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“In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, [Lucifer] could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige.” (C.S. Lewis)

What does a heart after Jesus look like? Simple. Find nothing to think of more interesting than Jesus’ prestige! Where the world and culture has become opposed to God, the fundamental problem is idolatry. We are prone to trample what is good because we too often “find nothing to think of more interesting than [our] own prestige.” Christians know better. Jesus is worth every heart, every praise, and every allegiance. But we know the god of “this world” is in total opposition to Jesus. How should that truth affect how we live in the world? The Bible teaches, “Do not love the world.” What does that mean? To answer that question, we will need to study the different uses of the Greek word for “world” in the Bible, especially as it is used in texts like James 1:26-27 and 1 John 2:15-17.

The Greek word is kosmos, a word found 104 times in John’s writings alone. The text we will focus on here is 1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” These are serious words. Many Christians cite 1 John 2:15-17 to denounce popular culture. But does 1 John 2:15-17 really teach that all popular culture is bad? Or, for that matter, does it really teach that “the world” is all bad? Here it helps to see the different ways in which the biblical writers employed the term kosmos in their writings. We will look at four of them briefly in this post.

First, kosmos can mean “all of God’s creation.” This is the world, the universe, and everything in it. In John 1:10, Jesus is said to be the one who created the world, and the word used there is kosmos. So, we should ask the question — should we love or not love the world Jesus created? Of course, the answer is, yes, we should love God’s creation. God loves his creation, and we should certainly love it also. Thus, this first meaning of kosmos doesn’t seem to be the use John is employing in 1 John 2:15-17.

What other meanings are there? A second use is what Kittle defines as “the theater of human and earthly history.” This use of kosmos simply means the inhabited world, what we call the earth. We see this definition employed in Matthew 4:8, for example, where Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness. “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” World in Matthew 4:8 is again that word kosmos. In this verse, it is a neutral term — unless, of course, “their glory” refers not only to the kingdoms. Again, this use of kosmos does not seem to fit John’s use in 1 John 2:15-17.

So let’s consider a third use. This one is pretty important. Kittle defines this third use as “the theater of salvation history.” This is what we call the world of redemptive history. Here we find kosmos used in that famous verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” So, should we despise the “world” that God so loves? The answer is clearly no. So what does John mean by world in 1 John 2:15-17?

Thankfully, there is a fourth use — or I’m not sure what we’d do! John employs kosmos in 1 John 2:15-17 in reference to the world which is in opposition to God. This is the kosmos which, according to Kittle, is lost in sin, wholly at odds with God, lost and depraved. We see this use employed in John 16:11 where Satan is described as the world ruler, the “prince of this world.” This is the world in which Christians are to avoid at all costs. As John Bunyan writes, “What God says is best, is best, though all the men in the world are against it.” We see this meaning of kosmos similarly used in verses like 1 Corinthians 1:27, Hebrews 11:38, and in many places in John.

So why bring this up? It is important to know what Scripture says about the world when it comes to your interactions with the things of this world. Should we flee from culture, live in the mountains, and await the Lord’s return? Or, should we wisely live in the world, on mission for Christ, redeeming the culture, creating culture, and avoiding those things that are in hardened opposition to God? The second option seems more fitting for Christians. Why? Because God loves the world, even lost humanity in the fallen world. He created a beautiful world, and one in which humanity can also creatively create! Remember, the Father sent his Son in the world in order to save it, as John 3:16 and 12:47 teach. In other words, texts such as 1 John 2:15-17 and James 1:27 do teach that we should be in opposition toward the “world” whose prince is Satan and stand against his schemes — that world will pass away — but we should conversely love God’s creation, and its people in the same way God does as well.

What does this mean for culture, then? How does an understanding of what the Bible means by “world” in texts like 1 John 2:15-17 help us when it comes to popular culture? Well, let me give you a couple of things to think about. One, “world in opposition to God” is not simply another way to say “culture” or “popular culture.” It’s not that simple. There are things in culture that are in opposition to God. And there are things which please God. To dismiss culture in one broad stroke as to say that it’s all anti-God or polluted is to forget that there are some aspects of culture that are good, sometimes beautiful.

Therefore, we need wisdom — and here are some practical helps. First, when it comes to moral legalism and license (which we discussed in part 2), think about this: don’t focus so much on what you must not do. Rather, focus on what you get to do when you are following Christ! It is a joyous privilege to follow Christ! Remember, a heart after Jesus is key to understanding what the Christian life is all about (see part 3). Consider your freedom to find joy in Jesus a greater freedom than your freedom to enjoy a movie — even if you do both at the same time! As one who enjoys watching movies, listening to music, watching TV, playing video games, and using social media, this is something I must take to task on a daily basis.

