Thursday, September 28, 2006

spiritual competencies, week two: art and pop culture

We are talking today in our second of three talks about Spiritual Competencies. This is an area of relationships and the intersection of faith, art and pop culture. We believe if you’re going to a follower of Jesus Christ who commits heart, mind and soul to the way of Christ, these are three areas of your life you’re never really going to be able to ignore. You’re never really going to be able to ignore the importance of relationships. You’re never going to be able to get around the fact our world has a way it communicates. We have our own films and music and there is an ethic about presentation that is prevalent all over the Western world. You’re never going to be in a part of your life where you’re not in some kind of conflict. Always, you’re going to find yourself to varying degrees of intensity in some friction with another person. These are three examples of areas where we’re all going to have to find some footing as followers of Jesus Christ.

Today we’re going to focus a little bit on the idea of art and pop culture, which for many people is sometimes quite a contentious issue. For people who have a Christian mindset, it’s sometimes very, very difficult to look at film and television or to listen to the music of youth culture in particular. Some of those things seem offensive and at first seem confusing. They seem to represent or advocate a different worldview or perspective than maybe the one you grew up with.

We are going to talk actually in five short segments. The first two will be more theoretical and the last three will be diving a little bit into the scripture. I want to talk today about why I think why it’s important for us to get a footing in understanding and engaging art and pop culture.

For those of you who are familiar with Church history at all, you’ll know right about the 100 years or so after much of the New Testament was written, before even the Bible had been brought together and canonized, much of the epistles, many of the gospels, were written in a language other than English. In fact, they were written in the language of Aramaic. Much of the Hebrew scripture, of course, was written in Hebrew. What that meant is many, many people who wanted to find out about Jesus couldn’t, because they didn’t speak Aramaic or they didn’t speak Hebrew. It meant the life-saving knowledge of our Creator God was only available to people who spoke a particular language, a language, which by the way, was about as prevalent as French in Michigan. There just weren’t a lot of people speaking Aramaic at the time, except for a certain small cluster of Hebrew people.

A translation process began to take first what became later on the New Testament and put it into what is known as Koine Greek. It was the language of the common people or street slang. It was what you’d order your groceries with or talk to your neighbor. It was the language of everyday people and everybody in the Roman Empire knew and understood and spoke Koine Greek.

When the story of Jesus Christ was put into a language everyone could understand and when copies of that story began to move in a language where everyone could access it through the entire Empire, the Gospel began to move. The spread of Christianity began to move and move more quickly. Once people could hear the Gospel in a way they understood it in their own language, they knew the importance of what they were hearing.

I’d like to suggest to you today the language of the 21st Century Western world, the common language everyone speaks, isn’t English—it’s American pop culture. Whether you go to Germany or Canada or Australia or any part of Western Europe, the language everyone speaks and understands is Bay Watch. Everyone knows what My Space is or Lord of the Rings and everyone knows U2. This is the language of the common people.

I think for us if we were to think seriously about bringing the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ to the Western world, we have to be able to communicate in a language they understand. We have to be able to go toe-to-toe with people and find some common ground.

This week, for example, I was in Colorado Springs performing a wedding for a very good friend of mine who is an actor. Because he’s an actor all of his friends, of course, are actors and film makers and screen writers. I got together with a group of people from Los Angeles and we talked for several days about the spiritual life. We talked God talk and theology, but, of course, we have a very different basis of understanding. Many of them are Christ followers, but they have a different grounding than I do as fulltime pastor. Where did we find our common ground? Because I’m with people in the film industry, we find our common ground for talking about the things of God in film. We find it in movies, in television, in characters, in music—in pop culture. Our common understanding of the world around us gives us an avenue to talk about the things of God.

We’re going to continue to explore this theme throughout the rest of the day. I just want you to spend the next couple of minutes and mull over what this means to find this kind of common ground, maybe in the same way the Apostle Paul did when he began to quote Greek poets to Greek philosophers in an effort to talk about the Hebrew God on Mars Hill.

