Friday, July 4, 2014

Glorifying God in the Secular Arts

Luke 15:11 - And he said, “A certain man had two sons. . .

Jesus told stories and by that we conclude that story-telling is a legitimate and noble practice. I recently read an article by one of my Facebook friends (E. Stephen Burnett) the title of which was How to Glorify God with Wizards, Captain America, and Spider-Man. It seems to me this friend has strong leanings toward a reformed perspective (influenced by Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck), and I anticipated a theological defense of what the title intimated. However, he surprised me, and though he indicated that he could provide such a defense, he opted against that and chose rather to show from his own experience how one may glorify God in that way. It was quite intriguing, and I am in full agreement not only with the premise, but also in the way in which he demonstrated it through his life’s experiences rather than a biblical treatment. Here is an example of those experiences:

To this day I can remember Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2’s final battle recalling the truth he had just learned and repeating it to a remorseful Dr. Octavius: “Sometimes to do what’s right, we need to be steady and give up the things we want the most — even our dreams.”
I can’t always say how, but that truth imaged by a fictional hero has aided my spiritual “revival” for years. I followed Spidey’s web all the way to the true story — God’s story — of the Hero who surrendered Himself to help people become the heroes they should be. To this day, I can credit the original Spider-Man films for helping save my marriage before it even began.

I was a little hesitant to present this example lest it be misunderstood that my friend’s theology saw Christ’s heroism at the cross as only an example by which others may become heroes as well. I know that is not the case, but it underscores a problem that is inherent with fictional heroes invented by the secular mind. They are horizontally oriented rather than vertically. They do not take their starting point in the biblical world and life view, but from the one which man devises out of his own resources, which are actually borrowed from God. As a result, though the hero may be powerfully inspiring and noble, and though he may illustrate to some measure what we find to be true from a biblical perspective, it is dubious at best. Not merely because of the finitude of the secular creator, but because of the tendency of such a one to create something that tends to exalt the creature rather than the Creator (cf Rom 1:25).
Spidey’s epiphany of the truth in Spider Man 2 is a powerful challenge to the movie-goer in the context of Dr. Octavius’s relentless and unmercifully violent drive to complete his dream at all costs. Even so, Spider-Man 3, in my opinion, is even more potent as it portrays the virtue of forgiveness in an evocative, nearly tear-jerking manner. How is it that a story written from an unbiblical world-view, whose setting itself is atheological (people live and work as though there is no God, regardless of any professed beliefs in the existence of God) can include such noble ideas?
The overarching answer is what theologians call common grace. It is grace that God has bestowed on all men alike, regardless of their relationship to him. Louis Berkhof explains that "[common grace] curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men.”[1]
Wizards, Captain America, and Spider-man are fantasy characters representative of a special type of literary art, and, as Berkhof noted, the ability to produce such art is a result of the distribtution of God’s gifts among men. These are gifts for which all should give God the honor, yet the unbelieving sinner can do so only in a superficial way because he does not know God through a faith in Jesus Christ resulting in a renewed mind and enlightened heart (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 4:6; Eph 1:18; 4:23; Col 3:10). He may sense that there is a Higher Being who is responsible for his artistic greatness, and acknowledge that, but he does not sense that he should love that Higher Being with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength (Luke 10:27). The gifted secular literary artist writes about what he knows to be true of right and wrong (Rom 2:14-15), but does not really know why it is true. He just knows it. He knows there is good and evil, and his God-given literary skill enables him to write in such wonderful imagery that these truths can come across very powerfully. And yet, unless the truths of his novel or screenplay or poetry are overtly grounded in the gospel, though they may persuade some, even unbelieving sinners, to outwardly alter their behavior in one degreee or another, they cannot transform from the inside out. Such stories may inhibit sinful behavior, but they cannot free from sin because there is no gospel in them. Their usefulness for true spiritual growth is profitable only for the Christian who recognizes the virtues as beliefs and behavior that are the result of a new birth which changes the heart (cf 2 Cor 5:17; Eph 4:24; Col 3:10) and for that reason he works them out in his life because he knows that it is God that works in him to do his good will (Phil 2:12-13).
How can secular man write such stories? It is because he is in touch with the predicament of this world and himself though he is not in touch with Creator of the world through his Son. Secular man is not unintelligent. He can observe and analyze. His sinfulness does not inhibit that, as intelligence is one of those gifts God disperses commonly among human beings. His observations and analysis are influenced by another common grace, which is the law written on the heart (Rom 2:14-15). He cannot help but sense the right and wrong in this world and judge it to be truly that, good and evil. There is no man-made story, tragedy or comedy, which is not shaped by the overall character of this present age – the conflict between good and evil (cf Gal 1:4; Rev 19:11-21). And though it provides opportunity for the secular man to put his twist on the true, the good, and the beautiful, it is only the Christian who can listen to it and discern the truths that underlie the story-world. As such, there is a legitimate place for the Christian not only to attend such movies as my friend alludes to, or read the stories that such movies are based on, but to carefully think about them and see what is in them that may help him, in light of God’s word, live up to the true gospel standard.

[1] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1939. p 434.

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