The Bible is quite clear that all of Scripture points to Christ (Luke 24:25-27). Indeed, the purpose of the Bible is to bring people to salvation through faith in Jesus (2 Tim 3:15). But, Paul goes even further than that when he tells the church at Ephesus that all things are being united in Christ (Eph. 1:10). Not just the Scriptures but everything, all creation, is being summed up in Messiah.
Since this is true it should not surprise believers that there will be all kinds of things in creation that “ape” the gospel. There will be cultural items like movies, books, sitcoms, songs, art, literature, etc. that both borrow “gospel themes” and distort them.
Scholars who study this historically usually point to these items and say that the Israelites (or early Christians) picked up these mythological themes in their cultural milieu and built their faith around this common stock of themes. Examples of this would include the flood narrative, the “death and resurrection” of baal as seen in the harvest, the rising of the phoenix, etc. Scholars use these examples to try to disprove the historicity of the biblical story (i.e. the gospel is theology based on story, not history).
I even encountered this argument in college with current popular culture. A student in my freshman English class wrote a paper called, “Why The Matrix Can Replace Christianity,” because of many themes that run through the movie that parallel Christian teachings (there is a post to come on the Matrix). However, these similarities and “borrowings” should not surprise or scare the believer. God designed the universe with Jesus as the goal so similarities to the story of Jesus will be everywhere. Far from disproving the Christian gospel, these themes should bolster our faith as we see the cosmos being summed up in Christ. Also, these Gospel themes give us common ground for apologetic/evangelistic, gospel conversations in the mission fields in which we live because we know this meta-narrative informs their framework for understanding the world, even if in a sinful, depraved and corrupted way.
With this in mind as an introduction I would like to introduce an on-going, occasional series of posts on “The Gospel and Pop Culture.” These posts will be designed to help us think through how to filter movies, music, and other cultural forms through the Gospel matrix. This is something I attempted to do before in the post on Coldplay’s Viva La Vida. What we will do over these posts is offer specific examples, usually from contemporary American culture.
In this post we will examine a movie released in early 2009 called Taken. The basic plot line is a teen age girl goes to Paris without her parents (and against her dad’s better judgment). While there she and the girl she traveled with are abducted by a mob group who traffics in women, and they are going to auction the girls off as prostitutes. It just so happens that her dad is an ex-CIA agent who is skilled in finding and killing bad guys. He tells her captors that he will hunt them down and kill them. He is informed that in these cases typically there is only a 96 hour window to find his daughter before it will become impossible. In the rest of the movie her dad tries to track her down, rescue her and make her captors pay. Her dad takes bullets, goes without sleep, and risks his life all in hopes of finding his daughter.
There are several “Gospel themes” in Taken. An overview of the gospel storyline of the OT is that God’s wayward son, Israel, is “taken” captive and brought into a foreign land because of his sins and foolishness (in the movie the daughter lies to her dad about what she will be doing in Paris, and her friend makes dumb, immature decisions that lead to their abduction). God promises to rescue His people (His son) from the place that they have been “taken” to, to destroy their captors, and to bring them back to their home. Taken follows the same plotline. Jesus’ ministry in the NT is presented as the fulfillment of this promise. The Gospel story is that God through Jesus rescues his people from captivity (cf. Rom. 6), reverses their exile (Heb. 10:19-22), and will destroy the enemies. After all, He is the “Good Shepherd” who seeks out and rescues the “lost sheep” (cf. Ezek. 34; John 10). Jesus is the Son of Man who will destroy the beasts, judge the nations, and vindicate His people (cf. Dan. 7). He is the Messiah of Psalm 2 who dashes his enemies with a rod of iron (cf. Isa. 11; Rev. 12). He is the Revelation 19 Warrior who finally avenges the blood of his people and feeds their enemies to the birds. He is the one on the mission of the Father to run toward and restore the “lost son” (Lk. 15).
There is another theme from Taken. In Rambo-like fashion Liam Neeson’s character seems to take on an entire army himself. One man is the rescuer and warrior. This is a gospel theme that starts as early as Samson. In Judges God begins rescuing his wayward people through judges who lead armies. But with Samson, He shows that He can rescue through 1 man, even taking on thousands of Philistines. Then there is David, again a solo champion, who takes on a seemingly impossible task, defeating the Giant and rescuing his people. This climaxes in Jesus who is the solo champion who rescues the world and defeats the ultimate enemies! The theme of one man against the world to rescue his people did not start with Rambo.
These themes that mirror the gospel are in Taken, but they merely ape the true gospel and are an inferior, even twisted version. The hero of Taken is deeply sinful in that he chose his job over his family. Unlike the hero of the true gospel story Neeson’s character is trying to atone for his own past sins, whereas Jesus atoned for the sins of others. Neeson abandoned his covenant to his bride (and child) whereas Jesus died in covenant love and commitment to his bride. That is just one example among many. Still, there are gospel themes running throughout the story.
