The City of God. Christ and Culture. There are more. But these two books, one from the 4th century and one from the 20th, illustrate the point: Christians have been thinking about how Christ and culture relate since…well…since Christ entered culture on that first Christmas. As usual, our ancestors in the faith have come to many bona fide (some not so bona fide) ways to live out this relationship. And every so often, some cultural phenomenon breathes fresh oxygen onto the embers of this debate.
On a related note, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part 2) came out at midnight this past Friday morning. Some of the numbers surrounding these books and movies are truly staggering. Much has been made of Christians who have shunned the whole Harry Potter empire as satanic or a glorification of witchcraft. And while we can always count on getting a good laugh at those silly “fundamentalists,” let me suggest that their position at least shows some degree of thoughtfulness about how Christians live out their faith in a culture has the potential to both reflect God and undermine genuine Christianity. Let’s look quickly at a spectrum of how Christians might relate to culture:
1. Crusades to Conquistadors. Christians have at times believed their mission to be a conquering of cultures (whether spiritually or politically) in the name of Christ. In this view, Christianity (often closely intertwined with one’s own culture of origin) sees other cultures as completely blind and without God and in need of a total overhaul. Here is where Harry-Potter-haters come into play. They see one hint of sin (witchcraft, in this case) in a cultural product and see that as reason enough to reject or seek to destroy it. We’ll call this group “Purists.”
2. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” So asked Tertullian way back in the 3rd century. His implication was that our culture has one way of doing things and Christianity has a whole other way of doing things. Christians don’t need to interact with or learn from culture at all since we have a whole other Kingdom to guide us. In this case, culture is not as much a threat or enemy as it is a completely worthless entity to the Christian (not that we could actually live completely unaffected by our culture). This approach to Harry Potter might be Christians who say, “I just read the Bible and don’t have time for such secular reading.” Our Amish/Mennonite siblings (for whom I have much respect) have predominantly taken this approach to culture. We’ll call this group “Separatists.” (You’ll see that there might be some overlap in these camps.)
3. “God is everywhere!” This phrase has the potential to be theologically accurate, but this extreme basically provides a rubber-stamp to everything. It’s all good. This group may have certain things they don’t think have any redeeming value whatsoever. But where the Purists reject based on one hint of sin, this group accepts based on one hint of godliness. This approach would look at some of the themes running through the Harry Potter books and declare it a good Christian series. We’ll call this group “Accepters.” (OK, I ran out of good names.)
I don’t find any of these approaches to be particularly useful in actually following Jesus’ call to love God and love our neighbors. Why? Because I think the Christian Story is a bit deeper than any one of these approaches (especially my over-simplifications of them).
1. Imago Dei (Image of God). In Genesis 1:28, we are told that the woman and man were created “in God’s image.” In function, essence, and relational bent, humans were created as representatives for God to care and cultivate his creation who reflect something of the Creator to the creation. Even after the Fall, we see humans described as having God’s image. As we approach culture, I think this means that we should expect to see glimpses of God’s image in every person or culture. Even including those who know nothing of Jesus or the Gospel, we have been wired to cultivate, care, influence, create, and relate. In my opinion, the Purist, in rejecting all things that don’t have the label “Christian,” is missing out on a huge way God is revealing himself in this world: in his creatures and in the work that those image-bearing creatures do. As the Harry Potter series has gone on, Christians have increasingly recognized wonderful Gospel themes in the story like faithfulness, sacrificial love, integrity, good’s triumph over evil, etc. We find these themes played out in art, philosophy, even other religions. Far from diminishing the impact of the Gospel, I believe this shows the way the Gospel Story oozes up through our fallen world and speaks to the longings and conditions of every culture. These stories, ideas, and creations may even “prime the pump” for people and cultures to understand Jesus and the Gospel Story when the time comes. At the very least, Harry Potter is a good starting point for Christians to engage people in our culture, a kind of opening act for our witness to the Gospel.
2. Missio Dei (Mission of God). What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? In full Jesus-mode, I answer this question with a question: “What has heaven to do with earth?” If Imago Dei challenges the Purist approach to culture, I believe the Incarnation and Pentecost challenge the Separatist approach. As we find in Isaiah, Revelation, and some of our great hymns (see v. 3), the ultimate hope of our Faith is the reunion of heaven and earth, of Creator with his creation. And just as the heavenly Word of God engaged earthly people, the Christian call to follow Christ demands that we engage our culture. The great missionary Paul engages the Athenian culture, pointing out where their philosophers have glimpsed the Gospel and where they have come up short. We cannot afford to separate from our culture. It doesn’t mean we have to read every bestseller or watch every movie (especially to the total neglect of the Scriptures or Christian community). It doesn’t mean we have to like every pop musician. Being a student of culture, however, is a necessary part of relevant Gospel storytelling. Watch Harry Potter and The Breakfast Club. Read the newspaper and popular books by atheists. Listen to Lady Gaga and a political pundit you disagree with, because listening to understand is part of loving. And loving our neighbors is the second greatest commandment.
3. Sin. As we engage our culture, mining it for glimpses of God’s image and listening to its voices, we must not neglect that reality of sin in ourselves and our culture. While I’m quite confident that the witchcraft of Harry Potter little resembles real witchcraft, the Old Testament and New Testament both warn that dabbling in the occult is spiritually dangerous if we do believe the spiritual realm exists (which the Bible assumes). But it may be equally dangerous to engage culture thoughtlessly. As much as God’s Image pervades all areas of culture, so do the twisting, deceptive, life-taking forces of sin and evil. The “Imago Dei” and “Missio Dei” points above can be easily used to justify indulgence in cultural products that really are stumbling blocks to our faith. For instance, as much as I would encourage some Christians to consider a calling to minister in bars (because that’s where people are), I would not encourage a recovering alcoholic Christian who still struggles with that temptation to pursue such a ministry. Or, the video game world might be a really valid place to meet people and witness a different way of doing virtual life, but not when the video game starts to take over the disciple’s life. There may be some movies that are so saturated in sin that the tiny glimpse of redemptive themes hardly make them worth viewing. As much as witchcraft may be a genuine concern for some Christians, I think that far more concerning are the subtle ways sin lurks to subvert the Gospel in generally accepted, everyday cultural products. Focusing so much energy on overt “sins” like Harry Potter’s witchcraft (again, it is more fantasy than witchcraft) distracts us and makes us vulnerable to the stronger cultural forces that subtly subvert the Gospel. When we do engage, we must pay attention to where the glimpse of God ends, and when it is time to get (back) to the real thing: God revealed to us in Jesus.
The Christian Purist, Separatist, and Accepter attempt to let rules drive their life of faith. As much as we may say we hate rules, we are drawn to them from childhood because they are simple, black-and-white, and thoughtless: easy. The Gospel exposes rules as incomplete ways of doing life. Sure there are some behaviors that are always wrong, but the Grace and Mission lift us to a more excellent way: the messy, complicated, life-changing, and ultimately fulfilling Way of Love. Jesus lived by engaging the culture, breaking the rules that discouraged love, and offering a wonderful alternative to both the way of exclusionary rules and of thoughtless standardlessness: the Kingdom of God.
Oh, so is Harry Potter more antichrist or Christ-figure? I would suggest we see him as a classic Christ-figure. Every Christ-figure comes up short of the real thing, but helps us to see the beauty and love of Jesus from a new perspective. So go ahead, watch and read, and then praise God for the Christ who is the Beginning and End of all that is truly love, the Author and Perfector of every good and true story.
For a brief intro to some of Richard Niebuhr’s conclusions on the topic: http://www.ericfarkas.com/richard-neihburs-christ-and-culture-spectrum