Listen: Blogger and speaker Sam Chan chats to Clare Bruce about ‘redeeming culture’.
Next time a pop star releases a song with ‘scandalous’ lyrics, or Hollywood releases a ‘blasphemous’ movie, or the internet spawns yet another ‘time-wasting’ teen craze—stop and think before you react in righteous anger.
Because in that very piece of pop culture lies a thread of truth and goodness, according to Sam Chan, blogger at Espresso Theology.
Chan, who’s also a public speaker at City Bible Forum, chatted to Hope 103.2 about the need for Christians to do a little less railing against the culture of the world around them—and start listening instead.
He calls it “redeeming the culture”, and he’s made it one of his life missions: to look at cultures and their stories, find the elements of truth woven into them, and use them to point people to Jesus.
What Does ‘Redeeming the Culture’ Mean?
God’s fingerprints can be found in everything we see, Sam believes, and he puts on his self-described “nerdy theologian” hat to make his point, using a few terms best known to theological types.
“There’s ’general revelation’, where God speaks to all peoples, all times, all places, and not just Christians,” he says. “There’s ‘common grace’, which means there’s common goodness in all peoples, all times, all places, not just in the Christian culture. And everyone’s made ‘in the image of God’.
“So somehow, not just in Christian culture, but in all cultures, there is goodness, there’s beauty and there’s truth. And in some way all cultures reflect humankind’s common cries for God. Somehow, we’re all searching for God in our different ways.”
In short, all of this means Christians shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the music, art and pop culture created by the secular world.
“If we listen carefully we can actually hear echoes of the gospel in other peoples’ cultural storylines,” Sam says. “In every story or movie or pop song there’s actually an analogy of the gospel. Some very obvious and some not so obvious. And part of the fun and the challenge is to find these analogies, or what is the cry of the heart.”
Truth in ‘The Da Vinci Code’ Phenomenon
A prime example of ‘redeeming the culture’, in Sam Chan’s view, is in The Da Vinci Code, which famously twisted the history of the church and the life of Jesus.
“A friend of mine, Jonathan Dykes, who gives a lot of public talks to non-Christians, was given the job of giving a Christian response to The Da Vinci Code,” Sam said. “We sat down and talked about it, and said, ‘This would be so easy to shoot down this book, it’s so simple, really it’s an easy target. But let’s take a step back. This is in the top 10 of London, New York, Sydney. Somehow it’s touched a nerve. There’s a cry of the heart here that people are expressing. What is it?’
“Jesus had a go at the Pharisees and organised religion…the cry of the heart in The Da Vinci Code is actually there in the Bible.”
“And we thought, ‘well maybe people have been hurt by the church, and this is a way of expressing the hurt, or maybe there’s a search for freedom, to be able to think for yourself, and not be told what to think by organised authority. Maybe that might be the cry of the heart in The Da Vinci Code.’
Sam says Jesus himself expressed such sentiments.
“Jesus had a go at the Pharisees and organised religion,” he said. “So somehow the cry of the heart in The Da Vinci Code is actually there in the Bible, where the Old Testament prophets speak against organised religion, and where Jesus speaks against the religious leaders.”
A Tale of Two Teenagers
To illustrate the way every culture contains something of God’s values, Sam uses the analogy of two young people from different cultural backgrounds, who walk into a youth group.
There is Jane, a 16-year-old high-achiever from an Asian family (“I can say that, because I’m Asian”), who spends most of her time studying towards a career in medicine or law. And there’s Jack, a surfer who wants to drop out of high school and work in a trade so he can surf every day and enjoy life.
A typical religious reaction to those scenarios, says Sam, would be to tell Jane to study less, and use her academic talent for “God’s work”; and to tell Jack to “use his God-given talents and study” instead of “wasting his life”.
The irony is that each of these young people is already pursuing Godly goals, says Sam.
In Every Culture, a Glimpse of God
“In every culture there’s a storyline,” he says. “So if you listen to Jane’s story, what is she really after? It’s actually not medicine, it’s not law. She’s actually after a way of honouring her parents and also looking for security and stability.
“And when you look at Jack and hear his storyline, he’s actually not after the drop-out-of-school storyline; he’s not just after the surf-every-day thing. He’s after freedom.
“There’s a God-given cry for freedom that he’s searching for.”
Follow the Example of Paul the Apostle
One communicator who was able to recognise when truth was at work in pop culture, was Paul the Apostle—one of the writers of much of the Bible’s New Testament.
“In the book of Acts, chapter 17, Paul is in Athens and he walks into a place where there are idols everywhere; and he’s actually saddened by it, disgusted,” Sam says.
“He quotes their authors, their singers, their poets…he’s actually working with their culture.”
“But then when it’s time to talk to these people, he doesn’t try to react against them, he works with them. He states to them their storyline, to show that he’s heard them understood them and empathised with them.
“He says something like, ‘Wow, you’ve got a lot of idols here!’, meaning, ‘I’ve noticed your storyline’. And he says, ‘You’ve even got one to an unknown God’. He quotes their authors, their singers, their poets. He starts saying things like, ‘as you know, in Him we live and move and have our being’. He’s quoting one of their philosophers. Then he quotes one of their poets: ‘We are their offspring’.
“So he’s actually working with their culture, to show, ‘Hey, we actually have an overlap here…but you also have a deficiency. You don’t know this true God, so I’m here to tell you about this true God.”
Put Down Your Whip and Make Friends Instead
When Christians try to follow Jesus by taking up their proverbial ‘whips’ on social media and condemning the latest pop trend, they might not be representing Jesus at all, says Sam.
“Often we think we need to be like Jesus who entered the temple with a whip and cleared it out,” he says. “But God is [only] like that to people who were devout followers of God, who should’ve known better, [while] to the people who don’t know better, God is quite accommodating—and begins where they are and slowly works from there.”
He said the best approach to communicating truth to non-believers, is to first find common ground.
“Start by thinking…what is the goodness, the truth that God has planted here in this storyline?”
“I think we’ve got to get people nodding their heads first,” he says. “We’ve got to show we’ve heard them, we’ve understood them, and we know where we’re coming from…so they’re nodding their heads, going ‘Yeah, you’ve got me, that’s me’.
“It’s so easy to think, ‘there must be something here I need to oppose or shoot down’. But instead start by thinking, ‘how can I be like Paul in Athens, what is the goodness, the truth that God has planted here in this storyline?’
“’This person is in the image of God, so somehow they’re actually crying for God in their own way, so what can I hear here, to use, to get to Jesus?’”