Music Selection

This is really appropriate for what we’re talking about today. When we play music like this and you read words like this, sometimes there’s a fear for many people we’re somehow advocating this kind nihilistic approach to life or advocating a lifestyle that says, “Everything kind of stinks; it’s all going to go to pot anyway so you might as well buy the cheapest liquor you can and have another glass.” The reality is that’s not really what we’re advocating. We are saying is this is how many, many, many people to an increasing degree understand as a method of coping with the world around them.

This is the perspective, by and large, of a 21st Century post-modern youth culture. This is how people cope with things that seem meaningless. They look at the world around them and they can’t find any hope and they don’t know how to put their lives together.

We can all think of people who instead just resign themselves to the fact nothing is going to have any purpose in life and the least they can do is try and glean a little bit of comfort or pleasure out of cheap wine or parties.

When we play music like this or even when you hear music like this somewhere else, the first thing you ought to have triggering in your mind isn’t, “Is this song good or bad.” You’re knee jerk ought to be, “What is my response to this perspective?” Anything in our popular culture demands a response. You can’t read those words and not have some kind of response. You can’t read about hopelessness or hear someone sing about nihilism or despair and have all those things assault you and not, in some way, respond.

The very reason we’re gathering here together today is because we have a hope centered in Christ Jesus. When we are confronted with hopelessness, there is a response that ought to well up in your spirit. You ought to be able to feel, on some level, like you have a counterpoint to the point of this song. You ought to be able to feel, on some level, like there’s more to this story.

When you’re confronted with songs like this, how do you respond? Do you respond by judging the message of the song? Too often, I think many people do. They say, “Oh, that’s a bad song. It’s not Christian; it’s not God-honoring.” All of those things may be true, but to stand around and point the finger doesn’t change the fact this is how many people cope and relate in life. Instead, we ought to follow the example of Christ.

When we meet someone who has no hope, our response shouldn’t be to judge them for not having hope. Our response should be to say, “Do you know there is hope?” When we meet someone who is broken and fragmented, our response ought to be, “Do you know there is some way we can be put back together?” The very reason we are Christ followers is Jesus has put us back together and is still in the process of putting us back together. The fragmentation of our lives doesn’t end, but at least we know who makes the glue and where our hope lies.

I want to challenge you today. Whenever you’re confronted with something with which you don’t agree, don’t let your response be judgment; let your response be dialogue. Don’t look for the things you think are wrong. Look for the things God has asked you to redeem.

Film Clip

If you’re familiar with the movie, Signs, you know Mel Gibson’s character, prior to the starting point in the film, is an Anglican priest. He has this experience where he walks away from God because of the tragic death of his wife. We pick up here halfway through the film and as Mel Gibson talks and we hear his perspective on these two kinds of people, regardless of the choice he advocates moments later, we can resonate with the truth he’s talking about. There are different kinds of people—people ready to accept the miraculous and people who completely disregard it. If you’ve seen the end of the film, you know through an interesting set of circumstances Mel Gibson comes back to faith and comes full circle. The story in many ways is a story of redemption for his character.

I like to use this film and this clip in particular as an example of the way we can find truth in other sources that supports a biblical worldview. Be real careful and don’t hear me incorrectly and think that I think this should be the sixty-seventh book of the Cannon. What I am saying is you can watch, particularly in film, and you can find biblical truth that represent the teachings of Jesus and the ethic of the Christian life, represented thematically in pop culture. In many ways, it’s those things we see in non-Christian sources that open up for us ways of communication and dialogue. Beyond that, they also give us a glimpse of what it means to see God’s beauty everywhere.

This is a big thing in a critical perspective of looking at particularly the visual arts—paintings, sculptures and statues. This is something theologians refer to as oblation. Oblation is when you look at something beautiful and glorify God because of its beauty. When you experience a sense of awe and wonder of something beautiful, you have this sense of communion with God, because he is the author of beauty. It is He who allows us to perceive and identify things as beautiful. We begin to see beauty all over the world and recognize any beauty is, in fact, God’s beauty reflected.

