My formative years as a Christian were heavily influenced by strict fundamentalism (of the independent Baptist variety). I was taught that anything in entertainment that wasn’t expressly Christian wasn’t OK for a “godly” Christian to watch, listen to, read, look at, do. “Separation” from the world is one of the (if not the) chief marks of a holy life. The most godly Christian life is defined as the one that is the most refrained from indulging in anything “worldly.”
“Worldly” is defined really broadly in legalistic circles. Mostly, it was applied to things pertaining to art and entertainment. Movies, music, books, magazines – anything that wasn’t clearly Christian was not acceptable – to God. In fact, if it wasn’t Christian enough, it wasn’t acceptable.
So, for example, not only was secular music not acceptable, but even most Christian music was out of the question. Especially contemporary music. So, not only was everything from U2 to John Denver “worldly” and corrupting, even Michael W. Smith and Steve Green were to be abstained from, not to mention Petra or Third Day! Why? Well, because their music was “worldly.”
You can see that with “standards” like that, that attending a movie (especially in the theater!) was even worse than listening to ungodly music. Movies were too full of worldly ideas, sinful acts, vulgar words, and ungodly attitudes. Especially movies made in color! (Of course no John Wayne movie with all it’s whiskey drinking, killing, and occasional cursing was ever really condemned, since he portrayed the kind of strong masculine toughness, unapologetic maverick individualism, and Wild West cowboy justice that fundamentalists thrive on and esteem. Plus, everybody loves John Wayne!)
Needless to say, non-Christain literature was avoided just as well, and for the same reasons. It would have been frowned upon to be known to be reading a book other than by an acceptable Christian author – someone who largely agreed with fundamentalism’s core tenants. Even if there were “good” books out there (even the classics), they are a waste of time. They just don’t fill your mind with holy thoughts and can lead you into sinful ways of thinking and living.
For now, I’ll spare you the details of my break with this kind of mentality. But I will give you some of the contributing factors. The first was a Biblical understanding of grace: that I cannot make my self MORE acceptable to God than I already am in Christ by His sheer grace – justifying grace. And that I therefore cannot do MORE righteous acts to gain more of God’s favor – I already have His full favor in Christ. The massive effect this reality has is that it frees you from performance-based spirituality – from legalism. And grace becomes a thing of sheer awe.
Once you begin to realize how you were bound by man-made rules of measuring your spirituality, you begin to question everything in your life. What you do and don’t do and why. And, germane to the question I’ve raised, what entertainment and art you can and can’t enjoy.
My thinking on this began to shift when I added another thing of awe: God’s work in creation. Yes, we live in a fallen universe. But the vestiges of God’s beauty and glory are still on bright display. And not just in the sun and stars and oceans and forests and mountains and birds and fish and animals. But also in people. Even lost people.
God made us in His image. And although due to our sin we have lost some of the reflection of God’s image in our beings, we did not loose it all. All is not lost! God’s handiwork in human beings is magnificent! And not just in our physical bodies (eyes, organs, limbs, etc.), but also in our natures and in our work.
God is creative. Oh, is He ever! Who can tell it sufficiently? Just look at the varieties of shapes sizes and colors of fishes, birds, flowers, trees, even people! Look at the color and hue of the sky. It’s breathtaking! Isn’t it amazing how much beauty and creativity and variety He has built into His creation? He didn’t just make one kind of flower and He didn’t just make them all one color. The same goes for all the rest of His hand-made flora, fauna, creatures, and heavenly bodies.
And He put this same creative urge in man. Not just saved men either. All men. God made us to be creative – to produce and enjoy things of beauty. Some of us are better than others at this, no doubt. But all of us are this way.
John Calvin wrote, “The human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator.”
So, why can’t we enjoy the creative expressions of God’s hand-made people? A flower painted by a Christian is not by definition necessarily more beautiful and therefore worthy of enjoyment than the very same flower painted by a non-Christian. A creative and interesting story or book isn’t necessarily better just because a Christian wrote it. The same is true of a song or a movie.
We are allowed to enjoy God’s beauty, even if from the hearts and minds of ungodly men. Classical music is an easy example of that statement. But it doesn’t stop there. Is a song that tells a compelling story, but doesn’t mention God, or isn’t told from a Christian perspective, or a song that expresses deep emotions or even humor, somehow unworthy of being enjoyed by a Christian? Can we not enjoy the story or feel the emotion or laugh out loud? Are we only allowed to do this when Christians are the singers or movie makers or authors or artists?
No. We should delight in the beauty and joy of God’s creation wherever we find it. To do less is to ignore Him in it. Yes, I am saying that I can enjoy God by looking at art painted by an unbeliever. I can learn valuable lessons from books and even movies written and acted by unbelievers. I can even experience common human emotions like sorrow and joy in a song or piece of music not created by a Christian. To do any less would be an insult to God and His goodness in the gifts of creation.
Again John Calvin said it so well: “If we reflect that the Spirit of God [or Christians] is the only fountain of truth [or beauty], we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver.”
God is good and His good gifts are to be enjoyed. Not without discernment, not without thought, lest we partake of forbidden fruit. But we shouldn’t never eat this fruit just because there are some bad apples on the trees. More on that later. Any thoughts?