Friday, March 9, 2012

Christian Pop Culture

I've observed Christian pop culture for the last seven years. I say "observed" because I don't participate in or consume anything that could be considered Christian media. I just don't identify with the mindset behind it. One of the most alienating traits is the tendency to recreate the conversion experience.

The moment of accepting Jesus Christ as one's personal Lord and Savior is the backbone of evangelical Christianity. Once saved, the convert has reached a critical threshold from which it is impossible to slip. While attending services at an evangelical mega church, I noticed that the messaging operated on a dual track. The unsaved were told how much better their lives would become once they accept Christ, and the saved were reminded of just how empty their lives were before salvation.

It wouldn't be fair to say the church instilled complacency in its congregants because the parishioners were more active than at any other church I've seen. Nevertheless, I couldn't shake the feeling that the primary goal they worked towards (converting others) fostered a sense of spiritual complacency. If accepting Christ as your personal savior is the pinnacle of your spiritual life, where do you go from there? Rather than looking forward towards continued growth, evangelicals are called to look backwards and remember that indelible moment of grace in order to help others experience it. There's definitely kindness in wanting/helping others to experience the same joy you have, but I think it comes at a cost. Many of the evangelicals I encountered were so focused thinking about who they were that they didn't have time to think about who they wanted to become.

This mindset is a common theme in Christian pop culture. Take this Kirk Cameron movie for instance:

At work, inside burning buildings, Capt. Caleb Holt lives by the old firefighter's adage: Never leave your partner behind. At home, in the cooling embers of his marriage, he lives by his own rules.

As the couple prepares to enter divorce proceedings, Caleb's father challenges his son to commit to a 40-day experiment: "The Love Dare." Wondering if it's even worth the effort, Caleb agrees-for his father's sake more than for his marriage. When Caleb discovers the book's daily challenges are tied into his parents' newfound faith, his already limited interest is further dampened.

While trying to stay true to his promise, Caleb becomes frustrated time and again. He finally asks his father, "How am I supposed to show love to somebody who constantly rejects me?

When his father explains that this is the love Christ shows to us, Caleb makes a life-changing commitment to love God. And with God's help he begins to understand what it means to truly love his wife.

This movie presents no challenge to the already saved. The character who is called upon to change is the one who has not yet found God. The film's usefulness as a tool for evangelizing is clear: Have a troubled marriage? Accept Christ as your personal savior and all will end well. But the film also operates on the same dual tracks I saw at the mega church. The message it directs towards believers doesn't inspire them to behave any differently. It simply reaffirms a choice they have already made.

Scott Nehring complained of this dynamic in a 2010 piece called Why Are Christian Movies So Bad:

Rather than developing organically, the average Christian film is more pushy and sanctimonious than the global-warming agenda movies... By movie’s end, everyone is converted with no residual issues. Life is reduced to an after-school special with prayer thrown in for good measure. For me, this is where the dry heaving begins.

From a Catholic (and more specifically Jesuit) background, I have a difficult time identifying with a tradition that places so much emphasis on a single fixed point in time. Faith is a journey and it changes as we change. As a Catholic, I find an immeasurable degree of comfort in the repetitious nature of the Sacraments. The pinnacle event of Catholicism isn't something that happens once. The Eucharist takes place every week (technically daily or even hourly, I suppose). It follows you throughout your life and its meaning deepens and grows with you as you change. Similarly, the Jesuit tradition is one of constant reflection with an eye towards who we should become based on who we are at any given moment.

I don't mean any ill will towards people who enjoy Christian pop culture, it's just something I can never really feel comfortable with because of its over emphasis on an event I have never experienced and its lack of a challenging message for believers. I still find Christian media endlessly fascinating and happily remain an observer.

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