The people who came into Church authority and leadership after the apostles all passed away were known as the early Church fathers. Sometimes it’s called the Patristic Period. All of the disciples are martyred after Jesus’ life except John and you have these few disciples, particularly John, passing on the way of Christ to a group of people who never met him on the earth. Just imagine what it would have been like to around in that point in time. All you’ve got is a few scrapes of paper with James’ name scrawled on the bottom, a few stories about Jesus and a couple of guys who actually knew him and they’re trying to describe to these next-generation Christians what it means to actually follow Jesus.

The people who knew the Apostles personally were the next leaders of the Church—the Church Fathers. One of them is particularly famous; his name is Origen. Origen is famous for a lot of theological things, some good, some bad, but one of the things that has endured is his perspective that all truth is God’s truth regardless of where it’s found. Someone who is ungodly can actually speak truth and still have it be true. By virtue of it being true, it is a reflection of the nature of God. Likewise, someone who is ungodly can create something beautiful and by virtue of it being beautiful, we can recognize and find the glory of God in that. Later, that is called oblation.

Origen is also famous for coming up with a phrase known as plundering the Egyptians. His theory was because all truth was God’s truth, we could go to places that were distinctly ungodly and find those things that were beautiful or true and take them and claim them as our own. We can find the good things in the evil world around us and redeem them and coax them out of people. We can celebrate goodness wherever we can find it.

That’s appropriate and that’s important for us today, because too often, particularly in the West, we’re very quick to condemn anything that doesn’t bear a Christian label. In fact, the world would be a much better place if we simply began to applaud everything that was good. If we just looked around and saw everything that was good, noble or pure, regardless of who is doing it, and said, “I sure wish you had a relationship with Jesus Christ, but in the meantime, that’s awesome. You doing good things in the name of love or nobility or charity, that’s awesome and we applaud it.” This is a powerful, powerful orientation of faith, because the principles of beauty and goodness permeate our whole world and I think it’s our job to find it.

I like the story in Ezra, Chapter 7, Verse 29. We see Ezra, who is charged with rebuilding the Temple of God, giving thanks to God because a non-Hebrew king has given him authority to make something beautiful.

Blessed be GOD, the God-of-Our-Fathers, who put it in the mind of the

King to beautify The Temple of GOD in Jerusalem!

I love that Ezra is just at this point celebrating beauty. He’s going to use beauty to bring honor to God.

We live in a time and a place where it’s very, very difficult for people to justify spending large amounts of money on church buildings. There are all kinds of arguments for and against how that money should be spent, but one of the arguments for making a building beautiful is it brings glory to God. We participate in the glory and the goodness of God and reflect God’s splendor and honor by creating something beautiful in his name.

We find this, of course, not only in architecture, but also in poetry. Let’s look at Psalm, Chapter 29. This is a chapter-long poem, a work of art, that not only by its subject matter but by its very verse and even its translation into a contemporary English language gives honor to God.

Bravo, GOD, bravo! Gods and all angels shout, “Encore!” In awe

before the glory, in awe before God’s visible power.

Stand at attention! Dress your best to honor him!

GOD thunders across the waters, brilliant, his voice and his face,

streaming brightness—GOD, across the flood waters.

GOD’s thunder tympanic, GOD’s thunder symphonic.

GOD’s thunder smashes cedars, GOD topples the northern cedars.

The mountain ranges skip like spring colts, the high ridges jump like

wild kid goats.

GOD’s thunder spits fire. GOD thunders, the wilderness quakes; he

makes the desert of Kadesh shake.

GOD’s thunder sets the oak trees dancing a wild dance, whirling, the

pelting rain strips their branches. We fall to our knees—we call out,


Above the floodwaters is GOD’s throne from which his power flows,

from which he rules the world.

GOD makes his people strong. GOD gives his people peace.

You experience that verse, those words, the rhythm, the meter, of that passage of the Bible and you get a sense of the effort and history and the honor and tradition. You get a sense of what people put into that as an act of honoring and worshiping our Great King.

Think for a moment, because this will trip you out. Think King David wrote Psalm 29 several thousand years ago. That psalm was probably sung out rather than recorded on paper. As David got up and sang that song to a host of people, someone wrote it down as he sang it. What was the spiritual experience like for someone who transcribed that song? How was it different from the way David sang it? We experience God’s glory in either perspective. What would it have been like to have heard him say it? What would it have been like to write it down? What would it have been like to record it in Hebrew in the history books? What would it have been like to re-record it by hand for thousands of years, to translate it into Aramaic, to again translate it into Greek, to translate it into Latin, to translate it into English, to translate it from English into English we could understand? What was that process like for everyone who touched this piece of Bible?

