Culture At Large

In Defense of Christian Cultural Engagement

Josh Larsen

“Cultural engagement” is our bread and butter here at Think Christian. With limited resources, we do our best to engage with every square inch of God’s creation. So it was a bit disheartening to see some fellow sojourners in this task recently eye the phrase, if not the practice, with skepticism.

In fact, I was a bit surprised when I first read Will McDavid’s Mockingbird piece, which described cultural engagement by Christians as a “trendy thing.” According to McDavid, this has mostly amounted to a lot of talk about what it means to engage culture, rather than any actual engagement with specific cultural artifacts. Yet as a church-raised, movie-obsessed child of the 1990s culture wars, I’ve spent my whole life among Christians who have actively engaged film art - often combatively, but also, here and there, with grace. What’s more, Mockingbird itself is steeped in the practice. While McDavid does frame his piece as something of a self-critique, it’s also fairly sweeping, especially of the Reformed corner of the room where TC hangs out.

Essentially, McDavid questioned the need for explicitly Christian cultural criticism. In a response she wrote for her Christianity TodayWatch This Way column (itself an excellent exercise in cultural engagement), Alissa Wilkinson didn’t go that far. But she did argue that Christian critics too often approach cultural products as “proof texts,” ignoring the significance of form (cinematography, editing, etc.) and instead only being concerned with a movie’s message – especially whether or not that message affirms a Christian worldview.

In a broad sense, I agree with what both of these folks have to say. Certainly, as McDavid suggests, Christians are needed as critics outside of our Christian subculture. (I’m grateful to have other outlets where I can do that.) And Wilkinson’s call to focus on form is one way our Christian criticism can avoid the dreaded, pop culture Jesus juke. Yet I wonder: if we allow these perspectives to be our guiding directives as Christian critics, might we be giving up what makes us distinctive?

Film criticism, for instance, has a rich tradition of specialized analysis. From the Marxist criticism of Harry Alan Potamkin to the feminist criticism of Molly Haskell, movies have long been analyzed by particular people through their particular lenses. And film culture has been the richer for it. Surely there’s a place for Christian criticism of this sort as well?

I still want to reserve the freedom for Christians to engage with art in a way that will make our criticism distinct.

When I first started writing about movies for Think Christian in 2009, it was exhilarating to find a place that allowed me to do something like this. Coming out of college, my options were limited to the likes of Movieguide, with its obsessively detailed rating system designed to ferret out every last bit of “objectionable” content. I pursued a career in the mainstream press instead, and after years of writing about film for popular audiences, TC felt like a welcome home and a new creative outlet.

It’s also been a challenging one, because as Wilkinson notes, it’s always tempting to proof text or moralize when writing about film from an explicitly Christian perspective. To be honest, I’m still not sure I’m doing it all that well. Speaking to a secular crowd comes more naturally to me, and in retrospect, some of my TC pieces read like clumsy Jesus jukes. Yet I still want to reserve the freedom for Christians to engage with art in a way that will make our criticism distinct from the rest of the world's and add to the cultural conversation (as the work of Haskell and Potamkin has). I wouldn’t want to give up the idea that Christians can mine movies for theological resonance, even if the movie itself is largely interested in other things.

This doesn’t mean we have to dominate the discussion or declare our interpretation to be the correct one. (As I wrote earlier, Christians don’t own the copyright on Noah.) When I watch Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow and see an intriguing parallel to a works-based salvation ethic, I’m not claiming that this is what the movie ultimately “means.” Nor am I saying that because I don’t agree with the ethic the film is in some ways espousing, that the movie is “bad.” I’m simply approaching the movie as a cultural artifact and analyzing how it looks through my Christian lens.

Despite the dismay I sensed from McDavid and Wilkinson’s pieces, there are places where others are engaging culture in this way. It’s happening at Brehm Film, Christ & Pop Culture, Comment, Image, and Sojourners, among other places. And McDavid and Wilkinson should take heart – it’s also happening at Mockingbird and Christianity Today. Can we all do better? Of course, and as a challenge to improve, both pieces are instructive. (I especially like Wilkinson’s call to pay attention to form, something I need to integrate more intentionally into my TC writing.) If Christian cultural engagement is indeed a trendy thing, then I’m all for it. I only hope that, unlike most trends, it doesn’t fade away.

Topics: Culture At Large