Thoughts On the “Secular vs. Christian” Debate

Growing up in the Bible Belt, I heard the word “secular” thrown around a lot as a kid. “Secular” essentially means non-religious, if you were wondering about the definition of the word. Being a church kid, I was always warned about the perils of secular music and movies corrupting my brain and ruining my testimony. R rated movies were of Satan and MTV was his pipeline of evil. I was encouraged to watch things like Pax Tv (remember that?), Touched by an Angel, and to rent Focus on the Family movies like the Buttercream Gang, McGee and Me, Adventures in Odyssey, and The Last Chance Detectives from our church library. Christian and rated-PG entertainment was a big part of my childhood and anything else was to be treated with suspicion.

I remember the first PG-13 movie I ever saw in the theater: Dante’s Peak, AKA 90’s James bond fights a volcano (it’s more hilariously bad entertainment than anything). The first R rated movie I ever saw was Gladiator (which is a very good film). And both times I felt like I was doing something wrong, even though my Dad, himself a strong Christian, took me to see these movies. As I grew older, most secular entertainment wasn’t something I considered to be horrible as long as you practiced discretion and common sense, but there are many who don’t feel that way. As a teenager I saw the “Christian culture war” at its peak, where every secular band had an eerily similar sounding Christian alternative and every brand name and slogan was twisted into a Christian one with head shaking results.

All of my Christian life I have seen this apparent “culture war” being waged by the “moral majority”, and it’s taken me all the way up till now to realize there really is no war, we just haven’t made a mark in the mainstream, and I believe this is a result of misplaced focus. We’ve tried too hard to please other Christians, and because of this, “Christian” art is not influencing mainstream culture.

Christian films aren’t being considered for major awards because of their artistic merit (which, if we’re honest, there isn’t a lot of to begin with).

Christian music stays on Christian radio stations and get their own special awards.

We’re staying in our own little camp and hoping for people to come over.

When you think of the biggest influences today in popular culture, Christians are not among them. Christian artists aren’t considered to be at the forefront of musical expression or pushing the boundaries of filmmaking. For years we played tag-along and tried to copy what other people were doing, except with more Jesus, as South Park all too eerily portrayed with Cartman saying, “Just take out words like ‘baby’ and ‘darlin’ and replace them with ‘Jesus'”.

My biggest issue with Christian entertainment is that it seems to only care about reaching a Christian audience, and to me it seems to be a MASSIVE waste of resources. Christians make films like Facing the Giants (which isn’t terrible, just really predictable) and say, “Oh, invite your friends!” but the film itself was made to appease Christians first, not our lost friends. I’ve sat in these films with lost people and seen how many of them rolled their eyes at certain scenes. I think one our biggest problems is that end up telling the same stories or types of stories OVER and OVER again (for example, there are over 40 films on the life of Christ) because we don’t want to ask tough questions or portray difficult things for fear of being “unchristian”. Many Christians forget that the Bible in their hand is not a clean-cut book, and neither are the heroes within it. There are scenes of graphic violence, murder, dismemberment, adultery, an instance of rape, sexually explicit descriptions in Song of Solomon, and numerous other things. And yet the Bible is called the word of God. Great heroes of the faith killed people, lied, manipulated, committed adultery, were prone to explosions of anger and moments of paralyzing fear. Maybe it’s this way to show how God works through this imperfect world and imperfect people to complete his perfect will?

I don’t like the idea that being a Christian means you have to make Christian art, and many people share this feeling. Jon Foreman of the popular band Switchfoot was asked if Switchfoot was a Christian band, and I loved his response:

“To be honest, this question grieves me because I feel that it represents a much bigger issue than simply a couple SF tunes. In true Socratic form, let me ask you a few questions: Does Lewis or Tolkien mention Christ in any of their fictional series? Are Bach’s sonata’s Christian? What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds. The view that a pastor is more ‘Christian’ than a girls volleyball coach is flawed and heretical. The stance that a worship leader is more spiritual than a janitor is condescending and flawed. These different callings and purposes further demonstrate God’s sovereignty. Many songs are worthy of being written. Switchfoot will write some, Keith Green, Bach, and perhaps yourself have written others. Some of these songs are about redemption, others about the sunrise, others about nothing in particular: written for the simple joy of music. None of these songs has been born again, and to that end there is no such thing as Christian music. No. Christ didn’t come and die for my songs, he came for me. Yes. My songs are a part of my life. But judging from scripture I can only conclude that our God is much more interested in how I treat the poor and the broken and the hungry than the personal pronouns I use when I sing. I am a believer. Many of these songs talk about this belief. An obligation to say this or do that does not sound like the glorious freedom that Christ died to afford me. I do have an obligation, however, a debt that cannot be settled by my lyrical decisions. My life will be judged by my obedience, not my ability to confine my lyrics to this box or that. We all have a different calling; Switchfoot is trying to be obedient to who we are called to be. We’re not trying to be Audio A or U2 or POD or Bach: we’re trying to be Switchfoot. You see, a song that has the words: ‘Jesus Christ’ is no more or less ‘Christian’ than an instrumental piece. (I’ve heard lots of people say Jesus Christ and they weren’t talking about their redeemer.) You see, Jesus didn’t die for any of my tunes. So there is no hierarchy of life or songs or occupation only obedience. We have a call to take up our cross and follow. We can be sure that these roads will be different for all of us. Just as you have one body and every part has a different function, so in Christ we who are many form one body and each of us belongs to all the others. Please be slow to judge ‘brothers’ who have a different calling.” (via ctkblog.com)

