The Call to Create Culture
by Joel Pelsue.
Remember The Da Vinci Code? Consider the astonishing impact this fictional book had on our culture: It has 60 million copies in print, was translated into 44 languages, and the movie earned $215 million in the domestic box office and $540 million in overseas receipts.
The Christian community rallied by writing pamphlets and books, establishing Web sites, and hosting lectures and forums. All brought clarity and truth to the novel’s claims, which were based on myths and the author’s rich imagination. Many great thinkers, writers, and pastors worked hard to react to the false “facts” in Da Vinci.
It was wonderful to see the Christian community taking the book and film seriously. That’s the first step in taking back culture—what should be ours to impact, as the people of God.
But believers can go much further—by creating films and other media as well as responding to them. While it’s healthy to critique and assess the trends and dangers within our culture, we need to do more. We need to create the new stories, movies, and anthems that inspire and shape culture in America and—because entertainment is one of our major exports—the rest of the world.
When will Christians assume the role of culture shapers, instead of mere reactionaries? Why do we hesitate—are we afraid? Don’t we realize the scope of the problem and the opportunities God is giving us? What biblical passages can equip us for such a task?
The Church’s Response to Hollywood
The Church has had two basic responses to Hollywood: 1) conservative Christians have seen it as the enemy and responded with boycotts and picket signs; 2) liberal Christians have embraced the culture, often taking a social “gospel” to it—one that lacks the power to transform.
Both options fail to be redemptive or transformational. Conservative Christians pursue purity while abandoning the culture. Liberal Christians pursue relevance while abandoning the heart of the gospel. Hollywood sees these dynamics and concludes that the gospel of the conservative church is irrelevant because it is disconnected, and the gospel of the liberal church is irrelevant because it’s merely a social club.
The good news? There’s another approach.
As Jonathan Edwards would claim, a biblical Christian is one who pursues not only personal piety and doctrinal orthodoxy but also cultural relevance. These pursuits are not mutually exclusive, but the one we talk about the least is the responsibility to engage culture.
The Cultural Mandate
From the beginning, God has called us to tend the culture as we would tend a garden. He defined the parameters for Adam and Eve and gave them a mandate: God “took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” He commanded them “to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.”
Just as God brought order out of chaos during creation, He commanded this man and this woman, made in His image, to pursue and maintain order as they established their family, who eventually would populate the earth and create culture.
We were never called to merely focus on ourselves in a pietistic ghetto. Man’s responsibility was to tend creation, so that it would be fruitful, and for man himself to be fruitful. When they were planting seeds, digging irrigation, creating economic systems, or establishing governments, they were fulfilling their calling as men and women made in the image of God and called to create and “subdue.”
So it is today. As we are fruitful, we must tend to our families and society at large, just as Adam and Eve were to tend to their garden.
Abraham Kuyper, one-time prime minister of the Netherlands and founder of The Free University in Amsterdam, brought great clarity to the meaning of this mandate: “In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, ‘That is mine!’”
If we understand this correctly, then it’s embarrassing to realize how few Christians engage and transform our culture by way of media and entertainment. Though we may have been involved in other valuable pursuits such as mercy ministry and missions, we may have neglected journalism, the arts, and business—and the impact their transformation might bring.
If we fed all our homeless and sent millions of missionaries overseas but failed to engage the most powerful communication networks in our own backyard, we would fail to transform this culture and thereby fail to carry out God’s first command.
Bezalel: An Artist Called by God
What does it look like to transform culture? One answer lies in the story of God redeeming His people when they left Egypt. After centuries of their immersion in the pagan idolatry of the Egyptians, God transforms the Israelites’ understanding of culture by commissioning an artist.
In Exodus 31 we read: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel … and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability, and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver, and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.’”
So the first person in the Bible “filled with the Spirit of God” is an artist, yet many Christians barely notice him.
Why? We may skip over his name, because, as good modernists, we assume that art and artists are incidental instead of integral to God’s redemptive plan. So, when pastors, theologians, and churchgoers read this passage, we may simply miss it—like we gloss over genealogies, lists of cities, and other information for which we see no direct link to our daily life. By doing so, we miss something about God’s plan for redemption and a vital connection between our spiritual life and life in the world around us.
Though this is not a commonly preached passage, it was pivotal for the Israelites. After Moses led them out of Egypt, they crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 13-15) and three months later were at the base of Mount Sinai, awaiting God’s directions.
God gave Moses the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), but something else happened on that holy mountain. We find this amazing passage where God specifically calls an artist to do the work of building artifacts for the tabernacle. In fact, a third of Exodus is spent describing the artwork.
When the Israelites heard that God wanted them to build a tabernacle, imagine their shock. Why build anything akin to a temple? They had been rescued from slavery, oppression, and the task of building temples for kings and idols. Their memory was still fresh with the blasphemy that could take place in temples.
It’s easy to imagine a smile on God’s face. Even this act tells of His character as One who redeems—art, artists, temples, and entire cultures, as well as individuals and a whole people group called the Israelites.
In Exodus we learn that God would redeem everything they knew of culture. He did not look at the misguided and misdirected worship of the Egyptians and conclude that it was too corrupt to redeem. Quite the opposite. God rejoiced over the opportunity to show that He redeems all things (Colossians 1), including pagan temples and pagan hearts.
