≡ Menu

Engagers, Separatists, & Christian Review Culture

Andy Crouch, in his award-winning book Culture Making, outlines four historical stages in the Protestant approach to culture:

  • Condemning Culture: Fundamentalist withdrawalculture making
  • Critiquing Culture: Evangelical engagement
  • Copying Culture: The Jesus Movement and CCM
  • Consuming Culture: Evangelicalism’s Present-tense

If such eras are accurate, the proliferation of Christian review sites are understandable, a byproduct of our progenitors’ rising from cultural hibernation (i.e. Fundamentalism) and lumbering forward into engagement. Whether it’s music, film, or fiction, you can find a Christian offering critiques, discernment, suggestions, or warnings about various cultural commodities. Evangelicals are determined to no longer be behind the cultural eight ball… even if that means blindly “copying culture” or becoming its ever-faithful watchdogs.

Don’t get me wrong — I benefit greatly from some Christian film and fiction reviewers, and follow certain “pop culture” watchers keenly. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed that Christian review culture tends to often fall into two camps: Separatists or Engagers.

The Separatist is the ideological offspring of the twentieth-century fundamentalist whose posture, as Crouch puts it, is “one of suspicion and condemnation toward any human activity not explicitly justified on biblical grounds and engaged in by fully converted Christians.” Thus, the Separatist reviewer is one who approaches culture as a critic, hyper-sensitive to the morals, messages, and motives of the artist and her piece, determined to keep themselves, and their readers, unspotted from the world.

thruascrndarkly_c1-final-midAs a result, the Separatist often becomes a moral bean counter, neatly cataloging the infractions of artists in question. For instance, some media watchdog group noted that The Blind Side, a movie which many Evangelicals applauded, contained 10 sexual references, 3 scatological terms, 8 anatomical terms, and 7 mild obscenities — offenses that resulted in Lifeway, one of the largest Christian bookstore chains in the world, removing the movie from its shelves.

The Engager, on the other hand, does not quibble over such peripherals and tends to cast off such particulars as foul language, crudity, ambiguity, or bad behavior in search of something “higher” and more meaningful. Film critic Jeffrey Overstreet put it this way in his wonderful book Through a Screen Darkly:

God’s truth is not available solely in Scripture or in the mouths of preachers — it can also be discerned in the way a tree grows or the way a sugar cube absorbs coffee. God may be revealing Himself not just through the charity of a compassionate saint (Dead Man Walking) but also through the shocking evil of a desperate preacher (The Apostle).

…Christ’s incarnation teaches us that spiritual things and fleshly things are not separate. The sacred is waiting to be recognized in secular things. Even those artists who don’t believe in God might accidentally reflect back to us realities in which we can see God working.

As such, the Engager approaches culture — and film, fiction, music, and art — looking past the surface “secular things” for something “sacred.”

The downsides and differences of both approaches are pretty obvious.

Separatists tend to see Engagers as snobbish, excessively tolerant liberals who are enamored with artistic nuance and wishy-washy about Gospel truth.

Engagers tend to see Separatists as narrow-minded nit-pickers who ignore good art, impose their conservative values, and generally alienate non-Christian audiences with their sanctimony.

While Separatists are counting cusswords, Engagers are “finding God” just about anywhere; hence, the nauseating rash of “cultural engagement” think-pieces like:

  • Finding God in Harry Potter
  • Finding God in Toy Story
  • Finding God in Twilight
  • Finding God in The Conjuring
  • Finding God in Avatar
  • Finding God in Superman

The Separatist is so busy straining at gnats she’s missing the “camel” on her  plate. The Engager is so intent to affirm God’s hand in the arts that she often winks at blatantly godless content.

So where should we fall on the scale? Should we stand as cultural, and spiritual guardians, so to speak, and point out lies and falsehoods? Or should we look past the worldly language, celebrate fine craft, and expound upon those themes that resonate with a biblical worldview?

The Christianity Today editorial, Box Office Pantheism, challenged Engagers and Separatists to learn from one another:

Sadly, the engagement impulse has led many evangelicals to neglect their prophetic presence in the public square, as we often seem more set on distancing ourselves from our fundamentalist cousins than on seeking personal and corporate soul care. Discernment becomes an exercise in baptizing secular critics’ top picks, celebrating their vague spiritual themes but downplaying or ignoring pernicious ones. Or we revel in our freedom to enjoy an array of films, belittling our separatist siblings whose consciences are offended (1 Cor. 8).

The reality is, the engagers could stand to learn a few things from the separatists, and vice versa, as both camps survey the pop culture landscape. The engagers have developed keen eyes to find Light in the most unexpected places. Yet the separatists, who have an instinct for sensing the subtly devastating aspects of culture, can quicken our steps on the path of sanctification. With the engagers’ vision and the separatists’ instinct, the church and its moviegoers can navigate Hollywood’s muddled spiritualities with rigor and grace. (bold, mine)

Perhaps the divide between Engagers and Separatists is bigger than it should be. While Separatists must face the fact that an overly-rigid approach can result in important films like “The Blind Side” being nixed from Lifeway because of “7 mild obscenities,” Engagers must face the possibility that their approach “has led many evangelicals to neglect their prophetic presence in the public square.” So not only should we learn from each other, isn’t it possible that engagement and separatism are two sides of the same coin?