I think “Christian” entertainment needs to start caring more about reaching the lost and less about pandering to a Christian audience, and this may mean having to collaborate with people who don’t believe the same way we do. Hip-hop artist Lecrae has started doing this, and there are Christians who have been critical of it. Lecrae even participated in a BET freestyle segment, and many Christians ripped him apart online just because he was doing it with “secular” artists. Really? Is that the best way do to things? I think we need to be invested in telling good and believable stories, not just checking off a box and making sure certain things are said. I feel we need to break away thinking of things in simple terms of Secular vs. Christian and more along the lines of beneficial vs. meaningless. The question we need to start asking is “What can be redeemed from this?”

To Kill A Mockingbird is not a Christian book, but it offers dramatic pictures of fatherhood and fighting for what is right against insurmountable odds. Many Christians dismiss Harry Potter because it apparently “promotes witchcraft” and yet ignore how the books celebrate loyalty, friendship, and sacrifice. As Foreman said above, Tolkien never says one thing about Christianity in The Lord of the Rings and yet they champion fighting against evil, personal sacrifice, friendship, loyalty, bravery, and selflessness. Many secular songs have challenging and thought-provoking lyrics that aren’t harmful. Some of the best books I’ve ever read are secular. The point is, I think we all need to start looking at entertainment in more nuanced way. If Christ can redeem fallen and hopeless man, then surely we can look to redeem parts of our culture and open up a dialogue between all of us.

All entertainment is telling you a story and demonstrating a worldview, and while a lot of it is utterly meaningless in violence and content, some of it is very important and beneficial if we approach it with a mature way. Schindler’s List is a difficult movie to watch, but generations who have no connection to the Holocaust need to experience it so that future generations will not stand for such evil. Breaking Bad is a story about an ordinary man turning into monster, but it’s a brilliant example of how a cycle of lies and pride will eventually ensnare and destroy not only you, but everyone around you. The Mission isn’t a “Christian” film, yet it’s one of the most amazing and nuanced portrayals of how we are called to love and fight against injustice in the name of God. Just because something may not be “Christian” doesn’t mean we should immediately dismiss it, and to do so shows our own closed-mindedness.

When it comes to entertainment and culture, I feel the worst thing Christians can do is take their ball and go home. You can’t point people to Christ and remain at a distance. You have to find ways to relate and find common ground, and I don’t think presenting artistically sub-par Christian-only programming and then expecting the unsaved masses to be drawn to it is the answer. Finding ways to relate is key. Paul knew this. When he spoke to the Greeks on Mars Hill in Athens (as chronicled in Acts 17), he used examples from their culture and spoke in a way they could understand so that they could find common ground. He summed this idea up in 1st Corinthians 9:19-23: Although I am a free man and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win those under the law. To those who are without that law, like one without the law—not being without God’s law but within Christ’s law—to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so I may become a partner in its benefits. Basically? We need to find common ground so that through the building of relationships and mutual respect, Christ becomes glorified and people will come to know Him.

I think we should approach entertainment prayerfully and with good sense, not snap decisions based on exterior judgments. The upcoming Noah film is probably not going to be accurate to the source material. Maybe we should take this opportunity to start a thoughtful discussion and not immediately boycott it or tell people to not see it and “hit Hollywood in their wallets” (which won’t work). Instead of crying foul, let’s say “Ok, the movie got things wrong, but let’s find a common ground and talk about what really happened and how it points to Christ”. With the Noah film and the upcoming Ridley Scott Exodus film, Hollywood has given us FREE OPPORTUNITIES to start a conversation about God and his story. Let’s use it instead of reacting so negatively like we’ve always done.

