The Common Neglect of Common Grace Part 2

24 November 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

In yesterday’s post, we discussed the fact the all-too-common loss of common grace within evangelical Christianity.  Common grace is the doctrine that says beauty, goodness and truth are all elements that may be found in a variety of sources by virtue of the imago Dei.  Therefore the divide between the “sacred” and “secular” is not nearly as defined as religious conservatives often suggest.  In today’s post, we will be looking at how to navigate these elements of culture in a redemptive, intelligent way.


I borrow from Robert K. Johnston’s book Reel Spirituality to discuss five general approaches to culture.  Johnston uses these terms to describe the Christian engagement of film, but I use them in a much more general way to discuss the Christian engagement of the arts as a whole.

(1) Avoidance.  The religious response is to avoid all forms of culture altogether.   My Dad grew up in an environment like this.  Movies are forbidden.  Rock music is forbidden.  Many churches even make lists on what genres of music are and are not appropriate.  There is no critical evaluation of the potential merits of a musician or a film, only an ipso facto dismissal based on genre.

(2) Caution.  Others are less rigid and willing to interact with culture, though always through a lens of suspicion.  Music and film are carefully scrutinized for their content.  Things like nudity, language and excessive violence are grounds for immediate dismissal (though the threshold where this occurs seems to be written in jell-o).  Often this sends teens to Christian bookstores to search for sanitized alternatives to secular musicians.

(3) Dialogue.  Others see an opportunity to interact with culture and learn its message.  This often proves helpful in understanding the cultural appeal of certain films, television programs and music trends.  Often this dialogue is intended to shed the light of scriptural reality on cultural movements.

(4) Appropriation.  This position not only seeks a dialogue with culture, but to speak of the direct intersection of faith and culture.  This means not only sharing what scripture says about the film’s themes, but listening to the message the film communicates as well.

(5) Divine encounter.  An increasing number of Christians are now using culture as a broader means of experiencing the presence of God.  God is directly revealed and experienced in the context of a film.  While there are many Christians who profess deep emotional connection to film and music, it is difficult to separate these experiences from the emotion they bring.  Nevertheless, this will be an increasingly popular stance toward culture in the coming years as the media becomes a more prominent ministry tool.

If there is any curiosity in the matter, I personally stand somewhere between positions (3) and (4), though admittedly many of my posts have probably leaned more towards the “appropriation” side of things.  It is also worth mentioning that there may be some overlap in these positions – there is no reason to throw caution to the wind in an effort to dialogue with the latest chart-topping songs or summer blockbuster.


“So?” you may be asking.  “This means we can be entertained.  Big deal.”

Consider David and the prophet Nathan, who revealed theological truth through a story of the rich man robbing the sheep from the poor man.  The statement “You are that man!” must surely have been a suckerpunch to the king’s conscience.  And what of Jesus’ many parables?  Surely story is a powerful tool in capturing the mind and affecting the heart.

Similarly, theological truth can be communicated through the arts.  But as mentioned yesterday, the arts are not wholly pure.  John Milton’s vision of Truth was the body of Osiris.  Dialogue with culture becomes a meaningful way of finding these fragments of truth and understanding their meaning (for a good example of this, see my review of the film Sweeney Todd, where the theme of defiled Eden is explored in the context of Burton’s vision).


If Christian themes may be found in secular writers and musicians, may we then use these elements in the setting of Christian worship?



It’s becoming increasingly popular for pastors to use movie clips and quotes to liven their sermons (I’m not poking fun; I’ve done this personally on more than one occasion).   This becomes sticky when they are not given appropriate context or – worse – they form the basis for our theology rather than being merely illustrative tools (this is one of the many problems with John Eldredge, whose use of “movie theology” drives his points to unbiblical extremes).  But if a pastor is able to use these cultural elements as a means of contextualizing his message or illustrating his points, they may become powerful teaching tools.

But what about the worship music itself?  May we incorporate secular music into our services?  The popular go-to for this type of thing is U2.  Now, I love U2.  There is indeed a great deal of spirituality contained in many of their songs.  But it is unclear that their explicit intention is the worship of God (in one interview, “Where the Streets Have No Name” is described as having been written about Africa, though the 2001 Super Bowl uses the song as a reference to Heaven…so which is it?).  Worship leaders may use secular music, though it is important to be aware of the song’s original meaning.  Only then (and if then) the song may be re-approrpiated for the context of corporate worship.


This isn’t an easy subject to navigate or summarize.  My hope is I’ve provided some ideas and thoughts to encourage you to further explore this subject.  I would commend to you the books I recommended at the conclusion of the “cross cultural” series, notably the books written on the subject of cultural engagement.

In the meantime I celebrate this doctrine of common grace as it frees me from the puritannical restrictions on…well…everything.  I can appreciate the creative gifts and celebrate the guitar skills of Jimi Hendrix.  I can appreciate the quality of acting and directing of film.  I can appreciate the poetry and linguistic skill of T.S. Elliot or even Mary Jo Blige.  And I can attribute all of these abilities to the Giver of those gifts.  And that’s what’s so uncommon about common grace.

24 November 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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