The Perilous Road of Engaging Our Culture

On Friday, I spoke to a class of English literature students at Seattle Pacific University. I told them about my life at the movies, about the varoius warnings I’ve heard from Christians over the years about the dangers of movies like… oh… The Empire Strikes Back, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, and The Story of the Weeping Camel.

My primary goal in sharing my experiences with them was to encourage them to bravely venture forth into the art of popular culture, as a way of learning the way that our neighbors see the world, but also to venture into the art of other cultures, as a way of learning to understand and love people who see the world very differently than us.

But many of us, growing up in Christian communities, are taught something very different. We are taught to fear our own culture, and foreign cultures are portrayed as especially dangerous. We are often given the impression that contact with, and exposure to, people with different values and belief will contaminate us in some way. Thus, we end up cultivating a culture that is insulated, defensive, naive, and and fearful.

But virtue grows through exercise, testing, and maturity. Christ set the example, hanging out in his local pubs with tax collectors and prostitutes and swindlers and failures and deceivers and dangerous men. He didn’t let their foolishness influence him, but he was, yes, tempted. Scripture tells us so. There, in their midst, he set a different example of love, compassion, listening, caring. He paid attention. His behavior was such that everyone wanted to be in his presence, whereas in our culture it seems that the church has become a place most people are trying to escape.

The instructor informed me that I was going to be talking to a tough crowd. Apparently, some of the students are convinced that the Bible wants them to separate themselves from their culture, and that engaging with the world beyond the church is too dangerous.

He told me that my presentation brought to mind a quote by one of my favorite poets, John Milton. I haven’t seen these words in a long time, but they do ring true.

From Milton’s Areopagitica, in which he defends freedom of the press:

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trail, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers,. and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure…

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.


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