Pulpit pop culture?
Slumped in his desk chair, James let his mind wander through the following day’s family service. He would be preaching on Mark 12.41-44 — the widow’s offering.
He sighed heavily; if he had a penny for every time his congregation had heard him speak on giving, he could cover the church’s budget deficit single-handedly. James was always inspired by the widow’s sacrifice, but he needed a fresh way of presenting it — something that would engage the distracted children and teenagers, the busy professionals and parents, as well as the scholarly students and senior citizens in his congregation.
Just as the idea of storytelling dropped into James’s mind, his daughter jumped onto his lap. ‘We’re watching a really funny film, Daddy. Come and see!’ She grabbed her father’s hand and, leading him to the living room, introduced him to animated supervillain Gru, voiced by Steve Carell. Despicable Me captivated the whole family, but none more so than James, who found a scene ideal for illustrating Mark 12.41-44 — three orphans present Gru with a piggy bank containing the few coins that amount to their entire savings.
Tools for Talks is a website that helps Bible teachers to do what James did — use popular culture to communicate God’s unchanging Word in this rapidly changing world. The site is updated weekly and contains thousands of quotes and suggestions of clips from the latest films, TV, news, music and books, along with suggestions of how these can be incorporated into sermons. Tools for Talks is produced by the Damaris Trust, an evangelical Christian charity passionate about connecting biblical Christian faith with contemporary popular culture.
Church into culture
How do Christianity and culture relate? Contrary to popular opinion, culture didn’t originate in 1920s Hollywood, Renaissance Europe, or even in Classical Greece. It began in the mind of God. He made us to relate with him and with others, and he made us creative so that we could respond to those relationships and our world. Every human still bears God’s relational, creative nature.
But all too often the culture we now witness is stained by the selfishness of our ambitions, the brokenness of our communities and the exploitation of our world. By usurping God’s rightful place at the centre of our lives, we have twisted culture. Where does that leave us? If culture is both awful and awesome, how can the church engage with culture without endangering the church’s holiness?
The truth is that culture cannot be avoided; it’s part of the essential fabric of life. Tony Watkins, Managing Editor of Damaris’s CultureWatch website,1 helpfully sums it up: ‘The ways people in communities view, and respond to, themselves and their world’.2 Those of us who make up the church are each embedded in a culture — this is simply a fact.
However, we have a more compelling reason to actively involve ourselves in culture. Jesus himself demonstrated a positive engagement with it. He was moved by events in his community (John 11.35), he drew on cultural traditions to illustrate his message (Matthew 13.34-35) and he challenged the inconsistencies of false ideologies (Matthew 22.18-22). Jesus prayed that the church would continue to walk the tightrope of being ‘in’ the world, yet not ‘of’ it (John 17.15-18).
One aspect of being an ambassador for Jesus’s kingdom is the responsibility to redeem culture to its former glory through the truth of God’s Word. As ‘the light of the world’ (Matthew 5.14), churches are supposed to exemplify culture as God intended it in the communities in which they find themselves.
Humanity still bears God’s likeness, and so the arts are littered with aspects of goodness, beauty and truth. While the media will always contain elements that need challenging, it will also yield much that we can celebrate.
It is not enough for us to either condemn or conform to our culture. Jesus’s way demands a more involved process, one that prises open each cultural expression, revealing its truths, discarding its lies and refining its half-truths.
Culture into church
Coming from a pulpit, wouldn’t pop culture sound out of place? The Bible suggests not. Acts 17.16-34 features Paul preaching to a pluralistic, pagan audience, not unlike the permissive post-modern people churches are now struggling to reach. ‘Greatly distressed’ (v.16) by their idolatry, he made it his mission to understand their worldview. He looked at their philosophies (vv.18,22), objects of worship (vv.16,23) and literature (v.28); he commended what was good (vv.22,28), corrected what was wrong (vv.24,29-31) and filled in what was missing (vv.23,25-28). Paul incisively used cultural references in his talk to identify with his audience and help them to relate to his message.
Similarly, developing an awareness of mass media, popular science and post-modern philosophies enables us to better understand our neighbours — to grasp their questions, frustrations and longings. The gospel is relevant to every culture, but it must be communicated in a way that people of that culture can understand.
Quentin Tarantino has said that cinema is the new church. People sit in rows while a story is presented from the front, which contains spiritual and moral messages designed to transform the audience in some way.3 Filmmaker Zach Snyder (Watchmen, Legend of the Guardians) gave a lucid illustration of comic-book sermons: ‘When you read a comic book and at the end you go, “Where am I morally?”, that right there is pop culture. It’s like a bubblegum wrapper that has the meaning of life on it’.
Pop culture expresses worldviews, but it also shapes and reinforces them. Thus, it is vital that churches delve into films, literature, art, theatre, music and current affairs, to offer guidance to those embarking on a spiritual journey through these media.
Jesus offers another paradigm for drawing on culture while preaching. His parables conveyed profound truths through memorable but recognisable scenarios. To those who were hungry for truth, these stories illuminated complex concepts like the kingdom of Heaven. Charles H. Spurgeon once said: ‘A sermon without illustrations is like a room without windows.’4
Our culture is replete with stories, told in the cinema, through music, on the television and in books, not to mention the real life stories presented in the news. Of course, these stories are not to be given the same credence as Jesus’s parables, but, if used appropriately, they can illustrate aspects of God’s truth. In a multi-media context, these are invaluable resources for understanding and being understood by people today.
Keeping up with culture
Wanting to engage with the culture around us is all very well, but what if we don’t have the time, money or energy to source and sort through all the potentially useful illustrations in contemporary culture? It can be difficult enough to keep up with one or two spheres of culture that we’re interested in, but when you put on top of that the broad spectrum of interests represented in our congregation, the feat seems insurmountable.
A cultural tour guide
Tools for Talks is specifically tailored to help lighten this load. With thousands of quotes, lyrics, statistics, downloadable clips and news stories at one’s fingertips, illustrating a sermon needn’t be a chore. Tools for Talks researchers collect and catalogue new illustrations every week in order to free up speakers to spend more time on Bible study.
Each Tools for Talks illustration comes with background information and suggestions for use. This ensures that speakers are well informed about the film, song, programme or celebrity they are citing and offers inspiration for how the quote or clip might be integrated into a sermon.
In addition to illustrations, Tools for Talks provides a range of Bible study tools to help speakers select and reflect upon the passages for their sermons.
New and improved
Now is the perfect time to begin making use of Tools for Talks, since it has just been re-launched. The website now offers a range of new features, designed to make the site even more useful to preachers, teachers and pastors.
There are more downloadable clips from new films, which we know are popular and useful to speakers.
Tools for Talk News, a free update email, not only announces what’s new to the site each week, but offers exclusive free illustrations — even to those who are not yet subscribers.
With Mothering Sunday and Easter on the horizon, why not check out Tools for Talks to glean some brand new, culturally relevant illustrations.
Holly Price works for the Damaris Trust as a writer and editor. This article first appeared in The Reader, and is used with permission.
The Damaris Trust would like to offer Evangelicals Now readers a 20% discount on a Tools for Talks subscription: http://www.toolsfortalks.com/evangelicalsnow
2. Tony Watkins, Focus: The Art & Soul of Cinema (Damaris Books, 2007), p.8
3. Nick Pollard, Mission in Partnership with the Film Industry
4. Charles H. Spurgeon, Sermons in Candles: Lecture No. 1 in The Spurgeon Archive