I was watching an older film called Gattaca (1997) tonight. I was relishing some aspects of the film which resonate deeply within me, specifically the power of good human longings and the tendency within God to exalt the lowly. However, despite some overt Judeo-Christian themes, the film is cast within the behavior that the Western world has come to expect in films made in its image: swearing, blasphemy, fornication, idolatry.
I’ve wrestled with the question of whether to enjoy such films within the light of the gospel and biblical truth (when they contain them) over against the stains of unrighteousness and ungodliness. This is what I’ve learned.
While Jude is clear that we should hate even the garment stained by the flesh, and David said he would put nothing polluted before his eyes, Acts 17 in provides a framework for intake of non-Christian art and entertainment in order to be faithful.
In Acts 17, Paul is left in the notorious city of Athens. The envy of the ancient world when it came to its culture, the city in Paul’s day had be allowed to retain much of its identity even under Roman rule. Paul however, is not impressed, so much as he is afflicted with a holy grief. This city of great cultural attainment in Art, Literature, and Philosophy had its culture married to the pagan mythological religion of the Greeks. After engaging with people in the synagogues, and marketplaces, Paul is brought to the Areopagus, where he gives a grand defense of he gospel and thereby teaches us how to engage with, for lack of a better way of saying this, pagan art.
In his defense, Paul capitalizes on an effort by the Athenians to safeguard against offending unknown dieties in their altar “to an unknown God” (v. 23). By arguing the “unknown” deity honored by an altar in the city is the God Paul proclaims, Paul has no reservations about appropriating this monument as a means of preaching the gospel of the true God. Paul identifies the unknown God as the self-revealing, transcendent creator who exists everywhere and gives life to all creatures. This God is immanent, not needing anything from men, unlike the capricious gods of the Greeks. This God has made “every nation” and determined when and where they would live (v. 26). All this is done by God with the expectation that the nations will somehow understand the message sent by the Holy Spirit in providence and creation.
Just as Paul began by appropriating Athenian religion to serve the gospel, he proceeds to appropriate the Greek philosopher-poet Epimenides to do the same. Paul quotes, “In him, we live and move and have our being” (v. 28). This line was originally addressed by a character in Epimenides’ poem to the ruler god Zeus, not Yahweh. Commenting on this poem Paul states this is the fulfillment of God’s intention that the nations whom he made would “feel their way toward him and find him” (v. 27). This, Paul says, is evidence that Yahweh “is actually not far from each one of us” (v. 27). Thus, the Spirit is at work in Epimenides’ writing of a pagan poem about Zeus. Paul continues with another citation from the poet Aratus which shows the case of Epimenides is not an isolated occurrence.
The Spirit could not inspire the poem addressed to Zeus as the bible does to Yahweh without contradicting himself and lying. There has to be an element of Spirit speaking through secondary causes. As with both the altar to the unknown God and Paul’s citation of the poets and philosophers, the Spirit’s providence throughout culture must lay down cultural customs and redemptive artifacts as evidence of the Triune God. The declaration of the heavens (Ps 19:1) and the display of God’s attributes (Romans 1:20) must leave cultures littered with natural revelation latent for the divine commentary of revealed Scripture. This is a work of the Spirit: to testify to the heart the vestiges of one’s culture are fulfilled in Christ.
Thus, I am able to, with reservation, watch films with an eye for what the Spirit is doing through secondary causes in people in rebellion against him. If Paul could quote pagan poetry as evidence of the true Creator, and we don’t believe Paul is being unfaithful with the text but is demonstrating the Spirit’s operation, then it’s ok to embrace elements of common grace in films!
God is at work in pagan men, even as they rage against our God. The image of God in people who want to ignore God is like a lion in a poorly constructed cage – it will get out.