God placed worship at the center of the Israelites’ desert camp, just as it was at the center of Egyptian culture, but now He directed His people to worship the Creator, not the created. He changed the rules and the focus, so they could see how they were designed to be worshipers of the God who made them in His image.
Revolution in Redemption
As God redeemed the Israelites, reshaping the culture they were commanded to tend, artists continued to play a critical role. In battles to come, the ark of the covenant, made by Bezalel and his helper, would be the primary visual reminder of the glory and power of God.
All the artwork—representations of angels, animals, plants, and structural components—were made to help Israelites remember that their God is the One who created everything. He is the One we worship; the beauty we see throughout creation is a reminder of Him.
Not once does God diminish the role of art in worship, nor the value of the artist to reshape their culture. God loves to redeem, and He loves to use the arts.
Bezalel is a model for Christians today, a picture of God’s heart for the art world, for New York, Los Angeles, Hollywood, and the entire entertainment industry. God is not calling us to abandon the arts but to become His hands and feet as He redeems the very center of our culture.
In fact, as we consider this dynamic we may recall other characters in the Bible who were called to be salt and light in the heart of pagan environments. Whether we consider the life of Daniel and how he was called by God to be second in command for idolatrous kings, or how God called Joseph in a similar manner, it’s clear that God does not call us to retreat from working in hostile environments.
This should not sound like a new concept, but to many Christians today, it does. The Church has fallen asleep in the area of engaging culture. It’s as if we are culturally dead, and like Lazarus, need to hear afresh the voice of our Savior calling us to awaken and thrive.
For too long the Church has seen Hollywood as a modern-day Nineveh, and hoped for its destruction. However, God is the great Redeemer, and we are reminded not to be like the prophet Jonah who was angry when the Ninevites repented.
Instead, we must reflect God’s heart to redeem Hollywood and the arts world, realizing there are “other sheep not of this fold.” We must stop demonizing those who don’t know the Savior’s voice. And we must stop minimizing the influence and power of art and entertainment.
It’s time to engage. It’s time to be at the forefront of creating songs, novels, and films that inspire our nation, and ultimately our world. Then we’ll begin to lead the way to a revolution in redemption.
(Joel Pelsue is founder and president of Arts & Entertainment Ministries in Los Angeles, Calif. Pelsue holds a B.A in Philosophy from Westmont College and an M.Div. from Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando. A teaching elder in the PCA, Pelsue has been ministering to artists for more than 15 years.)
Perspectives that Keep Christians Away from Pop Culture
Scope of Redemption. Evangelical Christians often focus on the Great Commission at the expense of the cultural mandate. Yes, God redeems individuals (Ephesians 2:4), but Christ also died to redeem entire people groups (Isaiah 43:1)—thrones, powers, rulers, things visible and invisible (Colossians 1). Creation itself awaits redemption (Romans 8:20-22).
If our view of redemption is focused solely on evangelizing people, we’ll miss our responsibility to tend to the culture. But if our vision of redemption mirrors the Bible, then we’ll realize our obligation to engage culture in every facet, believing God will redeem components of the art world and encourage our children to be part of His plan.
Sacred/Secular Dualism. Many Christians have been dualistic in their thinking, compartmentalizing their world into sacred and secular.
This sacred/secular dualism has led to a separatist mentality. The only way to remain pure was to separate ourselves from any hint of evil within our culture. Therefore, instead of engaging the culture, we withdrew.
This separatism pushed us to the point of creating our own subcultures, including independent “Christian” music labels and production companies. Then, even within the subculture, artists could not write music or create art that was not explicitly religious.
God’s Word speaks of topics such as sensual love between husband and wife, even murder, rape, and lust. However, if “Christian” artists explore these topics, they are harshly criticized and their work usually is not accepted in their marketplace.
Francis Schaeffer lamented, “About all that we have produced is very romantic Sunday school art.” A friend of ours who is a stand-up comedienne does a bit on stage about this sentimental art, and she keeps Christian and non-Christian audiences in stitches. Why? Because it is just as ridiculous as it is true.
Sentimental, nostalgic art can send the message that the “best times” are in the past, while the core of the gospel proclaims the opposite: the best is yet to come. It may require suffering, death, and sorrow, but God will be victorious. Biblical Christians are not pessimists about life or about our culture but believe in God’s sovereignty and His promises of hope.
Discerning Between Form and Content. Some Christians remain separate from culture because of difficulty discerning between content of the artwork and the form in which it’s presented.
If words in a song are bad, then the entire piece, and sometimes the entire genre is condemned (think of the judgment on jazz and rock music). If the words are godly, then the genre may be perceived as holy.
Of course, this doesn’t really work because there is no holy genre. We falsely assume that classical music and high art are pure forms. However, it does not take much research to realize that classical music, operas, and “high art” have their own forays into pagan mythology and graphic themes.
As Gene Veith writes in State of the Arts, “That the arts can be corrupt does not mean that Christians should abandon them. On the contrary, the corruption of the arts means that Christians dare not abandon them any longer.”
Copyright 2007, all rights reserved, byFaith magazine. This article first appeared in the December 2007 issue of byFaith and is reprinted by permission.