Second, God does give us real beauty and good things in the world, even from non-Christians. Still, even if some elements of popular culture are good, they must never become our gods (see part 4). Proverbs 24:13 and 25:16 are helpful here: honey is sweet, but if you eat too much of it you will get sick and vomit.

And third, for all of these things, we need to be asking the question about whether we should/can accept it, whether we must reject it, and whether we can redeem it. Or, as Bruce Ashford says, “we must consider how we, as Christians, can live faithfully, critically, and redemptively in the world in which we find ourselves.”

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“Let’s just be honest and admit right up front that the Bible pulls no punches and leaves no room for a public relations effort to clean up the dust storm.” (Al Mohler)

One objection to the previous post is that the Bible contains history. Real history. It doesn’t sweep sin under the carpet. In the Bible real people commit heinous sins. There is crime, racial prejudice, sexual immorality, lies, and the list goes on. And so someone might object,

“Isn’t it better to watch movies or listen to songs that are more in touch with reality, that show what the Bible actually teaches about human depravity, or the redemptive qualities of authentic heroes in movies? Aren’t these more worthwhile examples of art and culture?”

Maybe. It kind of depends.

Indeed there are movies, songs, TV shows not made by Christians that are genuine works of art, portraying redemptive themes in plots, characters, stories, and lyrics. They contain heroic characters that point to God. Honestly, such examples are few and far between; but they do exist. But let me say this: the Bible is better! It is true, the Bible does not gloss over sin in its overall message of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. And without human history depicting the realness of the fall, we wouldn’t get a complete picture of the importance of each part of the story.

Nevertheless, the Bible, in the wisdom of God, protects us from temptations to sin in ways that most uninspired movies or songs probably won’t. When David commits adultery with Bathsheba, I don’t know of anyone who is tempted to lust as a result. When I read and learn from other parts of the Bible, it’s the same thing. Simply put, God’s Word will not tempt you to sin. It is a greater revelation of truth than anything you will find in popular culture. It teaches you. And it protects you.

Does that mean you should completely disengage from popular culture? I don’t think so. That is certainly not what I’m saying. Instead I’m saying that your heart for Jesus is more important than your love for entertainment. Your time spent in the Word is safer and more valuable than trying to learn all you know about God, man and salvation from popular culture.

In the next post, we will briefly discuss culture-creating.

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In this post, we will consider examples of what extreme moral legalism is not. This will serve as a corrector/balancer to our distaste for rules. Andy Crouch recently wrote, “Changing the world sounds grand, until you consider how poorly we do even at changing our own little lives . . . Beware of world changers, they have not yet learned the true meaning of sin.” This quote comes from a book titled, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, and it is a reminder that culture making is complicated by our war with sin.

The Christian life is following Jesus. And there are some clear boundaries. There are components of culture that are in direct and explicit opposition to God. These are dangers in which we must guard our hearts against. There are also neutral (and possibly good) components of culture, which, because we struggle with sin, can distract us from the way, become idols in our hearts, and open the door to making other idols. In other words, we can be incredibly efficient idol-makers. Therefore, we must guard our hearts and look to Jesus.

Let me give you a clear example of what moral legalism is not. This one isn’t clearly connected to popular culture, but it will serve our purposes. In 1986, a talented basketball player named Len Bias was selected second overall in the NBA draft by the Boston Celtics. By all accounts, Bias was a special athlete. An All-American his senior year in college for the University of Maryland, some sports writers consider Bias “to be one of the greatest players ever not to play at the professional level” (Wikipedia). In fact, just yesterday on Mike and Mike I heard Stuart Scott say that LeBron James is the best athlete in the NBA since Len Bias. However, as you read above, Bias never played a game in the NBA. Sadly, on June 19, 1986, Bias died from a cardiac arrhythmia induced by a cocaine overdose, just two days after he was drafted.

I suppose we could say the same about other stars whose lives were cut short by drug use: Elvis, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, River Phoenix. Further, though we know that not every drug addict dies of an overdose, we see how devastating drug addiction can be. Why bring up drug addiction in a series of posts on the Christian life and popular culture? Because you just don’t toy around with cocaine. You know this. This is what moral legalism is not! There are many clear boundaries over which we must not cross. It is not legalism to say that there are certain components of popular culture that we must reject, that we must avoid, and that we must not do or be entertained with.

In part 3, I wrote, “Scripture calls on us to guard our hearts, and this is a serious task!” Guarding your heart means rejecting some things outright. You need to guard your heart (from obvious dangers). You need to guard your heart from components of popular culture that are in direct opposition to God, such as pornography. That isn’t that difficult to understand. In practice, it can be hard. However, you know your heart and what tempts you to come off the narrow way.

