“I’m coming home this weekend. Let’s get together—want to see a movie?”
“Sure! I’ve been dying to see God’s Not Dead.”
I immediately began to concoct excuses for why I could no longer see my friend that evening. I had read the reviews. I had seen the tweets. God’s Not Dead was a Christian movie.
I had been a Christian long enough to know that I don’t typically care for Christian movies. They are too obvious. Too simplistic.
Unfortunately (or, rather, fortunately), my friend had not yet been initiated into my skepticism. As a matter of fact, he had just started walking with Jesus a couple months earlier.
I arrived in my hometown still unable to manufacture an adequate escape plan, and so I slogged my way into the movie theater with my friend for 90-minutes of drudgery.
Now there are certainly valid criticisms of the film, but my opposition to it didn’t really have anything to do with those criticisms. My opposition was a generic assumption: This is another simple, obvious Christian movie.
For those of you who have not seen God’s Not Dead, the movie centers around Josh, a young man in college whose philosophy teacher explicitly derides the notion that God exists. Josh believes it is a test of his faith to defend the existence of God to the professor and his classmates. The movie follows the student as he makes sacrifices—relationships, grades, time—in order to speak up for what he believes.
Truth be told, the movie is not perfect. It emphasizes faith as a driver of conflict in communities, lacks nuance in addressing higher education, and several of the characters are, well, caricatures—sometimes offensively so.
However, the movie forced me to ask simple questions that had perhaps become too easy to avoid in my day-to-day life: Am I choosing to follow Jesus in every area of my life? What compromises am I making in my faith? How do I handle conflict?
Sophistication and Expectation
Last month, Ruth Graham wrote a widely-discussed article suggesting that grown adults should be embarrassed to read young adult fiction. The article generated a fascinating conversation about art, why we consume it and what we should receive from it.
This conversation reminded me of my reaction to God’s Not Dead. What happens when we apply our notions of sophistication to how we experience God, and our expectations of how others should experience Him?
Our preference for sophistication can be a stumbling block in our own faith and the faith of others. Judgment in the name of sophistication has somehow remained acceptable, even laudable, in today’s culture that scorns judgment in other forms.
Yet, when applied to matters of faith, this sort of judgment can be just as harmful. When our cultural tastes start making people feel inferior for how they relate to God, then our cultural tastes have become a danger. We can convince people that God is unreachable and far away, when our God is close and wants to be known.
Pride Without Knowledge
We can also deceive ourselves. “Graduating” from reading C.S. Lewis to now reading Abraham Kuyper does not count as spiritual formation. We are not better Christians because we listen to one worship band over another. We do not get more saved (safer?) the more elaborate our theological understanding or artistic taste becomes.
This is not to promote anti-intellectualism. We are to love God with all of our mind, and to pursue Him with all of the understanding and intellectual resources we can muster. Christians should absolutely be striving to create the world’s best, most interesting, most thoughtful pieces of art.
What I am warning against is the pride that can come with knowledge, and the deception that more knowledge alone leads to a deeper understanding of God.
The Idol of Cultural Taste
So how do we prevent becoming Christian culture snobs?
First, we can make sure to not make an idol of our artistic and cultural tastes. Perhaps even more than our taste in food, because our faith is so central to who we are as people, our preferences in Christian music, film, authors and so on is guided by our experiences and circumstances.
Second, we can apply a spirit of loving sacrifice in our relationships when it comes to art and culture. When we refuse to put Jesus in the box of our own tastes and predilections, we can be open to experiencing Him in community through other perspectives. Perhaps Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life and God’s Not Dead both have something to tell us about God’s character and our life in Him. There are situations when our view of sophistication should be subjugated in order to serve others, and help them experience Christ for himself.
Faith Like a Child
I almost missed out on the opportunity to have a conversation with my friend about what it means to follow Christ, because I was too “sophisticated” to walk into a movie theater.
I had forgotten what those first few months had felt like after I gave my life to Christ. I was refreshed, certainly, but also uncertain about what it all meant for my everyday life. What does it really mean to be a Christian?
That question has led me to consume all kinds of books, movies and music in pursuit of a deeper understanding of how I can best follow Jesus. But what I keep on returning to is that we have a Savior who says that we can come to him like a child.
My friend needed to hear an affirmation of simple truths that night at the movie theater. I did too. God’s not dead: He’s real, He loves us, and we can follow Him in our daily lives.
Now that is brilliant.
Michael Wear is a writer, speaker and consultant who helps organizations navigate the 21st century American religious and political landscape. He is a former advisor to President Barack Obama, serving in his White House and leading faith outreach for his re-election campaign. MichaelÕs website is michaelrwear.com and he is on twitter at @MichaelRWear.