Last year, the Tainan Fine Arts Museum announced a forthcoming exhibition featuring images of ghosts and zombies. To contextualize the show, which originated in France, curators incorporated artwork inspired by local folk beliefs and cultural stories of various Asian countries.
But before the exhibit had even opened, many Christians began flocking to the museum’s Facebook page to criticize the show as “immoral and harmful to public decency” and a “freakish power of the demon”—and even to request that the museum pull the plug on it. One church issued a public prayer request, claiming that the exhibit would “pollute the country and the people” and that the “the evils of our country are growing [and] we are ignorant, deeply offending God!”
As Christians lamented the zombie exhibit, its supporters argued with them in the comment section—and bought tickets. Ultimately, presales for the zombie exhibition sold out as soon as they were available, and many people waited in queues for several hours to enter the venue.
The Christians I grew up around in Taiwan would likely defend the critics who say pop culture or art is displeasing to God. Like many evangelicals in America, many of them believe the church has the responsibility to speak out against the culture when it appears to violate biblical teaching and values. But is this asking too much of the world?
To paraphrase Marvin Olasky, Christians often categorize their society as Israel, when in actuality it’s Babylon. While Olasky makes this claim about American Christians, it is even more true in Taiwan, where Christians make up only 5.5 percent of the population and nearly half (49.3%) of people profess folk religion (a mixture of Daoism and Buddhism).
For years, while Taiwan was under authoritarian rule, Taiwanese society kept and practiced the Confucianist ethics. Since many moral codes advocated in Confucianism overlap with biblical principles, Christians in the past did not seem as concerned with countering Confucian teachings with biblical truth.
But when Taiwan started to democratize in the 1990s, the country began opening to different voices and values. The church was used to being in a relatively “comfortable” conservative society and wasn’t ready for the rapid progress of “secularization.” Taiwanese Christians began to imitate American Christian narratives about combating secularization and reacting against perceived “godlessness.” In the process, they forgot the fact that Christians have always been the minority in Taiwan and that people have been worshiping worldly idols for centuries—including our own culture.
Consequently, most people who live on the island do not care what the “Christian God” thinks of them or what the “prophets” of the Christian religion may think of their chosen ways of life. When these “prophets” ascend to the mountain to cry out and lament, Taiwanese people cannot understand what they are angry about. Often, all they can see is strangers judging their actions.
To Christians, this ignorance should make sense. Paul notes that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18). The word world (κόσμος) occurs 186 times in the New Testament alone. And before we met Christ, weren’t we ourselves once practitioners in the world’s ways?
In his time on earth, the Gospels do not portray Jesus as showing any discomfort around people who did not know him. In fact, Jesus made the deliberate decision to eat with “tax collectors and sinners” in an age and culture where eating at the same table was an intimate act. And the Bible includes more instances of Jesus rebuking those who considered themselves to be religious than those who counted themselves as sinners.
The Pharisees, who claimed to keep God’s law, were obsessed more with manipulating people’s behavior than with caring for their difficulties (Mark 3:1–6). They rejected people’s words on account of their social status (6:1–3), looked on the outward appearance and not at the heart (7:1–23; 10:23–27), sought glory in their own way (8:32), competed for status and prestige (9:33–37) and were jealous of those who were gifted in ministry (9:38). I think the reason Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and the disciples so often was that they not only misunderstood the world (lacked compassion) but also could seldom see how much they resembled it (1 Cor. 3:1–3).
The Bible teaches us to love sinners, but it also expects sinners to repent. And yet we often overlook how Jesus called sinners to repentance—how he made them willing to repent.
Jesus could have spent all his time directly rebuking tax collectors and prostitutes for being immoral sinners, but instead he focused his ministry on building relationships with them and addressing their needs. In the process, they often came to understand why they needed their sins forgiven. After a conversation in the middle of the day, Jesus tells a Samaritan woman about water that ensure she will never thirst again (John 4). He also confronts her about being married five times and that she currently isn’t married to the man she is with. After this long exchange, she is not only willing to change her own life but she eagerly tries to convince her community to meet Jesus.
And while many in this world will see the kindness of God in the loving way of Jesus, realize their sinfulness, and ultimately repent (Rom. 2:4), there are just as many who have a “hard and impenitent heart” (v. 5, ESV)—including those who claim to follow him yet “have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear” (Mark 8:18).
Paul said, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). After Jesus left the world, the church became the body and messengers of Christ—representing his image on earth. As such, we are called to live out the essential commands of Christ: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30–31).
How strong is our public testimony if all we are doing is reminding everyone of our high moral standards, expressing our disappointment with people’s life choices, and displaying our anger every time we see what we consider to be an “offensive” act against God? Instead, how powerful would our witness be to those outside the church if they saw us fighting for justice day and night, repenting for our wrongdoings, making peace and reconciling with others, and sacrificing ourselves to serve our neighbors and the least of our brothers and sisters?
As Kirsten Sanders argues in a recent piece for CT, “When the church becomes preoccupied with defending itself to the world, it eventually becomes incoherent.” This does not mean the church should be “withdrawn or ignorant or politically uninvolved,” but it does mean that there is a better way to go about it—and that is “to speak the peculiar language of peace, of forgiveness, of repentance and resurrection.”
Jesus’ Great Commission to the church is not to “go therefore and make all nations know that they are sinners.” Instead, he commanded us to make disciples—and part of that involves letting our light “shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Sometimes, the world cannot understand us because they cannot see how we are any different than they are. And unless Christians understand the ways of the world, how will we know whether we resemble them?
Some Christians fear that our light is too small for the world to see. This fear can convince them that speaking authoritatively and stridently is the best way to remind people that Christians are not ashamed of their faith. But I do not believe this approach best reflects the way Christ conducted himself on earth.
Personally, I don’t think Jesus would try to stop people from going to see the zombie exhibition. Instead, he might engage them about the spiritual themes in the art. He might praise the artistic talent on display in the work or look for ways for the church to honor and recognize the artists. Or maybe he would recognize that people’s very desire to be in a setting that connects spirituality and beauty is the same impulse that can lead them to seek out God—and then he might invite them into that very thing.
Yiting Tsai is from Taiwan, and currently serves at a local church in Chicago. She also leads Christianity Today's Chinese translation efforts.