So what? Do these parallels really matter? Here are a few reasons why it matters. First, we need to be able to deconstruct the messages being preached to us through media both for our own families and the people we minister to.
Second, the Gospel meta-narrative that all things are being summed up in Christ explains the deepest longings of the human heart. This can be used in sharing the Gospel with the lost of any culture. The church must identify the “Gospel themes” that resonate in their specific culture and context, and then use these themes to proclaim the Gospel. Some themes, like in this movie, will cross all cultures. The Gospel alone, not genetic makeup or evolutionary theory, explains why a parent’s love can be so strong and sacrificial (cf. Matt. 7:11). The Gospel alone explains why abusive fathers are so devastating, and it explains why little girls long for a daddy who will be there for them in a protective and loving way. These things are not “just the way it is.” There is a reason for these human longings. God designed the world with Jesus in mind. These longings point us to the gospel and God’s fatherly, rescuing love for his children (especially His “only begotten Son” who was also “taken” captive, “exiled” from God’s presence, murdered and rescued on the 3rd day).
Third, in regards to this movie specifically, we have lost in contemporary evangelicalism the theme of Jesus as Warrior-hero. Jesus is seen as guru, hippie, and a boyfriend we sing love songs to. That is a reason why the church in large part is devoid of male leadership, and we are failing at reaching men. Men resonate with characters like Jack Bauer and Liam Neeson’s who are violent rescuers. They resonate with a man who is a hero and can get the job done. This resonation is because God designed the world with Jesus, the Warrior-King, in mind.
The joy in our hearts at watching a man go after his captured and tortured daughter, a man who refuses to be stopped by bullets ripping into his flesh, reveals the longing within us for a Warrior who will against all evil rescue us from our enemies and give us rest. This longing is not conjured up by mere cinematic drama. The longings of our hearts are summed up in the words of the daughter in Taken when she finally sees her dad, “Daddy, you came for me?!” This longing will only find satisfaction when we see a Galilean riding on a white horse with robe dipped in blood and sword in hand who promised us “I will come for you” (John 14).
Your analysis is quite on-point and interesting.
Noticed that you didn’t mention the onslaught of violence (Neeson kills seemingly everybody in this movie!), particularly the morally ambiguous dinner at the French agent’s house. Do we as Christians need to redeem un-Christian aspects of the culture when we try to draw parallels to the gospel? Or do we embrace “Jesus as Warrior-hero” and try to explain the gore of Scripture (i.e. reconcile the God who destroys the Canaanites with the God who saves mankind)?
I don’t think that Ephesians 1:10 carries any implications as to how believers are to digest pop culture. I would find it odd for Paul to intend his readers to come away with any such idea. In any case, I find your analysis interesting. Why would you suggest Christians study pop culture? Is it in hopes of finding common ground or ‘talking points’ with which to introduce the Gospel? I’m just curious. Thanks for the post.
Andrew, thank you for your questions. Let me try to address some of them.
1. Let me state up front that I think there are deeply sinful elements in the movie. The gruesomeness of the violence/torture (Machiavelli ethics) certainly fits in there. I stated when I spoke about Neeson’s character’s failure as a husband that the failure was “one of many” examples of sinfulness in the movie. Others could’ve been explored for sure.
2. I think that Jesus as Warrior-hero answers the questions that people raise about God’s destruction of the Canaanites in the OT. Why does God wipe out the Canaanites? B/c he loves and is saving mankind (john 3:16). The defeat of the Canaanites IS the crushing of Satan’s head, a red dragon who wants to kill the Messiah before he is born and keep him from coming (Gen. 3; Rev. 12; Matt. 2). The dragon works in history through men like Phraoh and people like the Canaanites to accomplish this. If the Canaanites survive the line of Messiah will be cut off. Also, God is judge and will judge/punish his enemies. That’s what is happening in Rev. 19. Jesus is the one who will do it.
3. I’m not sure what you mean by “redeem un-Christian aspects of the culture”? Maybe you could flesh that out for me.
Josh, thank you for taking time to comment.
I don’t think I suggest that Eph 1:10 implies how we should “digest” pop culture. I think it carries implications for how we engage culture and cultural themes that people are thinking about, writing about, etc.
I think Paul intends for the church to engage culture (cf. Acts 17). All I intended by referring to Ephesians 1:10 is that Paul would want his readers to come away knowing that EVERYTHING in creation is being summed up in Christ. That carries implications for how we engage culture and how we do evangelism and how we defend the faith (apologetics). That carries implications for the fact that every lost person’s worldview will be influenced by the gospel but they will twist and suppress it. Regardless of if we watch movies, read literature or whatever, merely talking with a lost person will require being able to analyze their view of the world and then us as believers revealing to them the Gospel (perhaps using common ground to then correct their worldview and point them to Jesus).