A Christian review culture that finds itself somewhere between Separatism and Engagement, possessing “the engagers’ vision and the separatists’ instinct,” may in fact be the more biblical approach.

* * *

Question: When it comes to pop culture, do you lean more toward engagement or separatism, do you see yourself as more of a critic or a consumer? And, depending where you fall, what do you think you can learn from the “other side”?

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrShare on Reddit
{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Becky Minor August 19, 2013, 6:49 AM

    Great thoughts here, Mike–I appreciate you taking on the territorial battle that is a bigger threat to Christianity, as I see it, than anything the world might throw at it.

    I honestly think I live in the place that sits squarely between the two camps (which puts me right in the crossfire–wheee!) The movement to “find God” in everything popular smacks to me of hyper-spiritualization, whereas the complete eschewing of anything that might be “soiled” with worldliness seems an equally flawed approach.

    The fact is, we are in the world but not of it. We don’t need to embrace the filth of the world because we don’t have much choice but to wade through it, but we can certainly call what nuggets we find within the everyday that are laudable “good.”

    In terms of reviewing art, I think we have to decide if we want to be critics or reporters. Do we want to simply offer up a list of facts about what a piece contains, like sources such as Plugged In do? Or do we feel compelled to make a more editorial statement about the worthiness of the work? If my choice is the latter, I believe I should do so with a respect for the fact that people all over the engager-fundamentalist spectrum will have different “tipping points.” And I am welcome to my opinion on that spectrum as much as anyone is welcome to disagree with me.

    As a maker of art, I can only make what I have on my heart, with a conscious eye toward my audience. The sooner I get comfortable with the fact that my audience is not “everybody,” the more joy there will be in creating.

  • Jeanette O'Hagan August 19, 2013, 7:05 AM

    Hi Mike – great post and a great question. Where do I fit? While I think I probably tend towards the engaging thoughtfully with culture, I also see the importance of remaining true to the Christian message and walk. I’ve written a few blogs which see the resonances with Christians themes in popular culture (on fantasytrekkers.com) – most notably on Avatar – but also Shrek 3, Iron Man, Children of Hurin and others – but also note the other less than Christian themes that often predominate. So I guess its more of a critical engagement (that critical in the sense of discerning).

    I was reflecting on this question in an article I wrote at the end of last year (in part after reading one of your articles – so I hope I read your article correctly). In part, I wrote “As far as I can see, it is not an either/or proposition – either uphold God’s standards and the truth of His Word OR connect and engage with the hurting world that Jesus came to rescue. So I prefer Tony Whittaker’s more nuanced analogy of three ways of moving across the ocean – as a hovercraft (the “holiness camp”), a submarine (“the honesty camp”) and a ship cutting through the waves. ” http://christianwritersdownunder.blogspot.com.au/2012/12/saints-seekers-and-sleepers.html

    Though I think it is much more marked in the States (I’m an Aussie), it often saddens me to see the divide between the engagers and the separatists. Not only can both sides learn from each other – but I think that both have giftings and roles that contribute to the body of Christ. What a great vision to see the two camps working together rather than against each other.

    Thanks again for your post.

  • Katherine Coble August 19, 2013, 7:35 AM

    Uhhh…excuse me. We’re missing a C word here.


    I thought that’s what we were all writers _for_, right? I mean, to me that’s all part of going me therefore into all the world and being salt and light and fishers of people and whatall. Creating the culture should not only be an option for Christians, it should be a priority.

    • Jessica Thomas August 19, 2013, 8:38 AM

      I wonder if there’s a difference between ‘creating culture’ and ‘creating popular culture’ because to an extent, I’m not sure Christians can create a culture that the world will embrace without watering down our message too much. On the other hand, if we think in terms of centuries rather than decades, Christians can dramatically shape culture. At least that’s what history seems to show. But I think “we” shape it by staying firm to the gospel, which is really God shaping culture through us.

      Admittedly, I’ve become more wary of the engagers lately, perhaps because I’ve taken that path and found it both exhausting and ineffective. I’m more of a mind now to stand firm rather than “beg” for attention (which is what engaging seems to degrade to). If you like what I offer, please take it. If not, freely move on without concern for my ego.

      • Anastasios August 19, 2013, 1:11 PM

        What exactly do you mean by “the world”? You sound like a separatist when you talk that way, as if Christians were some super-secret, unpopular, unknown clique. You do realize that a decided MAJORITY of the American population still identifies as Christian, right? Christian culture sells BIG TIME, did you see how well that “The Bible” miniseries did? If Lewis and Tolkien could make it big in their day, why can’t we? Our century is no more hostile to Christianity than theirs was.

