith, implying that Christ would have us withdraw from whole sections of culture and society.
I don’t think the case is overstated when I say God’s glory is the central issue. John Piper has said “[God] created us ‘in his image’ so that we would image forth his glory in the world. We were made to be persons refracting the light of God’s glory into all of life.” We were created for His glory (Isaiah 43:7). Revealing God’s glory—His majesty, dominion and power—is the ultimate pleasure for our lives. As participants in arts worthy of Him, we bring to light His truth to this culture, bearing His image, refracting His truthful character. But how do we go about doing this?
We first need to establish a more bibliocentric view of culture. God’s glory encompasses both His sovereignty and grace. Too often we approach culture as if it were a decadent, rebellious child running wild outside God’s kingdom but this denies God’s sovereign character. All of culture resides under the powerful eye of God. Not only that but God’s common grace can be found anywhere where truth is proclaimed, whether in the cinema, art gallery, playhouse, CD player or television set. Arthur Holmes was apt to say, “All truth is God’s truth.” Truth only exists because God is there. God is at work in this culture, however decadent it appears, and His kingdom truth can be found with discerning eyes and ears.
But the church needs more than a biblically-centered theology of culture; it needs to practice what it believes. Churches, like the one a friend of mine pastors, which houses a permanent art gallery within its walls, need to support and encourage worthy art. When the church incorporates art into its worship, it demonstrates the breadth and depth of the Christian worldview, giving voice to legitimate expressions of existentiality.
And Christian individuals need to patronize art that glorifies God. Christian film critic, Ted Baehr, says that the 1998 film, The Prince of Egypt, which gave a largely sympathetic account of the Exodus story, did not fare well in part because many Christians failed to support a film embracing its worldview.
Perhaps most importantly the church needs to equip and train its people with discernment, especially our young people. When we lost sight of a right theology, we left the children of the church lacking tools of discernment, skills that allow them to “take every thought captive for Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). In an age when their senses endure an audio and visual onslaught that is unprecedented, our children need skills that protect them without denying the importance of participation in culture today.
As God’s redeemed children, we have been given a cultural mandate to “redeem the time.” The Gospel message is a powerful force that permeates and penetrates the bastions of darkness in culture. God has called us to be a people of passion—passion for His glory—and He has equipped us with faculties of mind and heart to reflect His truth, grace and glory. When we seek to influence the culture with God’s truth, including the arts, we demonstrate a cultural apologetic that those hungry for truth will find simply irresistible.