That’s not all. In Andy Crouch’s warning above, he makes the point that culture-makers have to learn “the true meaning of sin.” The problem is: sin is not always obvious. In our weaknesses, we have a tendency to distort the truth. The remedy to our weakness, in part, is to remember that we are not superhuman! We need to be careful not to think too highly of our ability to resist temptations that we leave our hearts open to disease from worldly cancers.

“Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:12-13)

In the next post we will address an objection to these cautions.

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If there is anyone still reading this blog, you might want to know that I am now a regular contributing blogger at Christ and Pop Culture.  I WILL try to keep blogging here, I know I have been pretty sporadic and if you are still reading my stuff here–thank you!

Christ and Pop Culture is a very unique blog and I am looking forward to contributing over there.  They are one of the few sites that engages pop culture from a thoroughly biblical standpoint.  They are careful with but not fearful of pop culture and I find that encouraging.  You can find book, movie, television, and even video game reviews there alongside political and cultural commentary.  In addition, at CAPC, there is a cool section called “Of the Moment” where contributors post links to various things they have been reading–so I will be posting various things I come across pretty regularly.  Definitely check it out.

I will likely write an article there once a week or so, which will give me time to keep posting a few times a week here (I know I haven’t done that lately, but it is within the realm of possibility).  I tend to write ridiculously long posts–I plan to work on that so that I can actually keep this blog going.  In fact, I think that is why my blogging dropped off, because when you try to write big, expansive, far-reaching posts like I tend to, it can become a little overwhelming to keep that up regularly. So I am going to try to start writing shorter posts, hopefully that will make this blog more accessible.

I do have some plans to write some new posts on divorce and remarriage that will be pretty thorough–I have recently rethought my position on that issue and my old posts are still on the blog and frankly need correcting.  I have rambled on enough.  Here are some links to what I have written so far at CAPC:

My latest article is a review of Denzel Washington’s post-apocalyptic Bible-protecting action movie, Book of Eli.

I also wrote an article on the Sabbath and pop culture.

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It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite Christmas movie, for that reason I thought it would be a good movie to take a closer look at.  The theology it presents is more akin to Touched by an Angel than the Bible, but overall I appreciate the message presented in the movie, so I give you The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of It’s a Wonderful Life (in reverse order):

The Funniest Part of It’s a Wonderful Life

The Ugly (in reverse order)

In this scene, George Bailey, the hero of It’s a Wonderful Life, with the help of his guardian angel, Clarence, gets to see what life would be like if he never existed. I want you to notice how George punches Bert (the police officer) and Bert responds by shooting wildly into a crowd of people!

Is that how police officers acted during the 1930’s? Its a Wonderful Life is hands down my favorite Christmas movie, I cry every time I watch it, but every time I see that scene where Bert starts shooting wildly at George just for punching him, I have to laugh! Shoot first, ask questions later!

The Theology of It’s a Wonderful Life

The Bad

Also I find it interesting how movies like Its a Wonderful Life can be so theologically off. The opening scene finds Clarence (George Bailey’s guardian angel) talking with two elder Angels who have their wings about how he is going earn his. The angels are personified in glowing solar systems. Interestingly enough, we don’t read anything of angels earning their wings, guardian angels, or angels personified in solar systems in Scripture.

Another interesting note is that George doesn’t pray to God when he wants to go back to the time where he existed, instead, he prays to Clarence. George’s coming of age is a realization of his own self worth. He realizes that he, his family, and Bedford Falls would all be better off if he did exist.

A life is certainly a terrible thing to waste, but what makes life worth living is that life is given to us by our great God who is worth knowing. The only reason our lives have any value is because they have been given value by God who created us in His image. And further, we have marred that image by rejecting the fellowship offered to us from God. The gospel tells us of how that relationship can be restored through trusting in Christ who took our sin and nailed it to the cross so that you and I might be brought to God. The gospel is not a celebration of our self-worth but rather a celebration God’s grace to those who rejected His infinite worth and the message about how our worth can be restored by Almighty God who reconciles all things to Himself.

The Good

While the theology of Its a Wonderful Life is pretty jacked up, I do think its a gem in the midst of a lot of poor Christmas movies.  I think in the overall message of the movie, we see glimpses of the gospel. Let me explain:

What I love most about the movie is that I think the final theme is everyone needs grace. George Bailey tried to live his whole life helping other people. He gave up his dreams to help the people of Bedford Falls–he gives away all the money he saved for his honey moon in order to save The Bank and Loan, he gave up his dreams to explore the world in order to take over his father’s company, and he continually gave to the people of Bedford Falls without asking anything in return.

