The Portrait of a Graduate series aims to publish pieces by recent graduates of classical Christian schools. Not only do we hope to encourage these students in future writing endeavors by publishing their pieces, but we also hope that the excellence shown in these pieces serves as a small portrait of what classical Christian schools hope their students will be able to do with a classical Christian education.
The Value of Critical Engagement
by Madeline Sparks, School of the Ozarks, Class of 2017
I have had the privilege of growing up in a Christian home. My parents are devout Christians who have modelled what it looks like to follow Christ. We are actively involved in our church, we pray together every night, and my parents have set an example worthy of imitation for me through their study of scripture. When I first became a Christian, I relied on my parents to help me understand the tenets of our faith. My desire to more fully know the Lord led me to ask my parents uncounted questions, and I would accept their answers without engaging in my own critical thinking. As I grew in knowledge and understanding, my parents encouraged me to probe the boundaries of my faith and wrestle with the tough questions so that my faith would be my own and not wholly dependent on them. My parents spurred me on to explore avenues of questioning that many Christians would shut down, dismiss, or cover over with Christian platitudes. Questions such as: What is sin? Does God really love me? What draws people to other religions? Why do I choose to believe Christianity is the only way? They also allowed me to develop my own opinions about cultural issues such as the LGBTQ movement, racism, and politics. They were eager to engage me in conversation and provide me with guidance, opinions, and questions to ponder, while allowing me the freedom formulate my own viewpoint on these issues. Researching and investigating different points of view to resolve questions about one’s beliefs is important. However, many outside our faith believe that Christians who grow up in Christ-centered homes are victims of childhood indoctrination, incapable of thinking critically regarding their faith or the secular culture. Hearing believers categorized in this way deeply saddens me, and initially I attributed this unfair label to the embitterment of the secular culture against Christianity. However, as I became more aware of my own actions and the actions of Christians around me, I realized that those who have formulated that opinion and labeled Christians in that way are not entirely incorrect in their evaluation. The issue does not lie with the close mindedness of the culture, but with the fear many believers have surrounding the influence of the secular culture, especially on their children.
On March 1st of 2017, sixteen days prior to the release of the film, Bill Condon, director of Beauty and the Beast, announced in an interview with Attitude Magazine that there would be a “nice, exclusively gay moment [in the film]. (“World exclusive beauty,” 2017). That very same day Christians took to the internet to lash out. The loudest responses seethed with anger towards Disney and the company’s pro-gay agenda. Regardless of what the scene in the movie might entail, the severity of this premature attack from the Christian community displayed not only a lack of discernment, but more importantly an absence of love. The Christians who responded so harshly to the statement from Bill Condon did not wait until more information had been divulged about what this movie scene was to contain. Instead, through online bashing and rants on Facebook many in the Christian community invoked the mob mentality by inciting other Christians to join with them in their public denouncement of the film. Rumors began to spread that this scene meant a kiss between two male characters, and these already frustrated believers became more enraged. Movie theaters began pulling the film from their queue. Most notably, a drive-in theater in Alabama stated,
If we cannot take our 11-year-old granddaughter and 8-year-old grandson to see a movie we have no business watching it. If I can’t sit through a movie with God or Jesus sitting by me then we have no business showing it. We are first and foremost Christians. We will not compromise on what the Bible teaches (“Theater shuns Disney,” 2017).
The voices of the outraged Christians drowned out those believers who wanted to withhold judgment until more information was provided. Unfortunately, the overall resounding effect this uproar had on the LGBTQ community was one of disdain and hate. However, when the film released, it did not contain a gay kiss. It did not even outwardly portray a homosexual relationship. In addition, none of the proceeds from the movie were donated to an LGBTQ organization. To be certain, there were gay undertones, but the dreaded gay scene was essentially non-existent. The premature response of the Christian community had been too much. The Christians who had spoken so loudly against the film were accused by the culture of hypocrisy and intolerance. What was the driving force behind this premature outrage? The inappropriate response from Christians regarding the Beauty and the Beast film was driven by fear, rooted in the decline of critical engagement, and it was in no way helpful to the advancement of the gospel.