It was an act of glorifying God. You hearing it, David singing it and everyone in between gives us an understanding of that oblation of the glory of God as reflected in something beautiful and artistic.

Music Selection

When we look at the life of Jesus, you find yourself confronted by a series of difficult questions, questions people have wrestled with ever since. People will continue to wrestle with these questions and most importantly is the question of what Jesus was. We know by reading the words in the New Testament Jesus was God incarnate. He wasn’t a piece of God; he wasn’t like God’s younger brother. He fully, as God, came to have a human experience.

We also know he wasn’t just wearing a man-suit; it’s not like he just zipped up the Joshua of Nazareth skin suit and wore it around. It’s not like he divinely possessed some person and moved them around like a meat puppet. Instead, Jesus came as fully God and had a fully human experience. He lived your life before you. He was a carpenter. If he was born today, he would be wearing dirty jeans with a spackle on them and a big rip in the leg. He’d have a stinky t-shirt and watching the game on Sunday afternoon. He was a blue-collar worker, who came into a blue-collar family, who worked for a living. He had a fully human life. He went to the synagogue; he was religious. He had a family; he had great affection for his mother. He came from a background where there would have been a lot of shame about his birth, because his mom wasn’t married when he was born. He would have endured ridicule. He would have gone to school; he would have studied the scriptures of the people. He knew what it was like to be irritated, to be mocked. He was the first example we have in the Bible of somebody who got ticked off at his church and threw the Temple tantrum. He lived like you and I do; he experienced every avenue of human emotion and experience.

When we start to look at art and at pop culture, we have to have Jesus’ incarnation in mind. I’m going to read from the Gospel of John, Chapter 1 in a minute. There’s a great tendency for us to only value those things that are decidedly spiritual and to disregard those things that are common.

We think about this too in terms of our history. Once upon a time there was high art, there was haute couture and there was low art or folk art. The kind of songs people would sing in the bars, the kind of songs many of our hymns stole the tunes from and changed the words. There were these two categories of art—the art of the rich and the art of the poor. That’s not really true in the Western World any longer. There still is a little bit of folk art and haute couture, but by-and-large those two things have been smashed together into pop culture.

It’s in this muddle of everything we would have found Jesus in his day. He went to feasts and festivals and did the common things of the common people. When he prayed, he prayed in plain language. When he talked to his disciples, he had plain conversations with them. Jesus also, who used the great traditions of the Jewish teachers, spoke sometimes in parables. If we’re really to embrace the nature of Jesus Christ, that demands we embrace and imitate how he lived as being in and among the world.

We’re not advocating you go out and buy the top 25 DVDs or download the coolest songs from iTunes. We’re not saying in order to follow Jesus you’ve got to love the media of the world. We are saying though, like Jesus, we should be willing to engage it. Like Jesus, we should find things that are good and celebrate them. We should enter and participate with the world around us and bring something to it—not just blindly accept it, but bring our spiritual worth to it.

Let’s pick up here in John, Chapter 1 and Verse 9.

The Life-Light was the real thing: Every person entering Life

he brings into Light.

He was in the world, the world was there through him, and yet

the world didn’t even notice.

He came to his own people, but they didn’t want him.

But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed

and would do what he said, he made to be their true selves, their

child-of-God selves.

These are the God-begotten, not blood-begotten, not

flesh-begotten, not sex-begotten.

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the

neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the

one-of-a-kind glory, like-Father, like Son, generous inside and out,

true from start to finish.

I love that line:

He made us our true selves, our God selves.

It’s not only possible, but very real and very meaningful in our lives as we intersect with the world around us, God is daily making us more authentically whole. He is building us up into our God-selves. Rather than being polluted by the lies of advertising, instead we are in the process of redeeming the world by living out our God-lives.

