Creating Church: The Sacred and The Secular

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I come to creativity in church with a theological presupposition. In my youth, I was taught that the world is against us, that there’s therefore nothing useful to Christians in the world. I don’t think my parents and church meant it exactly like I heard it, but that’s what I believed. It was summed up in the idea that if something didn’t overtly direct you to Christ, it was useless and should be discarded altogether.

I firmly remember my mother getting a newsletter in the mail (this was that long ago) claiming that a cartoon I watched was satanic. The evidence presented was dubious at best, but the basic assumption was that everything secular was evil if you looked hard enough.

When I went to seminary, I learned about another idea. John Wesley called it “prevenient grace.” The idea is that God is always trying to redeem everything. He’s invading culture just as I tries to come into our lives, not forcing, but wooing. If you look hard enough, you see the fingerprints of His work.

My experience tells me both are true. We’re in the midst of a war between evil and God. There are times when you’d expect only wonderful things, but evil sneaks in. Other times, you’re surprised to find something redeeming in the least likely places.

When you’re talking to someone who doesn’t believe the Bible, sometimes bringing up something from culture breaks down barriers. Jesus did this when talking to the Sadducees in Luke 20:27-38. They didn’t believe that anything other than the first five books of the Old Testament were actually scripture.

Pharisees would argue with Sadducees by bringing up passages from Psalms or Ezekiel. Jesus quoted Moses. The Sadducees couldn’t disagree with the source of the information.

That’s one thing, but using secular sources is a great way to reach people who believe those sources more than the Bible. How do I know that’s true? It’s actually in the Bible. Let’s start with Acts. Surely, nothing could be more anti-God than an idol, right? What if I told you that Luke, who wrote Acts, told a story about Paul’s interactions with Greeks in Athens. In talking to them, he starts by talking about their monument “to an unknown god” in Acts 17:23. Later, he even quotes one of their poets in verse 28.

If the Apostle Paul used secular sources when doing evangelism, maybe we should, too. If he quoted truth from an artist who didn’t fully understand what he wrote when he wrote, “We are his offspring,” then maybe we ought to quote people respected in our culture.

The first time this idea occurred to me was 1993. One of the young deacons at the church I grew up in stood up to pray one summer night. He started, “A poet wrote, ‘There’s something wrong with the world today…'” and continued with the rest of the first verse of Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge.” I was in my late teens, home from college, and knew who the “poet” was. After his prayer, he left the sanctuary and I met him at the door. “Greg, do you think anyone else knew that was Aerosmith?” He responded, “Not a chance.”

In that church, quoting Aerosmith might have been misunderstood. The point was a good one, though. There is something wrong with the world that needs our prayers.

There are several ways you can use secular art for kingdom purposes. The Apostle Paul used art that illustrated the point he was trying to make about God when he was talking to make. That’s the first way you can use secular art. That’s the way that my friend Greg used it, too. These were overt messages.

You can also use it to address what people believe that you’re trying to bring Biblical truth to. It’s possible show a movie clip to your students that talks about casual sex, so that you can acknowledge that view and bring a Biblical perspective to counter-balance it. I believe that the Word of God doesn’t need to be protected by us, but unleashed. It’s living and active, remember?

Look for metaphors. The church has transliterated a term we should have translated. “Para” means alongside and “ballo” means throw. “Parables” are stories Jesus told where one meaning was thrown alongside the story. I call that a metaphor or an allegory. Sometimes the truth of the Gospel is hidden in a story.

One of my favorite movies is The Matrix. On its surface, it’s a violent scifi movie about a post-apocalyptic future controlled by machines. Below the surface, it’s a story of a group of people who don’t stay where they’re safe, but are fighting a war against a system that enslaves all the people within it. The people don’t think they’re imprisoned. They’re happy with their lives. They even fight against the ones who want to wake them from the lie. Sound familiar? It’s a parable. Jesus didn’t tell it, so it’s not a great one. It’s bad on a lot of levels, but there’s a grain of truth that can be redeemed.

Think about all the stink Christians have made about certain pieces of art. Stopping something you don’t agree with is one thing. Using it for good is even better. I’ve seen Eminem used for an impact that 1980’s contemporary Christian music couldn’t quite deliver.

What about a movie about a pregnant teen? That’s the story of a lot of families. My pastor was adopted. Our transformation pastor has three adopted children. Instead of condemning Juno because the title character had premarital sex and nearly aborted her child, we can point out that she gave a childless woman a child.

Sometimes the difference in what you see is just perspective. That’s why I told you about using Juno. Don’t expect secular art to be pure and perfect. It’s not. We can’t expect people who don’t know Jesus to produce things that perfectly reflect Him.

My friend Spence is a sculptor. His sculpture is obviously Christian. What’s funny is that a lot of the most obviously Christian stuff was made before he came to know Jesus. He told me that a lot of artists are searching for God. There’s something about the artist’s soul that knows that what it feels needs an object to explain it. This sometimes comes out in their art before they can consciously articulate it.

Remember what Jesus said in John 6:44, only people that are drawn by the Father come to Him. I think the fact that some art seems so Christian is proof that the Father is drawing the artist. They’re starting to sense something about the world. Sometimes, just sometimes, when you interact with artists who don’t yet know that they’re seeing a glimpse of the divine, you can even use their art to help them see who Jesus is. It’s really amazing to use the secular that way, to redeem the artist, not just the art.