Saturday, September 21, 2013

Seeing Christ in Pop Culture

Samuel Kaldas, a philosophy and history dual major at the University of Sydney, and one of my favorite Coptic bloggers, wrote an excellent 3-part series on being able to see Christ in the secular world, even in secular songs and movies.  Below I will provide some of my favorite excerpts from the series.  The link to the original series on his blog is at the bottom.

Part 1: "What do the church fathers say?"
Sam, of course, roots his opinion in the thought of the early church fathers. In part 1, he gives an overview of what various champions of our faith have to say about reading and quoting secular authors. At the end, he also gives links to their original writings on this issue. Some excerpts from part 1:
For the fathers, the Scriptures were the only source of full and complete knowledge about God’s salvation (as far as that knowledge is expressible in human language). But they also believed that God’s grace and truth flowed out upon the whole world, and that righteous pagans had apprehended the truth of Christ partially and incompletely. 
For St. Basil (as for St. Clement), the pagan writers can be a helpful and godly source of spiritual instruction, so long as they are always perceived as imperfect mirrors of the truths contained fully in the Scriptures 
For St. Justin Martyr, the goodness which the pagan authors apprehended was none other than Christ Himself (for what other source of goodness is there?): “… whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word. 
St. Clement says, “I call him truly learned who brings everything to bear on the truth; so that, from geometry, and music, and grammar, and philosophy itself, culling what is useful, he guards the faith against assault.” (Stromata 1.9) Seeing Christ in all things is a powerful testimony to the robustness and universality of Christ; a worthy work of praise and instruction for any believers who choose to undertake it. 
In short then, the attitude to secular literature found in the fathers discussed above is this:
1 – Because God’s grace fills the whole world, secular literature reflects (imperfectly) the truths held by the Church.
2 – Those who are able are not only permitted, but encouraged, to study secular works and draw out the divine truths therein as a sort of ‘practice’ for learning and living the truths of Scripture.
Part 2: "Why should servants bother?"
Even though we know the church fathers' approved of seeing Christ in the works of secular writers, why should we bother trying to analyze when we already have the Scriptures? Sam addresses this concern in part 2. Some excerpts:
One of the most important reasons is for the work of evangelism. It would be a mistake to think that the only proper targets for evangelism are people outside the Church. Evangelism means taking the Gospel to places where it is not, and that is something which we often have to do among cradle Orthodox as well as to non-Christians. No-one is ‘born Christian.’ It’s not hard to tell that we are losing large numbers of youth who grew up as churchgoing children ... at least part of the problem is that there is a disconnect between Western youth culture and the culture prevalent in immigrant Orthodox Churches. ... The use of secular culture is an important part of breaking down cultural barriers in evangelism. 
St. Paul became a Greek to the Greeks; I think we should become youth to the youth. Part of that process is finding the reflections of Christ which already exist in their world, and identifying them with Christ.
Part 3: "The One whom you worship without knowing"
In the last, and my favorite, part of the series, Sam starts giving practical examples of seeing Christ in pop culture, and continues his argument on how beneficial and albeit it necessary it is to train ourselves with this mindset.  Some excerpts:
The purpose of drawing out the Christian truths reflected in popular culture is to proclaim to anyone who enjoys it ‘the One whom they worship without knowing.’ 
There are few people nowadays who cannot point to a favourite movie or novel; we should never underestimate the power (and the sheer, humble honesty) of acknowledging that even though a work might not be produced by the Church, it still reflects Christ Himself in its own way. And maybe, just maybe, the things which a person loves about that work, are features of Christ Himself.
Common structure of movies that mirror the Christian story of salvation:
  1. The Ordinary World: the hero’s homeland, where all is well. (Eden)
  2. Call to Adventure: the ordinary world is threatened by an evil force. (‘Death enters into the world by the envy of the Devil’)
  3. The Journey: the hero embarks on a quest to save what is threatened; he encounters many trials along the way. (The Incarnation)
  4. The Trial: the hero makes a terrible sacrifice or comes into extreme personal danger at the hands of the enemy. All seems lost. (The Cross)
  5. Resurrection: the hero’s sacrifice pays off. He is not killed, but ‘rises’ with new and greater power to defeat the evil force. (The Resurrection of Christ and the founding of the Church on His Blood)
  6. Return: the evil force is defeated and the hero returns to his homeland (the Second Coming and Heaven)
The key is always that the hero, whom we’ve grown to love and admire, gives themselves over to death; destroying the enemy’s power by their sacrifice.
(Can be seen in The Matrix, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, the Batman series, etc whatever else you can think of)
It is not a coincidence that our popular culture, so full of meaningless violence and crudity, still reveals an inescapable obsession with the idea that powerful evil can only be overcome with heroic sacrifice
we should not call this mere coincidence; we should rejoice that for all its failings, our popular culture still retains an ancient memory of the Christ-like hero
Church servants simply cannot tell them to stop reading silly books and pick up an Agpia. They cannot, because to do so would be to ignore and belittle their apprehension of a genuine truth. ... Once they have made the connection between the nobility, courage and truth they apprehend in their favourite works of fiction and the nobility, courage and truth of the living Christ, we will have trouble keeping them away from their Agpias, and from serving Christ the Conquering Hero
For some, the use of popular culture in youth ministry might seem dangerous and unnecessary. But it’s certainly equally dangerous to assume that our youth are incapable of discernment and treat them like babies. ... To do effective youth ministry, we need to find a balance between warning against the dangers and pitfalls of popular culture, and highlighting the good elements contained in it.

Here is the link to the full series on his blog, just 3 of his many awesome posts:

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