When I was around 12 I made the rapper Jay-Z a lot of money. I bought one of his albums because I was a drummer and began to discover my love of hip-hop. But then my guilt from listening to “secular” music got the best of me so I did the “godly” thing and broke that CD into a million pieces and threw it in the trash.
Within a year, I had bought that same CD again. Call it a moment of weakness. But by the time I got back from Church camp that summer I was back on the right track and promptly broke it again. By the time I was 15 or 16 that same album ended back up in my collection for a third time. I finally decided that it was wrong to listen to it, but I was going to do it anyway.
But if believed then what I believe now, I could have saved myself about $25 and a lot of guilt. In the years since, I have come to understand three important things that radically changed how I interact with the “secular” culture, the “world” I was always taught to avoid like the plague (and for the same contagious reason).
The God of the Secular
First, I began to see that everything beautiful comes from God and slapping labels like “Christian” or “secular” onto art does not change the substance of what we find there. What I found was that only listening to “Christian music” was limiting the Kingdom of God. God is over all things and all of humanity is created in his creative image. That applies to musical genius of Jay-Z as much as it does to the sincerity of DCTalk. The stories that are told by Talib Kweli and Mos Def, as raw and unedited as they are, are stories of real life. And God confronts real life, he doesn’t avoid it. The story of Jesus is one not of escapism but redemption.
The Church of Redemption
But I didn’t find this story of redemption in the churches I attended. They seemed more interested in redeeming people “out of” the world, a God who avoided culture and taught us to do the same. And redemption takes wisdom, not rules. It takes engagement, not avoidance. Wisdom says I should not watch movies that glorify violence because part of my own brokenness is a tendency toward violence, I am not in a place to redeem it. But avoidance dictates as a rule “Good Christians don’t watch violent movies.” Now rules are very important for children. But wisdom is what you get when you finally grow up.
Too often churches create environments where people can’t grow up, where Christians don’t have to be wise. We create Christian rules, Christian radio stations, Christian movies, etc. Instead of teaching how to engage and redeem culture, we just keep building fences to help us avoid it altogether. And when we do that, we remain children, so that when we do have a “run-in” with the “secular,” we have no idea how to handle it, either succumbing to its brokenness or condemning it completely, being too scared to see if there is anything beautiful mixed with the mess. And sadly, by avoiding culture, we are telling the world that our God is not one who redeems but one who avoids.
Instead of a place to avoid “the world” Church should be a community who gives us tools to mine culture and find redemption there. Tools that would teach me to guard my heard and engage my mind.
That is, as the church we are supposed to be teaching each other to be wise, not immature rule-followers. But the only way to be mature, to be in the world but not “of it,” is to be a part of a community who actively engages culture, both celebrating stories of healing and subverting the broken stories, showing how the story of Jesus redeems the stories of brokenness. And over the years, I have found just such a church. Unfortunately, it’s not an “actual” church, in terms of buildings or pastors or Sunday services. I have found it in a growing group of too-few people, friends who have decided it’s time to stop avoiding the world where we live.
The Box I Created for God
Thirdly, once I began to engage with culture, I found something startling. There were non-Christians who were creating beauty, art and speaking profound truth. There were people who were truly loving each other and fighting for justice in heroic ways. I found God in the secular. And as I looked on and said, “how can this be?” I discovered something just as devastating. Their heroism and beauty revealed to me how much I was lacking, the cracks in my Christian system. And the walls between the secular and the sacred, between “the world” and Christian sub-culture, came tumbling down.
I used to believe that God could only be found in things with the adjective “Christian” attached to them. But now, I find God within every system, critiquing its injustices and redeeming it, always creating something new from it.
I even find God where I wish he wasn’t. I am sure that if God was a good Christian he wouldn’t be there. And yet, there he is. And oftentimes I find God absent where I always thought he was. But my job is not to tell God where he does and doesn’t belong, but to follow after him with reckless abandon.