Dr. Christian Scharen, in his book Faith as a Way of Life: A Vision for Pastoral Leadership, writes compellingly about the challenges of discerning God in the midst of popular culture.
Unlike certain Christian communities who want to put a box around specific forms of culture and label them “safe” or “unsafe,” Dr. Scharen argues for God’s ability to speak to us through a variety of media — the challenge is discernment.
Here’s an excerpt:
“Sin understood as acting badly and grace as the power to act rightly is not wholly wrong. The problem is that this view of sin and grace are weak, too much depending on our ability and too little on the power of evil and of God. On the one hand, if sins are merely acts, we don’t take proper notice of the basic fault of human life that the Reformers in the 15th century called incurvatus in se, or the self curved in on itself. Misunderstanding the deeply sinful nature of our human existence then allows an overly optimistic sense of how easily such a fault can be overcome simply by trying to hide from bad things.
On the other hand, if grace merely gives Christians the power to act rightly, then it both limits grace to a sort of shallow “motivation for doing good” and to a help for Christians alone. If grace is really only for Christians, and then only for helping them do good, then we have nearly lost the vision of God’s love for the “whole cosmos”, as John 3 says in the original Greek, and the nature of an incarnational Word through which all things came to be.
Grace, then, might better be understood as a work of God prior to our salvation, as the capacity for anything to be at all, and as the sense of beauty and possibility that infuses things. Out of this unfathomable grace and love, God seeks to turn us out of self-centeredness and to self-lessness as God is in God’s own life as Trinity. Such abundant giving beyond oneself for the sake of a beautiful but broken world where God is already present, already loving and preserving, does not mean retreat from culture. Rather, it means immersion in it for the sake of God’s desire to call all creation to new life, to a final reconciliation and peace that the biblical writers called “shalom.” Were I to have had this view in mind as I listened that October night to Joe Lovano and Hank Jones, I might have seen immediately the presence of God’s grace flowing into their lives and the moment—irreplaceable and beautiful—in which we shared the transcendence of their music.
The idea is not that we simply baptize popular culture as filled with God—some of it is really quite awful. Rather, the idea is simply that we trust that God’s grace is broad enough to be working in the world, in and through arts and culture, and our ability to see the depth present there allows us to sit and listen fully, deeply, with a generous spirit. C. S. Lewis put it this way: “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” Here, one sees the condensation that the incarnation embodies (“He did not count himself equal with God but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant . . . Philippians 2: 5-11) turned towards the task of engaging all forms of art. By giving ourselves away to the moment, trusting that God’s grace both upholds us and has given the world its great beauty, we can make connections between faith and the expressions of producers of culture.”