I don’t want to suggest that Christians study pop culture. I do want Christians to engage their culture, more specifically the people in their culture, with the gospel. However they go about doing that is up to them. I just want us as the church to do it. Pop culture will be a heavy influence on them and so being familiar with these things may be one aid in finding “talking points” for sharing the Gospel…
Thank you for your question. I hope that helps answer them a little.
The only thing I would add to what Jon said in the context of Jesus as Warrior (because I think Jon has nailed precisely why we have a God that destroys) is that ultimately this comes together at the Cross. There you have gore/violence of Scripture mingled together with the Love of God. So I think ultimately with that question we point to the Cross.
Great post…I never thought of movies in this way. This will be very helpful in sharing the Gospel. I can’t wait to read your post on the Matrix.
Could it be that the new catch phrase, “engaging the culture”, is just a convenient way to circumvent the Biblical doctrine of Christian seperation?
I really appreciate the question. I think it’s an important one to ask. Could you explain to me what exactly you think the Bible says about separation and how we are to practically apply it while at the same time loving our neighbor and sharing the gospel with them? Being in the world not of the world is a difficult tension. I’d love to hear you flesh out your concern.
yes, thank you for your response. Jesus Himself taught that we are in the world but not of the world. This is true. I am not advocating a hermit theology of retreating from society; nor does Christian seperation detract from evangelism or love for our neighbor. In fact, love for the lost would seem to necessitate seperation from the world and its alluring passions that appeal to the flesh. The Word tells us that if we love the world, the love of the Father is not in us. 1John 2:15-17. Hence, how can the Christian love the things of this world and have a love for the lost simultaneously? Further, we are told in the given passage that the things of this world are not of the Father.
I do concede that there are gospel elements in the pop and lost culture around us, but to use these things for evangelism seems problematic on many levels. First, as mentioned are the issues of motivation and love for the lost. Second, using wordly means to evangelize seems to take away from the sufficiency of Scripture to save the lost. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” So then if the Bible is sufficient, there is no need to look for gospel parallels in the ungodly world around us. Third, there is the issue of personal holliness. To conclude, what Christian seperation means to me is: If there are sinful things that I do not want in my life as a believer, why would I want to watch or listen to others indulge in these things and call that entertainment? I do concede that these things are indeed entertaining to our flesh. Indeed also the flesh lusts after these things, and they are passing away. So then we can love the lost and witness to them, while physically here in the world, while not being of the world or using ungodly means to evangelize. Futher I concede that each Christian, as lead by the Holy Spirit, must work out this issue for themselves. Let me say also that Ephesians 1:10 would seem to say nothing about evangelism or culture. Rather, it seems that Paul is talking about the final gathering together and redemtion of all things in Christ. Thanks for allowing me to share and to engage with you on such an important topic.
I may have been a little ambiguous about Ephesians 1 :10. Rather than all things being summed up in Christ, Paul seems to be saying that all things which are already in Christ will at some point in time be gathered togehter and unified. The context of the passage would seem to argue for the idea of redemtion as it relates to eschatology!
Thank you for taking the time to make such a careful response. I really do appreciate the dialog and the opportunity to be sharpened in this area. Let me try to respond to a few of your concerns.
I did not write in the original piece as clearly as I should have. I apologize for that. Please let me assure you that I’m not advocating “using” a movie as the means to share the gospel w/ someone. Again I apologize for giving that impression. I was unclear. What I am talking about in engaging the culture is simply being aware of the conversation the culture is having and showing them how the gospel answers those conversations. That’s seems to be what Paul is doing in Acts 17 when he quotes secular poets…
I am not advocating using worldly means to evangelize. Only the Scriptures can awaken men’s hearts. However, I am advocating answering the questions the world is asking with the gospel.
As far as Ephesians 1:10 I don’t think I argued that it is saying something about evangelism or culture. My point was that the truth of Ephesians 1:10 has implications for the way we view the world, engage in it, etc. Ephesians 1:10 tells us that everything in Heaven and Earth will be united/summed up in Christ. This is similar to Col 1:16, everything was created FOR Christ. So, it shouldn’t surprise us that the themes of the Gospel are everywhere. The creation week itself points to the Gospel. The seasons point to the gospel. The Gospel explains the longings of every human heart, even sinful, twisted hearts…This shouldn’t shock us b/c God tells us all things will be united in Him.
I think you’re right that it relates to eschatology.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify myself. I agree with you that what an individual believer chooses to intake in terms of pop culture, media, etc. is a conscience issue. I am not telling people that they need to watch movies like this. I am praying that people will be aware of the conversations happening in their culture so that they can apply the Gospel to them.