Due to technical difficulties, this post got lost along the way, so we’re posting it a little out of order this week. Enjoy.
Not terribly long ago I was thumbing my way through the catalog for a Christian bookstore when I ran across an advertisement for “Guitar Praise,” the Christian version of the popular video game “Guitar Hero.” The game’s tagline read: “Solid Rock—Join a Christian band!”
The whole thing made my mind wander back to a poster I’d seen in youth group. The poster was a long list of bands, broken into genres and sub-genres of music. The left column featured a list of “secular” bands; the right column featured a list of “Christian” bands.
But really, what made me drop my jaw was when I discovered that they also made a Christian version of the video game “Dance Dance Revolution.” I already forget what it was called, I only remember the series of surprises that it elicited. First, I was surprised that such a product even existed. Second, I was surprised that my seminary bookstore carried and sold such a product. And third, I was surprised that my seminary bookstore was sold out on the day that I first learned about it. The school across the street was Southern Baptist, and you know those guys ain’t buying a dancing game (if you’re reading this as a Southern Baptist, I kid! Those Gaither boys can really cut a rug…).
We are right, of course, to be cautious about the sorts of media we consume and the messages it contains. I’m not objecting here to discernment; I’m objecting to labels. It’s like the song from Derek Webb, where he asks: “Don’t teach me about truth and beauty…just label my music…I want a new law.” Stuff like this only reinforces the wrong-headed belief that there is a “secular” world out there and we are safe if we only absorb “Christian” books, music, and movies. But “Christian” isn’t an adjective; it’s a noun. It doesn’t describe the quality of something; it refers to a follower of Christ.
In one of his most famous sermons, Jesus tells his audience that we can’t treat people differently on the basis of a simple division between “neighbor” and “enemy.” Why? Because God shows mercy and provision to all people:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45)
In a society whose economy depended on farming, sunlight and rain represented the promise of blessing and prosperity. The ancient rabbis believed that God showed blessing by sending rain on all people—even non-believers—by virtue of his loving character, and as something of the by-product of his love for his people, Israel.
But this sort of blessing is seen not just in God’s provision, but also in the way that he equips men and women with skills suited to the world they inhabit. Listen to what God says through his messenger, Isaiah, roughly 700 years or so before the birth of Jesus:
Give ear, and hear my voice;
give attention, and hear my speech.
24 Does he who plows for sowing plow continually?
Does he continually open and harrow his ground?
25 When he has leveled its surface,
does he not scatter dill, sow cumin,
and put in wheat in rows
and barley in its proper place,
and emmer as the border?
26 For he is rightly instructed;
his God teaches him.
27 Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge,
nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin,
but dill is beaten out with a stick,
and cumin with a rod.
28 Does one crush grain for bread?
No, he does not thresh it forever;
when he drives his cart wheel over it with his horses, he does not crush it.
29 This also comes from the Lord of hosts;
he is wonderful in counsel
and excellent in wisdom.
Don’t miss what Isaiah is saying here: God is the source of all skills, all abilities. If human beings are made in the image of a God who creates and shapes the world into order (Genesis 1:26), then it only makes sense that God created all people to create and shape the world into order.
Roughly 500 years ago, the reformers would dub this concept “Common Grace.” Common grace has nothing to do with salvation—not directly, anyway. Common grace refers instead to the creative and artistic gifts God grants to all people. John Calvin would write:
“Whenever we come upon [truth] in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole source of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself nor despise it wherever it shall appear….Those men whom Scripture calls ‘natural men’ were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.”(John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
What does this mean? It means that we see God as the ultimate source of goodness, but we shouldn’t neglect the immediate evidence of this goodness in things ranging from books to movies to our favorite Eric Clapton riff. The baseball player that swings for the fences is likewise reflecting the image of his Creator—even if the player doesn’t even recognize this.
What am I getting at? Again, I realize there are plenty of examples of areas that demand thoughtful discernment. But what if, just what if, we had a greater desire to celebrate our culture as sourced in God’s goodness rather than condemn it as another example of human wickedness?
This is important, because Christianity goes one level even deeper. The Christian teaching of the so-called “end times” is really a teaching about God’s new beginning—a new plan for a new creation. The very best things we experience now only point to a far, far greater fulfillment in this new world, the way that a budding flower hints at a greater beauty to come with the changing of seasons. In one of his most celebrated sermons, C.S. Lewis talked about what he called his “inconsolable secret:”
“In speaking of this desire for our own far off country….I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence…Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter…But all this is a cheat….The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things…are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” (C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”)
Art, music, sports, even the craftsmanship that goes into motorcycle repair—these skills and creations all point beyond themselves to a brighter and more glorious world. We call it “Common Grace” now—but what lies ahead is an uncommon treasure.