Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
The Gospel Coalition has concluded its 2015 conference about the New Heavens and New Earth (photos and videos here). I wasn’t there (though CAPC was) but I know that speakers affirmed that we often neglect a robust biblical vision of human resurrection, God’s promised renewal of His physical creation, and the fact that God’s physical gifts are not unimportant or less “spiritual” but are made holy by “spiritual” tasks like Bible reading and prayer.I believe that popular culture — yes, including literal discs and books and songs — will last into eternal life.
To all this I give a hearty “amen.” But I would remind “resurrection movement” Christians that this vision applies not only to humans and Earth, but also to popular culture.
Ask this: At the end of all things, what happens to all of our pop culture, to literal items such as Blu-ray discs, books, LPs, smartphones, comic books, and game consoles? We might recall a flawed view of 2 Peter 3:10: that believes God will annihilate the earth and everything on it, and create some other eternal existence that won’t have any of that stuff. But now many Christians have gotten hold of more solid resurrection/New Earth teaching. This truth should change all we assume about popular culture. That’s why I believe that popular culture — yes, including literal discs and books and songs — will last into eternal life.
First, God’s word never contradicts this, but subtly affirms it: Popular culture and human culture from the beginning has been part of God’s gift of the “cultural mandate“ to human beings. Making stories and songs are naturally human activities, as natural as breathing or sleeping. God created man; man subcreates culture such as wine-making and feasts, and we make stories and songs to enjoy at feasts. As long as humans exist, human culture along with popular culture will exist. And on New Earth God will make us more human, not less.
Second, Scripture itself will last forever. And Scripture includes a brief history of a long-lost golden age of popular culture (Genesis 4:21-22) and even quotes from Greek pop culture writers (Acts 17:28). Clearly the Bible won’t “censor” this pop culture for eternity.
Third and best of all, the Bible specifically affirms that culture (and pop culture) will last forever when it promises kings will bring their glories into the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:24). These “glories” are describing cultural goods that must include art, film, plays, novels, shows, folk and rock songs, comic art, games, and more. Just as New Earth must be an actual Earth, a city must be an actual city, which must include all kinds of human culture.
This notion seems radical. While older authors such as John Calvin remind us that “liberal arts” reflect God’s common grace, they often casually dismiss “common” culture such as novels and plays. But there is no reason to split one from the other, especially when much “classic” culture, such as Shakespeare plays and jazz music, began as pop culture.
Some have also said, “This idea will make people materialistic.” But first, if the doctrine is based in Scripture and someone uses it to justify sin, it’s not the doctrine’s fault. Second, we must fight the sin of materialism knowing that materialism comes from our own heart-level abuse of material things, not the thing itself. Third, if we view pop culture-making as God’s gift to humanity, that places this gift entirely on His terms. He can give it or take it away.
Others say, “Popular culture may last forever, but not the bad stuff.” Author Randy Alcorn, whose book Heaven reawakened me to resurrection/New Earth truth, suggests books and movies will last forever but will be theologically cleaned up. I’m not sure I agree. If the Bible shows saints in heaven who recall sin and suffering (Revelation 6:9-11), and if we won’t be “greater fools in Paradise than we are here” (as George McDonald said), why could we not have pop artifacts that still include endorsements of sin? This is more conceivable when we know that sinful people still make beautiful and truthful things. Resurrected saints would know more about sin, not less, and can clearly see sin-celebrating culture for what it is.
Finally, some may respond, “This is a Jesus juke. We needn’t over-spiritualize pop culture. It already has value because it’s Art and all that.” Then do we assume pop culture in eternity will be “beneath” us as we focus on “spiritual” things? Why then not ignore popular culture today and focus only on “spiritual” things (as some Christians still wrongly insist, contrary to Scripture and God-endorsed human nature)? Instead, if you’re like me — prone to being flippant about pop culture and abusing this gift for sinful ends — this doctrine corrects such fleshly desires. We can’t assume the Holy Spirit automatically cleans out this sinful habit. It takes effort to fight it. And sometimes it takes some potentially uncool topic “juking.”
Yet I do agree: This truth must become “background” truth. Eventually it should color our vision of popular culture even when we aren’t directly thinking about the doctrine.
If I didn’t believe that at least some stories and songs would last forever, I wouldn’t spend so much time getting excited about them or writing about them at CAPC. In fact, I suspect that what little time I spent on them would be wasted time better spent evangelizing or reading theology.
Instead this view helps me fight my own materialism. If pop culture is not ultimately man’s possession but God’s, then God has the right to withhold or grant that gift for His purposes.
This view also gives me perspective. I see more of God’s common grace in popular culture but I am bothered by bad pop culture. But I am more often bothered that human pop culture is tainted by its creators’ sinful motives, exploitation, commercialism, and lack of excellence as well as lies and pictures of ugliness about God, human beings, and God’s world. I want to anticipate the day when all those pictures of sin will either be burned away or else preserved as reminders of what godless life was like.
This view also reminds me that our anticipation for New Earth shouldn’t be based even exclusively on truthful texts about the doctrine of resurrection. As one CAPC reader helped remind me, even our “New Earth will be a physical place, really!”-style books and sermons may remove some of the joy and mystique of that fantastical future. Do we trade in pictures of floating spirits on clouds with harps, and get back pictures limited to modern Earth life with all the sin cleaned up? Rather, we should enjoy our stories, songs, and images partly because they help us anticipate the wonder of New Earth — even fantastical possibilities in New Earth such as restored lives, new creatures, fantasy quests, or interstellar voyages.
Biblical doctrine is our foundation for truth about eternity. That’s why we need preaching. But we must build on this doctrine structures of imagination. That’s why we need stories and songs. And that’s another reason I believe we will enjoy stories and songs forever — because these works help us eagerly groan for eternity and the wonders God has in store.
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