The anger ignited within many Christians at the mention of a gay scene in this film geared towards younger children stemmed from an underlying base of fear. Why is this a fear of Christians? In Paul’s epistle to the Romans he states, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2 New International Version). Sadly, many Christians allow the first part of this verse to captivate their attention, so much so that they miss Paul’s call to critically engage the culture. Instead they turn towards isolationism, avoiding all practices or beliefs remotely related to the activities or lifestyles in the world. And because Christians are constantly engaged in battle against their own sinful human nature, any push towards a more secular culture propels many believers to react in a manner that has the opposite effect of what Christ commands us to, love. The more influence the LGBTQ community gains over the culture, the more Christians fear that they or their children will succumb to acceptance of a sinful lifestyle, thus conforming to the culture. The anger that often results from this fear demonstrates a severe lack of love on the part of believers, and when Christians act upon this anger, the message transferred to those they oppose is perceived as hate. For years, believers have allowed themselves to be provoked by the culture. But I ask you, should we expect anything less? Satan takes advantage of every opportunity to tempt the community of Christ into sin and into casting stones to drive a message of condemnation into our culture. Unfortunately, this is entirely opposite of the way in which we should be speaking into our culture. As Christians, we are called to be a light in this dark world. 1 Peter 2:12 says, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” Watching the LGBTQ community gain popularity should stir us to act out of love, not out of retaliation. Christ-followers are the only examples of Christ to the world. Therefore, we need to be conscientious that the lost are watching us closely, looking for evidence of this Christ we claim to love. Treating those different from us with animosity and hatred propels them away from Christ and hinders the effectiveness of our gospel message.
Today, the mindset of many Christians is to avoid coming into contact with sin, eschew the lifestyles of non-believers and live in a bubble devoid of temptation. But what is it as Christians we hope to gain by isolating ourselves from the culture? Christ calls us to be in the world without being of the world. There is and has always been a deep need for critical Christian engagement in culture. How can we enter into intelligent conversations with non-believers, who do not possess hope in Christ, if we do not take time to listen and understand their position? One of the key components of critical engagement is understanding. While Christ was on earth, he did not expect the people within the culture to treat him with respect. Christ was unafraid and unashamed to dine with those whom the religious leaders of the day viewed as the lowest of the low. He fellowshipped with tax-collectors and prostitutes, breaking bread and spending time in their presence and in their world. Christ engaged culture by spending time in the culture, interacting with those that others shunned, drawing them to him by speaking truth in love and out of compassion. The way in which Christ encountered struggle and temptation sets an example worthy of imitation. Looking towards the example of Christ, how can we, as Christians, be so ignorant as to believe that avoiding those caught in sin will be beneficial to us? The art of critical engagement begins with proper discernment. We, as believers, must steep ourselves in scripture to protect ourselves from conforming to the world while living in the world; however, knowledge devoid of love turns us towards self-righteousness. So, what does it look like to live in the world without falling prey to it? We live in a time where information is easily accessible and the majority of people desire immediate and straightforward answers. However, not everything fits into arbitrary black and white categories. This is true of Biblical concepts as well. There are questions that arise in everyday life where the Bible does not provide definitive answers. It is the job of every Christian to look at each problem they are faced with criticality, leaning on the Word of God for guidance, and when the Bible is not straightforward, pray about the issue and seek wise council. The art of critical thinking is a developed skill and not many Christians take the time to cultivate this competency. Instead, many believers blindly accept the theology of other believers without question. Mindlessly following the crowd is never a good idea. No matter who this crowd consists of, close friends, role-models, Hollywood, even fellow believers. Now, does this follow that Christians need to put up with beliefs contradictory to their own? Absolutely not! I only wish to point out that the way in which Christians have been going about engaging culture is incorrect. I propose that the inappropriate response Christians express towards the culture stems from a lack of critical engagement.