When you spin out in a car, driving instructors will tell you to “steer into the skid” to regain control. Panicking and fighting it with knee-jerk reactions will only make it worse and cause you to crash. We need to steer into the skid. We should approach entertainment and find a way to steer the conversation, not violently take the wheel just because someone who doesn’t believe what we do created something we don’t agree with (which shouldn’t be a surprise). We need to break away from being so reactionary and focus on being productive. We’ve pitched our tent in the “Culture is evil” camp instead of trying to make something better. Boycotting things isn’t going to point people to Jesus. Creating quality things with passion will. Perhaps we need to approach Hollywood and popular culture as an ally and not an enemy. We aren’t going to change popular culture through heavy-handed and overly preachy movies that are more about saying the right things than telling a story that captures people’s imaginations artistically and intelligently. We won’t be respected in the music world if we refuse to collaborate with those who may have different beliefs. We had an opportunity decades ago to create something original and attractive, and instead created cringe-worthy knockoffs. We blew it. But, the great thing about God is that he is the God of second chances. We have an opportunity to influence culture in new ways. The question is, are we going to take this opportunity?

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8 Comments

  1. Lexie says:

    Story of my life! There are a few other really awesome resources you may want to check out if you are interested in the intersection of faith and culture – “Walking on Water” by Madeline L’Engle, and “Plowing in Hope” by David Hegeman are good places to start! Also, if you don’t already, get to know Flannery O’ Connor through both her work and her statements about faith.

  2. As a Christian filmmaker, I was challenged by this, but also have a comment or two about your remarks about Christian movies… One of the biggest problems in the world is Christians that aren’t standing up and following the great commission, or aren’t leading their families the right way, etc. If we can get the Christians to change, we have a better chance at getting the rest of the world to change… However, you are correct in your statement that there aren’t enough movies that reach out to bring the world in… Hopefully we can change tha, but it will only happen if the Church is filled with strong Bible-believing Christians… Just a thought….

    1. Jarrod Terry says:

      I agree with you wholeheartedly on Christians standing up! Everything starts with how we carry ourselves as individuals.

  3. KrizSummer says:

    This one really made me think deep knowing that I lived my childhood days scared in being caught listening to secular music. Haha. But I did felt your sentiments before –those times that I ponder why we sometimes try to isolate ourselves when Christ commanded us to reach out?

    But we should remember first that although we are commanded to proclaim the Gospel to the world for many needs to hear it, we still need not to put the Gospel on the market as if we should tone down the Gospel just to make it palatable and please everybody. 🙂 Just deliver it the way it is stated in the Bible. 🙂 And personally, I think delivering it like you’re selling something on the market won’t work –just like wearing a Christian T-shirt doesn’t actually make us radical. The sheep doesn’t seek the Shepherd. It’s the Shepherd who seeks the sheep. 🙂 This means, we don’t actually ‘need’ to do some tricks to lure the world to believe us for no person can seek God on His own. All of us needs God for us to be able to seek Him.

    So how can we proclaim the Word to the world that doesn’t want to hear it especially if we don’t dive into its schemes? A Christian’s obedience to God counts. So much. For our lives are salt and light to the world. When they see the changes in our lives, they’ll know we found the most precious Pearl. But when we proclaim to be Christians yet our lives doesn’t reflect it, we give the world a different image that doesn’t reflect our Lord.

    We are a city on a hill; set apart and dead to what the world does but still reaches out for those who are lost. Separated spiritually but at the same time proclaiming the Good News for both truths were commanded to Christians. We should not compromise either of the two just to try reaching out the world.

    Thank you for this post. I learned something. God bless you. 🙂

    PS: Sorry for giving a very long comment. 🙂

    1. Jarrod Terry says:

      Your long comments are greatly appreciated!

  4. Jean-Pierre LeVert says:

    Jarrod, I appreciate your opinion and agree with it on a general basis but we must be careful in conforming to the world. I will use your example with music. I recently took my teens to Winterfest Jam and was actually surprised to hear secular music with a few “Jesus” thrown in here and there. The music was too loud and some of it was downright obnoxious and made Rage against the machine sound like nursery rhymes. Even the Newsboys were a far cry from what made them talented. They admit to conforming to what “sells” and it reallly sucked. I didnt grow up with a relationship with Messiah and lived a downright wicked life that was totally wrapped around rock and roll (as a musician) and what I saw at Winterfest in the crowd and with the music was no different. Not sure your formula works for the “Christian” music avenue. Thanks for sharing your heart.

    1. Sharon Smith says:

      Jean-Pierre LeVert, your response is exactly why gospel artists will not become POPular artists. If you are singing about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and souls for salvation, the music and its lyrics will not be popular because it requires the hearer to make a decision! I have written in my book “The Black Pentecostal Church: My View from the Pew” Gospel music or ‘Christian’ music is all about the good news, and the news is God sent His Son Jesus Christ to die to save our souls from sin.

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