        • Jessica Thomas August 19, 2013, 1:57 PM

          I use “the world” like Paul does in his letters. Also as Jesus does in John 12 when he says satan is the ruler of this world.

          The fact that the majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians doesn’t tell us how many are truly following Christ. That number is not quantifiable based on Pew research.

          Regarding the fact that Christian culture, as it’s currently packaged, sells ‘big time’ in America… I’m still undecided about whether that’s is a good thing. I used to think so, but now I’m not sure.

    • Jill August 19, 2013, 9:53 AM

      Reshaping the culture itself is a lot more effective in the long run than using the government to create legislation to force culture to be one way or another. This is something that authoritarians on the left and right don’t seem to get.

    • Teddi Deppner August 19, 2013, 3:55 PM

      Love this, Katherine! Yes!

  • Johne Cook August 19, 2013, 8:08 AM

    I have been both a Separatist and Engager (I think I’m clearly on the Engager side of the house at present) although I very much appreciate those who aren’t where I am.

    I remember being turned off by repetitive ‘worship music’ back in the day and heard the King’s X song, Black Flag.’ If repentance is the first step to forgiveness of sins, this song called me to repentance (emphasis mine).

    Black Flag, by King’s X
    A year in the hole
    had taken it’s toll
    When I took a good look at me
    And what a surprise
    The scope of my eyes
    could only see black

    And I remember someone
    who was taking them two by two
    and lately I’d become
    the One who’d have laughed at you too!

    There was a Black Flag on my morning
    There was a Black Flag on my day
    There was a Black Flag on everything around
    and I was walking backwards again

    I walked in the day, in my usual way,
    looking through a 2 X 4
    It colored my view, I couldn’t see you
    Or maybe I just wouldn’t…

    And I remember the time
    when the sunlight fell on my head
    And lately I’d become a member of the walking dead

    There was a Black Flag on my morning
    There was a Black Flag on my day
    There was a Black Flag on everything around
    and I was walking backwards again

    And I know that I was wrong.

    It was up to me
    if I wanted to see
    And I remember the day
    when I saw the mask on my face
    And I knew that it was time
    to put the thing in its place

    I’d put the Black Flag on my morning
    I’d put the Black Flag on my day
    I’d put the Black Flag on everything around
    And I was walking backwards again

    It was up to me
    And I know that I was wrong

  • E. Stephen Burnett August 19, 2013, 8:47 AM

    Popologetics by Ted Turnau is the best in-depth and yet readable (popular level) exploration and Biblical exposition on this topic.

  • Jill August 19, 2013, 10:18 AM

    This is just the same left/right paradigm that is present in politics. I’d rather remove myself from being either and create, as Katherine says above. I can create or influence culture through art. Good art is very subtle propaganda. If you think art isn’t or shouldn’t be propaganda, you’re wrong.

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) August 19, 2013, 2:32 PM

    I’m probably on the separatist side. I’ll hear how clever the writing is and how something of God’s principles are illustrated in a show, and I’ll go look it up. Think Parks and Recreation. I’ll enjoy the first show, start getting uncomfortable in the second show, and by the third and fourth and fifth, the show will be 90% sex talk, and I’m outta there.
    I really liked the book about creating culture, but I kept thinking about how if the gatekeepers will not allow the culture we want to create to be known.

  • D.M. Dutcher August 19, 2013, 3:02 PM

    I tend to be an engager, but I get the separatists. I think we engagers forget at times that transgressive aspects to art really can and do affect us. It’s because we have developed a tolerance for levels of violence and sexuality in works of art from repeated exposure. We’ve eaten too much hot, spicy food, and what would burn the tongue of others is just a pleasurable sensation to us.

    I think though we’re at the limits of consumption. I don’t think Christians can legitimately change the mass culture, because it’s not artists who do so; it’s the people who own the capital to publish and distribute those artists. Christians seem to get absorbed as artists because of this; when non-believers pay the bills you don’t have much freedom.

  • Iola August 19, 2013, 4:39 PM

    As a reviewer who mostly reviews Christian fiction (but reads more widely than that), I really hope I’m not in either camp.

  • DD August 20, 2013, 6:09 PM

    The “Finding God in…” pieces are becoming a bit old. Particularly for books or films that were never written from a Christian worldview. Yes, “Finding God in” Narnia or Lord of the Rings makes sense, but in others, why draw out meaning other authors never intended? Instead, they should be engaged and answered.

    • Johne Cook August 20, 2013, 6:39 PM

      The answer is simple – we are all made in the image of God, and reflections of Him appear in a great many places that even non-Christian creative sorts never consciously intended. I delight in finding these little glimpses of the Creator that their creators weren’t completely aware of.

Leave a Comment