Finding Treasure in the Trash Heap of Christian Culture

Finding Treasure in the Trash Heap of Christian Culture June 1, 2021

I am a product of Christian culture, but lately, I’ve struggled with unpacking the treasure from the piles of Jesus Junk. 

Photo by Pulaw via Flickr, CC Licensing.

Baptist boy 

My parents were not in the ministry, but our family was very involved in the Baptist churches we attended, which ranged from fairly permissive to stereotypically strict. At our first church, my dad served a year as a deacon and signed a form prohibiting us from dancing, rock music and movies; my mom snuck me into The Care Bears Movie

My parents weren’t overly stringent, but they looked to the church for guidance in raising three kids. Their rules were sometimes a bit strange and inconsistent. My dad banned He-Man because “only God is the master of the universe.” Yet, when my mom left for a weekend retreat, he somehow thought it was appropriate to rent both The Wolfman and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for my siblings and I. As a result, I spent much of my childhood baffled by their choices; as a father of two, I now understand that they were largely winging it, as all parents do. 

I listened only to Christian music as a teenager. Rather than hang out with peers from school, I associated with my youth group friends. My parents liked the assumed safety and cleanliness of Christian culture, and I felt most like I fit in there. I went to church camp, rocked out at Christian festivals and worked for a spell at Family Christian Stores.  I was your stereotypical good ol’ Baptist boy. 

A world beyond church doors

While I spent much of my teenage years rocking out to Jesus Freak, when I entered college, I began to realize that art existed outside the Christian sphere. Some of the bands I chided my friends for listening to because they weren’t Christian were really good — often better than the Christian bands. I discovered filmmakers who made me think and provoked questions that didn’t have tidy answers. And, as I entered college and then began a career in journalism, I learned there was a world of good people and great experiences beyond the doors of my church. I grew up being told I had to choose between my faith and the outside world. But was that true? Did my faith have to die just because I crossed borders? In fact, the older I grew, the more my question became whether my faith could survive being isolated in Christian culture.

I went through my periods of doubt and questioning, some more severe than others. I still believe in Jesus. Every morning, I read the Bible and pray. Some of the specifics of what I believe and how I believe it have changed over time, but the core still remains. And much of it has been enriched and challenged not by Christian art, but by the work of those outside the church. Even those who have been condemned by it.

And yet, Jesus Freak is still on my Spotify.

Treasure or toss? 

As my faith has shifted, I’ve taken two approaches to engaging Christian culture. The first was to lean harder into it. Read only Christian books so you’re not corrupted. Listen only to Christian music to feed your mind with things of the Spirit. Isolate yourself from secularism to remain unstained by the world. 

Of course, just because something references Jesus or comes from someone with a spiritual background doesn’t make it helpful, good or even Christian. I’ve experienced much Christian work that I consider actively opposed to the faith, and some of the things this culture claims to be essential to Christianity are up for discussion in faith communities. By saying “this is what a Christian believes,” it alienates those who hold a different view. Likewise, truth doesn’t only originate with Christian sources. I’ve had my soul fed by people who don’t share my faith. I’ve also learned that Christians can be capable of great things and terrible things, and non-believers can deliver soul-stirring spiritual insights. 

The other approach, then, is to abandon Christian culture, mock its poor quality and roll our eyes. That’s also not helpful. I grew up listening primarily to Christian music and these songs resonate with me, even if it’s just nostalgia. I’m thankful that I was a youth group kid; I have great memories from that time, and I don’t want to throw them away. Sometimes the quality is a reflection not of artistic bankruptcy but limited resources. 

Welcome to the Jesus Junkyard 

At the Christian bookstore where I worked, we sold a variety of knickknacks designed to proclaim faith. This included breath mints wrapped in Bible verses, copyright-infringing bumper stickers and T-shirts, and figurines of doe-eyed kids praying by their bedsides. We called this stuff Jesus Junk. 

Well, welcome to the Jesus Junkyard. The goal here is to sort through Christian culture, past and present, and examine it through the eyes of someone whose faith has shifted over time. What can’t we believe was ever a thing, and are there things worth holding onto? Are there trends in current Christian culture we should engage with? How can our churches provide a better culture of thought, worship and connection? Were some things previously off limits that have helped us grow spiritually? What parts of my faith did I hold to only because I was wrapped up in this culture?  We talk a great deal about spiritual deconstruction and reconstruction; consider this blog to be a home for cultural deconstruction. 

I don’t know exactly where this conversation is going, but I have a few guidelines. For one, I refuse to punch down. I want to be honest, but I won’t treat Christian culture as a punching bag. I also believe this should be fun and uplifting; cynicism is not allowed. Let’s smile and laugh if it’s apparent quality wasn’t always job one, and let’s be clear and call for repentance when we acknowledge harm that has been done be Christians. We will celebrate where we can, throw out what’s not worth holding on to, and sift through the Jesus Junk together.  

Welcome to the conversation! I’m excited to get started! 

About Chris Williams
Chris Williams writes about film and faith, and his work has appeared in Patheos, Reel World Theology, and Christ and Pop Culture. He lives in the Detroit area with his wife and two kids. He also publishes the newsletter "Chrisicisms," where he writes about film and pop culture. You can read more about the author here.

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