How should Christians engage attacks from popular culture?

From beach novels (The Da Vinci Code) to art photography (Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ") to music videos (Lady Gaga's "Alejandro") to video games, Christian outrage and criticism have lifted numerous works up from obscurity—and made household names of their creators. It's time to reassess.

In our pop-cultural world, getting noticed is by far the most difficult feat. One easy way for an author to break out is to offend Christians—easier, apparently, than writing something beautiful or profound. The video-game maker Electronic Arts even staged a faux Christian protest at a convention to promote its game based on Dante's Inferno. Apparently if Christians hate it, it must be worth a look.

The Really Controversial

While many Christians crave the catharsis of rebuttal, a passage from Proverbs balances this sentiment against the wisdom of stoical restraint: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes" (26:4-5). In this eternal struggle, I believe some Christian intellectuals have strayed too far to the side of answering.

Catapulting the wrong people to fame and fortune is only part of the problem. It would be naïve to think that we could purify our culture by keeping mum on a few meretricious books and movies. By overreacting when some hack misrepresents the biblical story, however, we send the message that the misrepresentation is more surprising and controversial than the genuine article.

Imagine if a journalist called a Christian leader to ask about the latest Christian-based conspiracy theory, and the leader said, "That's a pretty tame theory. The Bible's own conspiracy theory is much wilder. It says that God is plotting to overthrow every worldly power and establish his own rule once and for all. And the entire Christian church is in on it." The magnitude of God's plan hardly needs exaggeration: This is the God who, when it came time to pick teams, chose an old man, then a tiny nation, then the youngest son of Jesse, and ultimately the life of a commoner from Bethlehem—and with this roster undertook to vanquish the mightiest empires of the world.

God will prevail

If the exhortation to turn the other cheek is a hard teaching for those who feel outraged by popular culture, it is perhaps even more challenging for evangelical Christians who are fascinated by it. No doubt some are concerned that an evangelical who doesn't embrace culture is effectively a fundamentalist. And to some who were raised in fundamentalist surroundings, it may feel courageous just to talk about popular culture in the church. But the rest of the world doesn't share that perception.

When we do criticize culture, we might bear in mind Karl Barth's advice to young theologians to read both the Bible and the newspaper, but to "interpret newspapers from your Bible." The Bible itself both reports and rebuts the words of its detractors, perhaps most famously in Psalm 14: "A fool says in his heart, 'There is no god.' " The Prophets, the Gospels, and Paul all respond to provocations without taking undue offense. For example, Isaiah reacts to the Assyrian king's boasts by exploding his whole frame of reference: "Does the ax raise itself above the person who swings it?" (10:15a). Paul similarly turns the judgments of his contemporaries upside down when he says, "For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom" (1 Cor. 1:25). Truth is on our side, and it will prevail in God's good time.

The church is to remember that she bestrides our narrow world like a colossus, and nothing can deter her triumphant march through history.

Christopher B. Hays, the D. Wilson Moore Assistant Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, is a former editor at Newsday and The Sacramento Bee.

Adapted from "The Folly of Answering Fools" by Christopher B. Hays, Christianity Today. Click here to read the original article and for reprint information.

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