When discussing cultural engagement within the Christian community, a pervading thought is that engaging with culture is dangerous because of the influence it may upon believers or their children. As I previously mentioned, the reaction of the majority of Christians towards the Beauty and the Beast stemmed from a place of fear. However, as Christians, it is important to step back and examine the underlying cause of that base fear. Some Christians argue that culture has a damaging effect on their walks, but if we are walking closely with Christ and our motives are correct in engaging culture, then the Holy Spirit will be our barometer and guide. Christians should not be afraid to engage culture out of fear that we will be changed by culture. If we are firmly grounded in Christ, he promises to protect us. Philippians 4:7 “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus Christ.” But what about the children whose minds are so impressionable? Many Christians, like myself, have a tendency to overthink things, blow them out of proportion and cause a stir larger than necessary. This is precisely what happened with the Beauty and the Beast reaction. Christian parents caught wind that a movie for children would contain a gay scene and instead of taking time to listen or dig deeper into the situation, they exploded. Had the gay scene in the film not been blown out of proportion, the redemptive Biblical themes of the movie would have been able to shine more brightly. The film opens with the condemnation of a haughty prince unable to display compassion or selfless love. As the film goes on, the audience is introduced to new characters, some easily likeable, others not so much. Most of the children watching the film would not notice the “gay” undertones in the movie had this issue not been blown out of proportion, and I would venture to say that many adult Christians would have paid little attention to the subtle glance. If we filter the movie through a biblical lens, one might focus on the different forms of manhood displayed in the film. LeFou portrays a man with an effeminate nature. LeFou, however, is not a character that children leave the film wishing to imitate. He comes across as a fool unable to see the faults of others. Gaston also represents another form of masculinity as he falls at the opposite end of the spectrum from LeFou. Gaston is conceited, inconsiderate, and takes advantage of everyone around him. Again, most children do not leave the film wishing to be Gaston. Biblical masculinity is portrayed by Maurice and the repentant Beast. Maurice sacrifices his good name in an attempt to save his daughter, and the Beast sacrifices his opportunity to become human again by allowing Belle to leave the castle in an attempt to save her father. In the end, good prevails as the beast is reunited with Belle and her unconditional love for him changes him back into his human form. It is important to note that this movie is not intended to be a religious movie. It is secular in nature with running themes of good and evil.
The only way we will see a shift towards critical engagement in Christians is by instilling children with the ability to think critically through cultural issues. This is accomplished through allowing our children to appropriately explore cultural controversies. If a parent were to take their child to see a movie such as Beauty and the Beast, and they felt there were messages in the movie that conflicted with Christ’s teaching, it would behoove parent to address these issue with their children. Engaging children in thoughtful conversations around sensitive topics is vital to helping young believers establish a firm foundation for their spiritual growth.
Everyone comes at their faith with a different set of convictions. Each believer responds to culture in a different way according to how they interpret the areas in which the Bible does not directly address. What I have told you today is not to say that Christians are to become tolerant and complacent. I do not mean to suggest that Christians should not act upon their convictions or boldly oppose culture in defense of their faith. However, the methods Christian’s employ when addressing and confronting culture can either cause irreparable harm to mission of the gospel, or invite the lost to enter into a loving relationship with our Savior. Every Christian’s walk may look different, but all share a common goal. That goal is to daily strive to imitate the character of Christ. Christ calls believers to love. “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:38-39 New International Version). The way in which many believers responded to, nay attacked, the LGBTQ community stemmed from a place of fear and of judgment, not from a place of love. When deciding how to properly engage culture, it is critical that believers pray, consult the Bible, and seek wise counsel. Above all, remember that if you aim to approach culture with compassion and love, Christ will be beside you. He will help you resist temptation, and your impact on the culture will reverberate across the kingdom. As Christians, we are called by Christ to engage in culture. How will they know him if no one shares his love and truth with them? How will the gospel spread to the far corners of the world, even the darkest corners of the world, if no one is willing to humble themselves to listen, understand, build relationships and speak the truth in love. In the words of Paul,
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 English Standard Version).
Croft, J. (2017, March 6). Theater shuns Disney Beauty over gay movement over gay moment. (2017, March 16). Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/03/us/theater-shuns-disney-beauty-over-gay-moment/
World exclusive beauty and the beast set to make Disney history with gay character. (2017, March 1). Retrieved from http://attitude.co.uk/world-exclusive-beauty-and-the-beast-set-to-make-disney-history-with-gay-character/