I kinda backed into this.
I was listening to a symposium between two highly esteemed faith leaders on evangelism. One was a Protestant professor and the other a Catholic bishop. During their discussion, one of them remarked on how one of the challenges of evangelism today was how unfriendly our culture is to faith. He decried the near-total depravity of our world today: the overriding focus on consumerism and materialism, the rampant sexual deviance, the banal cult of personality. He said the only solution was for Christians to create a counter-culture, with Christian artists and media. (He forgot to say the music was too loud and the kids needed to get off his lawn.)
I was doubly disappointed that the other panelist, who is known for appealing to beauty as a means of starting the discussion about faith (as opposed to truth and goodness), didn’t offer any other angles.
While I grant the points he made about our culture’s failings, and I’d encourage Christian arts, too, it seems to me that we miss some powerful opportunities if that’s our only attitude toward the world around us. You can agree with the idea that our culture has strayed far from the moral mark without sacrificing the notion that there is beauty to be found there, and that that beauty has hints of the divine buried in it.
That’s not a particularly new approach. When the apostle Paul was roaming through the first century world, he would look for ways to connect the local culture to his message about Jesus – like when he went to Athens (captured in Acts 17) and built his case for the Gospel off of the local proliferation of temples to different gods. Heck, the canonical gospels are filled with parables – stories Jesus tells about God using the everyday customs and practices of his time and place to make a point about the holy. Centuries later, Francis of Assisi saw the popularity of roaming street musicians in 13th century Italy and adopted their approach to reach audiences in a different way. Christian apologists in the 20th century (C.S. Lewis comes to mind) used common cultural examples to make a case about the faith. It’s not revolutionary to highlight the way culture speaks to the themes at the core of faith, even unwittingly.
So I was thinking about writing a blog post about that, referencing a couple of works by the theatrical songwriting wunderkinder Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, specifically “You Will Be Found” from their play Dear Evan Hansen and then, more generally, the movie The Greatest Showman, for which they also wrote the music and which I had just seen. Then I bought the soundtrack to Showman, and on first listen realized that there was enough material to talk about in the lyrics and themes of the show to warrant a deeper dive. (Side note: “You Will Be Found” could get performed in a lot of churches without anyone blinking an eye, theologically. More another day.) I think Showman surfaces a number of themes that have theological connections, but it’s probably not unique in that. It’s just a good and recent example for outlining how faith and can look at culture through a more expansive lens than just a Christian/not-Christian duality.
So before we dive in, let me say a couple of things by way of disclaimer. First off, I’ll try to be clear about this throughout, but I’ll also state here that I am not arguing that Showman is “secretly Christian” or “Christian without knowing it.” I haven’t seen anything about the authors acknowledging religious or Christian themes for their work (in the book about Dear Evan Hansen, they are presented as an odd couple in that Pasek is Jewish, gay and single while Paul is Christian, straight and married; it’s not clear, though, if the religious references reflect their upbringing or an active faith). That’s not the point I intend to make.
What I want to draw out instead is a theory that the things that Christians (and in many cases, adherents of other religions) profess as central to the human condition and at the heart of the relationship between human and divine that defines their creed have echoes in secular works like this. Art at its best speaks to the essence of what it means to be human; religion shows how what it means to be human can best be understood and imbued with meaning in relationship to the divine. So secular things make statements about who we are and who we should be that align or conflict with the statements religions make about the same things. And, maybe, if we bring those two sets of statements close, we can elevate the appreciation and understanding of both sacred and secular. That’s where I’m headed here.
Second, a point about evangelism in all this. Even in the historical examples I mentioned above, there’s an assumption that this sort of connection of culture and faith is really about faith telling culture what it really means. God-splaining, I guess you could call it.
But there is another side to the coin if this is to be a true encounter of faith and culture. I do think that what the faithful believe about the world can be articulated through the filter of cultural artifacts. But I also think that those who are faithful can be called to a greater awareness of and accountability for what they believe by comparing what goes on in the world to our practice. To go back to the symposium I mentioned at the beginning of this post, if we believe that a Christian life is our highest and best way to be in the world, I don’t think we help our cause by spending our time tsk-tsking the culture. We need to be focused instead, not on creating a counterculture, but on creating such a powerfully attractive articulation of life in Christ that people prefer what we do and say to what the world has to offer. We have some work to do there.
Third, a small point. I write this as a practicing Catholic. There will be places in this that are more specifically Catholic than more broadly Christian. Feel free to point those out. (Actually, I suspect some Catholics will see places where I don’t think I’ve captured Catholicism correctly either.) I am just an amateur.
Finally, go see the movie. Buy the soundtrack. Preorder the DVD. I’m going to try to link only to official 20th Century Fox content in terms of videos, although I need to rely on external sources for lyrics, which I will quote extensively. But support art by paying for it. As I imagine you have already, because I can’t envision someone wanting to read what follows with out having previously seen the show.
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