My kids watched VeggieTales the other night, and as Bob the Tomato plopped around the screen, it struck me: I am deeply thankful for so-called “Christian culture.”
Yes, products of this kind can veer (all too easily) into kitsch and easy moralism. Some companies seem to operate by the philosophy that if you slap an evangelical-friendly label on an item, you can gull some folks into buying it regardless of quality, regardless of craftsmanship, regardless of theological thoughtfulness. I don’t support such cynical undertakings. The evangelical world has far too many of them, to be sure.
That stated, I’ve been strengthened, blessed, and helped by intentionally Christian products and efforts. Some folks sneer at “Christian school” or “Christian homeschooling,” but I don’t; I’m thrilled to hear of little children receiving a deep education in the things of God, whether in a formal school or the kitchen. You get irony points for laughing at “Christian art,” but I’m thankful that artists over the centuries have sought to create beautiful works that lift up the spirit. “Christian rap” or “gospel hip hop” is a widely-debated topic today, but I am grateful for many artists who catechized me and opened my eyes to the beauty of God and the world he has made.
In truth, we need not choose between pursuing beauty and glorifying God, as the neo-evangelicals understood. Sometimes even Christians buy this dichotomized vision of the arts, of culture-making, but we need not. Neither should we feel shame for using our gifts for the explicit purpose of praising the Lord and training the church’s eyes on excellency. It is great to teach kids the faith through radio-show skits. It is a lovely thing to write books aimed at moral education (even if every single page doesn’t have a two-paragraph summary of the gospel). It is terrific to create a home environment filled with the happiness of God-celebrating media.
These endeavors and a thousand others will not get you cool points from a secular culture; a secular culture aims at, bends at, getting you to do the opposite. It wants you to laugh at earnesty. It wants you to joke sarcastically at every turn. It wants you to be persistently cynical, and model that stylish cynicism to your children. It wants you to feel weird about training your kids in the faith, and so provide an anti-training that dives deeply into the world but only skirts around Christian truth. It wants you to praise your kids for liking secular bands, watching an unending stream of secular movies, and thinking in secular paradigms. But when taken together, this amounts to anti-formation, not spiritual formation. It is a long, slow undoing.
Some may wonder at this juncture whether I mean by implication that children of Christian fathers or mothers should consume only so-called Christian culture. I don’t think this. My point is to advocate for the excellent things, the beautiful things, the enduring things as the pursuit of a Christian home. This cannot mean only what elite magazines say is “good art.” It must fundamentally and primarily mean the things of God (Philippians 4:8). We do not cram fistfuls of so-called Christian culture into our kids’ minds; we do, however, cheerfully introduce them to all sorts of uplifting, edifying products.
You could say it this way: we treat our kids as if they have a soul. Unlike a secular approach, we raise our children as if they possess a soul that needs and even craves spiritual nourishment, theological feeding, fog-clearing wisdom, and jaw-dropping beauty. All such gifts center in and proceed from God, not secularism. He is truth (John 14:6). He is beauty (Isaiah 33:17). He is goodness (Luke 18:19).
We need to square with this: Christianity is not cool. It is not supposed to be cool. Individual Christians may end up being cool (hopefully with minimal effort), and that’s fair shooting, but you will search the Bible in vain for a summons to coolness. Christianity stands for something much better, thicker, and more meaningful than being enviably set-apart in social terms. It stands for maturity, for wholeness, for earnest seeking after God, for honesty, for genuine love. Christianity is not about laughing at the social misfit, as the cool kids do; it is about befriending the social misfit when no one else will.
Jesus did not die so you could be cool. Jesus died so you could escape the torments of hell and sing his praises in the new heavens and new earth for all eternity.
There is freedom, very substantial and enjoyable freedom, in the Christian life. We are free to develop aesthetic interests and cultivate cultured tastes. I certainly try to do so. We love to see excellency wherever it is found. But as my favorite theologian, Jonathan Edwards, taught in spades, our primary interest in excellency is theological, spiritual, and moral (see his twin works entitled Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World and Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue—here’s an accessible take on this text and others by him). Everything else stems from this theocentric starting-point.
This is personal for me, as I am sure it is for many others. I remember being a bit adrift in college after consuming a good deal of non-Christian culture. This was nobody’s fault but my own; I knew I was spiritually malnourished. Randomly one night, I stumbled across the Gospel Gangstaz on a television show. I immediately ordered their CDs. Through them, I discovered a whole underground galaxy of Christian rap (I’ve always loved rap—the car sound system was predestined for East Coast beats, I’d argue), one in which a diverse and underappreciated group of artists skillfully plied their trade. Braille, The Cross Movement, Grits, later Lecrae, Trip Lee, and a host of others—these artists built me up. They strengthened my faith. In the simplest possible terms, they showed me Christ, and helped me love him more than I loved the world.
Not everyone has such a calling. That’s fine. But to any artists and other folks engaged in such work, here is what I say: God bless you. Thank you. Thank you for not caring about the praise of man. Thank you for helping a goofy college kid laser in on the glory of God. To the authors, skit-performers, textbook-writers, television-show creators, rappers, cellists, Christian school administrators, homeschooling mothers, and a veritable army of creative men and women of God: thank you. Thank you for building up my children in the most holy faith. Thank you for caring little about what the critics say, and caring much for the souls of precious little ones.
I love the pursuit of beauty. It takes you interesting places, leaving you to ponder philosophy, art, journalism, music, and film made by many people, including unbelievers. What was it Jesus said to the scribe? You are not far from the kingdom of God. Those words from Mark 12:34 apply to some culture-makers whose work we engage. But as Christians, we do not only read Austen, or listen to Strauss, or dissect Stillman. We also might find ourselves watching Bob the Tomato, and laughing along with our children at his antics. We might, if we’re not careful, even feel gratitude for such media.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the Center for Public Theology website.