But in the end, George falls prey to despair. He is on the brink of being arrested because he took the blame for his uncle’s foolish misplacement of $8,000 (that was a lot of money back then) and he realizes that he is worth more money dead than alive and actually considers committing suicide so that his family could collect the life insurance money and pay off his debt. You know how the movie ends–George is saved from bankruptcy by all the people of Bedford Falls that he helped in the past, but not until he realizes how blessed he really is and learns to accept his circumstances.  George is now the one that must accept a very generous and life-changing gift from the people of Bedford Falls.

We all need grace, in a much more profound way than George Bailey did. We need grace–God’s grace. Grace that is greater than all our sin. Grace that can pardon and cleanse within. And though not without significant theological flaws, Its a Wonderful Life reminds me of my greatest need and that is for God to show grace to me in Christ so that I might know Him!

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I had a unique opportunity yesterday to catch a pre-release screening of the new documentary from Ben Stein, Expelled. The film is an exploration of the tight reigns that neo-Darwinism keeps on the academy and the consequences that evolution has had on our society. It’s also very, very funny. For years now, the mere mention that Darwin’s “dangerous idea” might either have some rather gaping holes or be patently false has been sufficient grounds for dismissal for scientists teaching in our schools. This is not news to anyone who has followed the debates even remotely, but the revelation has reached a boiling point for Ben Stein and in Expelled he tries to get to the heart of the matter.

Being a bit weary of big-production documentaries thanks to Michael Moore, I had strong doubts about this film. I expected a rather polemical and skewed view that was going to do little more than restate the obvious and probably do more harm than good. I’m happy to say that I wasn’t entirely right.

No doubt, this film has an agenda – to expose ardent dogmatism in the academy towards the neo-Darwinistic understanding of life, the universe, and everything (as Douglas Adams put it). Then again, it’s not like this is a stretch of a thesis. Open up the newspaper and you’re bound to see an article every week on some state duking it out in the courts over the right to teach alternative theories of origins and life, chiefly Intelligent Design, or Design Theory as it’s known in some circles. Don’t walk in to this film think that it’s just a he-said, she-said affair. If you’re on one side or the other, you’re likely not to change your mind about your theory.

But having said that, this film is not about changing your mind about the actual theory of evolution, per se. It seemed more effective at pointing out the gross disparity between science’s long-standing creed of free inquiry and its embarrassing treatment of dissenters. Stein digs deeper to show that this witch-hunt is not constrained to the field of science alone; the media and our culture are responsible as well for caving in to the dogmatic assertions of the modern evolutionary synthesis and its ever vocal proponents. And you hear plenty from these proponents, chiefly Richard Dawkins himself, the man who revolutionized evolutionary thinking with The Selfish Gene and has become the most “notorious” atheist of the day with his best-selling The God Delusion.

Through interviews with several who have felt “expelled” or are critical of neo-Darwinism, Stein lets the experts do most of the talking. I was most impressed with the on-going dialogue Stein has with David Berlinski, a very intelligent and outspoken critic of evolution who is highly ridiculed for his stance. Berlinski’s thoughts on why evolution has not shut up everybody and essentially has failed to convince the world yet are interesting. Especially when you factor in the public-relations campaign that evolution has going on and the extreme polemics of men like Dawkins and Daniel Dennett towards Christianity of all things. I appreciated that Stein let the members of the intelligent design movement clearly distinguish themselves from any religious claims and demonstrate that such a mis-perception is one perpetrated by critics and the media.

Towards the end of the film, Stein has a deeply personal exploration of the implications and consequences of neo-Darwinism, both potential, actual, and historical. This is where he loads on the pathos and I must admit, it was the one part of the movie that probably had the most lasting effect for me thinking through the origin of the very idea of evolution from a Christian point of view. I won’t elaborate now, but suffice to say I believe you will understand what I’m talking about when you see this film.

I should also mention the final interview of the film is worth the price of admission alone, though not without its faults. Ben Stein interviews the ever-confident Richard Dawkins and it is rather amusing. Though Stein makes Dawkins say some things that he indeed is not saying, Dawkins looks lost when trying to explain the first spark and why it could not have been God. It was not Dawkins’ best moment, but it was a breath of fresh air to see the same man who filmed The Root of All Evil have no adequately prepared screed with which to denigrate Stein and the Judeo-Christian tradition. There are many others who look rather absurd in their defense of evolution in this film (perhaps none so bad as Michael Ruse – who sounded like a politician when trying to explain how evolution got started), and the film offers people a good opportunity to discuss these things with friends and family.

When I wasn’t laughing, I was thinking. The best of both worlds. Say what you will and think what you will, but Expelled hits the mark in my estimation.

UPDATE: There is quite a bit of controversy spilling over about this film already (and it hasn’t even been released yet!). Now, in the interest of being fair and intellectually honest, here is Richard Dawkins’ take on how he was misconstrued in this film.

UPDATE2: Thanks to all who posted in the comments section, I have made a few minor changes in light of the dialog that I believe are more accurate.

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