Editor’s Note: Throughout the month of June our writers will explore the way that God, grace, and the gospel show up in pop culture.
This month our focus here at Perissos has been finding the Gospel in pop culture. And when I began to consider a particular TV show, film, or other cultural contribution that I felt contained elements of Good News, my mind resembled Carrie’s wall on season one of Homeland–an overcrowded, insane collage of images–and my thoughts were like pinballs bouncing around in there: Friday Night Lights. Shawshank Redemption. The Velveteen Rabbit. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (yes, I’m serious). The truth is, I’d be hard-pressed to not find the Gospel in most works of art or pieces of pop culture because, as I’ve found in recent years, there seems to be no place our God doesn’t deign to show up.
Such news shouldn’t be surprising: after all, this is the God who became a baby and was born in poverty in a feeding trough. The faithful expected a king and got one–but not the one they expected. Instead of cruising around in a flashy private jet or retiring between sermons to a palace, he had “nowhere to lay his head.” Fast-forward 33 years to his most powerful moment ever: hanging on a cross, headed toward death. Our God is a professional at paradoxes; his kingdom is an upside-down one; he excels in the unexpected. Which I find marvelous, especially while sitting in a theater watching Keanu and shaking my head, all, “there you go again, Jesus!”
Luther’s kickstart of the Reformation hung in large part on the idea that there is no separation, really, between the secular and the sacred. Any vocation to which we’re called by God can be holy. As Bibles were passed out to laypeople who couldn’t even read yet, the movement that sent many of us to our spiritual identity uncovered God to be where he really is: everywhere. The Scriptural basis for this truth is exhaustive, but a couple of my favorite examples are those that allow us to see that it isn’t a location or activity that is sacred in and of itself–it’s God’s presence that makes it sacred. After the Israelites finally made it to the Promised Land, Joshua took what I like to think was an introvert’s timeout to hang alone for a minute and was quickly approached by a man with a drawn sword who told Joshua to take off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground. This “commander of the army of the Lord” designated the locale to be holy because, as he told Joshua, “now I have come.”
Then there’s the passage in the New Testament in which Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain where Jesus’ face lights up, literally, Moses and Elijah drop by for a chat, and God speaks out of a cloud to make sure they get that Jesus is his son. This Mount of Transfiguration scene speaks to me because I’m such a Peter and would have reacted like he did, trying to defuse the awkwardness of this unexpected tableau by asking everyone if they were good–”need a tent, Moses? Elijah–some tea?” But it’s not our efforts or (lack of) recognition that make a holy place holy. God shows up in a cloud and that hill ain’t just a hill any more.
My friend David Zahl over at Mockingbird wrote a piece not long ago about the Benedict Option, and it’s great reading if you’re interested in finding out more. Basically, the BenOp is Rod Dreher’s idea that Christians might want to take a spiritual timeout of sorts and break to some degree from modern culture–much like monks such as Benedict did in his time–and embed themselves in Christian communities and thinking. Well. I don’t have the time (or the ability) here to be as gracious and thoughtful as Zahl is in his piece, but suffice it to say that I’m not down with this idea. Abandoning modern culture seems to me to be an abandonment of the truth that God himself is working in it and has a presence there through which he loves and engages sinners and saints alike. My antipathy for the idea (which, I will concede, is founded upon some decent intentions, but that’s all I can give it) was recently reinforced by a Facebook post in which the BenOp was seen as too mild for Christians, who ought to disengage entirely from culture because it is, basically, pure evil. And of course this post–as I mentioned–was on Facebook. The largest social media platform of our culture in existence today.
I’m all for introvert timeouts–having one right now, actually–but disengaging from culture? I have a hard time understanding how that allows us to be counseled by God to learn and practice discernment and winsomeness in our earthly/temporary home. Not to mention that some of the moments in which I fall in love with God most deeply are those in which he takes me by surprise: when I’m standing in front of a painting, or following a television narrative, or seeing the Gospel played out by people onscreen who may not even know him. Because a God who has the grace to put on skin and walk among us is a God, I believe, who never stops showing up here.