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Signs Of Life: Finding The Good, True & Beautiful In Popular Culture
If the Religious Right were looking for poster-children for the Irreligious Left, they might spotlight Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. Penn, raised agnostic, was convicted of a domestic assault charge against his then-wife Madonna, was arrested for beating a photographer, had two children with actress Robin Wright before the two were married, and recently befriended leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Robbins and Sarandon, two lapsed Catholics, have been living together unmarried for years. Robbins’ directorial/screenwriting debut was
a biting satire about conservative politicians. Sarandon is a staunch supporter of rights for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals. All three have been vocal opponents of the War in Iraq and the Bush Administration in general.
This same trio, however, has created one of the clearest, most powerful presentations of the Christian gospel in modern cinema. In Robbins’ second film
Dead Man Walking,
Penn plays a despicable example of humanity at its worst, Matthew Poncelet, a ruthless killer and rapist sentenced to death, and Sarandon plays Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who shows him love and mercy anyway. There is no neat plotline: the two don’t fall in love; we don’t find out that Matthew is really innocent; he doesn’t experience a deathbed conversion. Sister Helen feels deep empathy for the victims’ families who want to see nothing more than Matthew put to death. But this is complicated by her deep belief in the teachings of Jesus that we’re all sinners and that we all can be redeemed. In Sarandon’s character, we see mercy and love and the hope for redemption. Rather than simply making it a didactic tale about the wrongness of capital punishment, it’s a story of grace and an example of how we should live.
We live in a fallen world—ruled at times by commercialism, vulgarity, violence, cynicism, vapidity and celebrity-worship—but goodness, truth and beauty all find their way to the surface, as they do in
Dead Man Walking.
We find these qualities in music, books, movies, art, TV and video games, regardless of the spiritual condition or worldview of the author. Christians should find, celebrate and encourage this kind of expression.
A SANITIZED CULTURE
“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” —Philippians 4:8
This verse has been used as the
for a separate Christian media. Much about our culture is false, dishonorable, wrong, impure, grotesque and sleazy. If we’re to fix our thoughts on the pure, shouldn’t we take every care to ensure that the culture we consume be unquestionably “clean”? Isn’t the easiest way to limit ourselves to the good, the true and the beautiful to ensure that the content we read, watch and listen to was created by other Christians? Or even better, that it proclaims obviously Christian themes?
Whether you live in Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Atlanta or Nashville, you can tune into a radio station whose motto reads, “Safe For the Whole Family.” It’s an effective motto in any city where you can spin the dial and hit any number of morning show DJs who dream of becoming the next Howard Stern. The message is simple and powerful, even for those without kids: If you’re a Christian, listen to our station and you can avoid, for a moment, all the coarsest aspects of our culture. They’ve been polished into smooth, pleasant, inoffensive nuggets. Safe is indeed the best descriptor.
This desire for a sanitized, pre-approved version of prevailing cultural trends has led to Christian bookstores, Christian radio stations, Christian festivals and even—bizarrely—Christian breath-mints. These institutions have worked as a sort of V-chip, filtering out the dirty words, the sexual references and any ideas that didn’t conform to a rather bland and simplistic form of Christianity that focuses almost exclusively on thankfulness for God’s saving grace. But they do it at the expense of such Biblical themes as poverty, sacrifice, love for one’s enemies, sin and God’s call for his people to redeem the world around them, to name but a few. As singer/songwriter Derek Webb says, “Anything Jesus is Lord of, our artists should be writing songs about it. We’re only covering about two percent of it.”
Even when art is created by Christians, the sanitizing filter is often at work. It’s rare to find the writings of Flannery O’Connor or Fyodor Dostoyevsky in a Christian bookstore. Stories of murderers, charlatans and the unredeemed don’t make the cleanliness cut, even though they communicate the truths of the gospel more powerfully than most any book on theology.
There have been countless attempts at quantifying the cleanliness of media—ratings for movies, TV and games; warning labels on CDs—yet in every case, the labels (while a helpful shorthand for ageappropriateness) miss the point of actual discernment. Those filters will keep out deeply edifying and thoughtful signs of life, while letting in ideas that, while devoid of violence or sex, might be filled with lies.
The very concept of sanitized culture seems like a way to be lazy in our discernment. If we have someone to tell us what’s good and what’s bad, we don’t have to ever be challenged. We don’t have to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us out into the world. We can have things tidily categorized as good or bad and feel self-righteous that we’re on the good side of culture. The phrase “culture war” has become all too apt, but Christians haven’t noticed that we’re the only ones trying to pick a fight. Fearing that we’ll become corrupted by the world around us, we’ve constructed our own safe culture and locked ourselves inside a cozy fortress, content that all the answers live inside the walls.
Goodness, truth, and beauty are all divinely created attributes originating in God. Subsequently ANY evidence of goodness, truth, and beauty in human culture will reflect God's image simply because He is by His nature, good, true, and beautiful.
These ideas did not originate in Greek philosophy. Their source originated with God, and thus are uniquely Christian.
Even in Hinduism, Buddism, or Marxism, what is considered good, true, or beautiful originated with the one true creator God of all creation and is thus solely Christian.
What is expressed in any art form, whether distinctly Christian or blatantly anti-Christian, will reflect what God created...goodness, truth, and beauty. Only he will receive the glory.
Very enjoyable piece, and well written. I liked your perspective, and it's very necessary to clarify that good things can come from outside Christianity. Actually, so-called Christian art is often frowned upon because of its inferior quality. I don't even think there is such a thing as Christian art. It's art, and may carry a Christian message - or as you say, something that is truthful with a small 't'. Lots to explore still in terms of how to evaluate, incorporate and reject elements of popular culture. I hope you continue to contribute to this discussion!
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