Video Clip

We show you this not simply to be caustic or provocative, but we want to provide some bookend to our conversation about intersection with art and faith and pop culture.

Let me talk just a little bit about this video game. I don’t really want to pick on these fellows; I don’t really advocate you go out and download the clip. The idea we want to create something for our children to enjoy on a video game console is a great idea. I think it’s awesome we want to offer something into the realm of this medium. It is applaud-able we want it to look graphically superior. Even that we would take something as popular as the Left Behind series and make it into a game is a really neat idea. I think they ought to be commended for that. In the game you can make the choice to play either the good guys or the bad guys—I even like that. A big thing in video games these days is to be able to pick who you are, to customize your own experience and to complete the game in a different way. I think all of that is really, really cool.

The part, of course, that makes me uncomfortable isn’t any of those things. In fact, I think there’s a lot to learn from the process by which they have created this video game. The part that’s sticky for me is the killing. The part where I lose is where our identity is traded away and we advance this kind of Western, religious, warfare as something in which we ought to participate and advocate.

I think intersecting with the world and finding those things that are good in the media and in the culture of the world is exactly what Jesus’ followers ought to do. But trading away those things in which we believe, swapping out our ethics, to accept even on an imaginary level the idea that killing people who want to kill you is okay or running around with AK47 to defend Jesus is somehow applaud-able, is totally bankrupt. I don’t think we see that kind of ethic anywhere represented in the New Testament and certainly we don’t see that with Jesus.

Remember what happened when Peter chopped the dude’s ear off in the Garden of Gethsemane. Someone came to take away Jesus himself and Peter rose up to defend him. He chopped the guy across the side of the head, took out a big chunk of his face, part of which was his ear—really attacked someone with a sword. Jesus didn’t thank Peter; Jesus didn’t even try to justify Peter’s actions. He rebuked him and then he healed the man he saved.

The problem with much of what we try and do to be relevant isn’t our efforts at being relevant. Those efforts are awesome; I think more people ought to make more efforts to speak a language and to communicate in such a way that more people can understand the identity of Jesus, the love of God for all of creation, the desire of God to know everybody. But in our efforts to be relevant, if we trade away those very things that make Jesus Jesus, if we change the identity of God, if we compromise the love of God in order to tell people about the love of God, it’s a little bit self-defeating. We lose the very point we’re trying to make; we discredit ourselves.

I don’t want to leave you with the violent Left Behind video game. I want to leave you instead with something I think is as applaud-able as that video clip was deplorable. I want to leave you with a speech that was given to a graduating class of a California university, a speech that’s given largely as segments of advice. The filmmaker, Baz Lurhman, made it into a pop song that was released about five or six years ago. The song is called, Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen. The speech is called Wear Sunscreen.

It’s a series of advice that is not quoting scripture, but it’s the advice in which I think we can find the perspective of God—it’s good advice. It’s actually advice in many ways that drove me back to re-engaging my parents and my family and learning to love the people who God has put into my life. It’s going to be up on the screen for you here and I want to leave you in these closing thoughts with something good from somewhere else.

Ladies and gentlemen of…..Westwinds.

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.

The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists,

whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my

own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will

not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded.

But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and

recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before

you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you


Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as

effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble

gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never

crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 pm on

some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.


Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t’ put up with

people who are reckless with yours.


Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead,

sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s

only with yourself.

Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you

succeed in doing this, tell me how.

Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.


Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your

life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what

they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting

40-year-olds I know still don’t.

Get plenty of calcium. Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them

when they’re gone.

Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children,

maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance

the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you

do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either.

Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.

Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don’t be afraid of it or

what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever


Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.

Read the directions, even if you don’t follow them.

Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.

Get to know your parents. You never know when they’ll be gone for

good. Be nice to your siblings. They’re your best link to your past

and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.

Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you

should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and

lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people

who knew you when you were young.

Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.

Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.


Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will

philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize

that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were

noble, and children respected their elders.

Respect your elders.

Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund.

Maybe you’ll have wealthy spouse. But you never know when either

one might run out.

Don’t mess too much with your hair or by the time you’re 40 it will look


Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply

it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the

past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and

recycling it for more than it’s worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen.

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