(Eds. note -- as with all of the posts on our blog, the following is not meant to portray a collective opinion held by our members. We encourage dialogue surrounding the complicated issues inherent in engaging with the culture around us; we hope the following is edifying, challenging and encouraging as we all continue to develop our consciences and, as Paul said, become "convinced in our minds" as to what our convictions are regarding these issues)
“As many have learned and later taught, you don’t realize Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” -Tim Keller
I want to make it clear at the onset: I enjoy TV and movies. Currently The Blacklist is one of my favorite shows. It’s the story of a criminal named Reddington (fantastically portrayed by James Spader) who is on the top of the FBI’s most wanted list. His character is engaging and complex; he turns himself in to the FBI and begins helping them track down a list of criminals unknown to them, but known to himself. This “blacklist” turns out to be associates of Reddington whom he wants to get rid of, a goal that aligns with those of the FBI. His character is both altruistic and self-serving, a good/bad guy who at one point seems to be searching for redemption, but at another point seems only to want to serve himself.
This story is familiar. Culturally speaking, Holleywood is full of redemption stories. Usually it involves an unlikely hero, such as Reddington, with a tortured past or hurdle they must get over to become the hero everyone needs them to be (but maybe not the hero they deserve). These stories range in variety, from a playboy Ironman to a virgin Anastasia Steele.
And it’s not just on the screen; it’s in the written word as well. Harry Potter is ordinary and was abused by his Muggle “family.” Bella was the most boring girl on the face of the planet. Mr. Rochester was ugly…and already married. Emma was a meddler and outspoken to a fault. All of these characters had a hurdle to get over, a story to be told, and redemption to find. That’s part of why I love both the media and the written word. If told properly, the stories can be beautiful and point to the Greatest Story. A (One) ring of power portray the sin raging inside us all and our need to control it, or it will control us. Atticus Finch standing for truth and justice in the face of racial hatred and opposition reminds us of justice and the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. A Keeper of Memories reminds us that remembering the past can point to a future of meaning and hope, and the sanctity of life.
But wow…the damage done when these redemption stories are counterfeits. And sadly, the majority are indeed complete and utter counterfeits, more likely to distort the true message of redemption than to point to it. The discerning Christian must be able to decipher the difference, or we are in danger of confusing the real thing with the fake thing.
How does one do this? I guess the question could also be: how do we become familiar with the real thing when we are bombarded with the fake thing all around us, every day?
My old youth pastor Jeremy Jones used to use the analogy of a banker, who, if they are doing their job right, can almost immediately tell when counterfeit money comes their way. Why? Because they have become intimately familiar with the real thing. They don't try to memorize every possible distortion that might exist; they simply become so familiar with legitimate currency that they can immediately discern any alteration. The counterfeit is no substitute for the real thing; and the same holds true when it comes to the gospel.
Reddington will never find true redemption by helping the FBI track down criminals. Even the culture knows this: his sins are too great.
The masses of lost people need a hero. Even the culture knows this: so in swoops Ironman, savvy and lonely, overcoming his own demons to save everyone.
The psychopath executive needs saving. Even the culture knows this: so in walks a virgin girl who is willing to be used and abused to “love” him to salvation.
These counterfeits can seem real…after all, it’s true that salvation can’t be found by your good outdoing your bad. It’s true that a hero is needed, and that love can overcome any obstacle. So what is the problem, exactly? Can’t we just enjoy a good story without analyzing it from every angle, trying to decide if it lives up to the Christian ideal?
I’m not saying that we can’t find the beauty in good art, or a good book, simply for being a good story. What I am saying is that we get dangerously close to loving the world and being in the world when we are unable to tell the difference between true redemption and fake redemption. Are we satisfied when good triumphs over evil…and that’s it? Are we content to watch soft-core pornography and a man sexually assault a woman because he “finds redemption in the end”? Are Ironman and Ana Steele true hero’s?
I’m not going to decide for you what is acceptable viewing and reading material. But one thing is clear: the Bible speaks to these things, and not only that, and more importantly, it shows us what true redemption is. We become anesthetized to the cultural view of salvation when we aren’t familiar with the real thing. And the real thing is infinitely better, eternally more satisfying, and completely freeing compared to the shallow, fake, and deceptive lie the Enemy offers instead.
The call to Kingdom living is radical, and it is offered by a King both zealous and jealous, who wants us cleansed and pure, and for His Father's house to be rid of the den of robbers, and full of prayer by all the nations. If that temple now resides in us, and its King complete rule over it, He also has a say in what we watch, what we say, how we think, and how we live. He has a stake in us…his mission is our mission. His heart is our heart. And if we somehow think that the actions of Christian Grey are acceptable because of how the story ends, we have confused counterfeit love with real love. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
If we somehow think that listening to explicit lyrics in our headphones is morally neutral, we’ve confused counterfeit holiness with real holiness. “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)
And if we think that anything less than calling on the Name above all names will save us, we’ve confused counterfeit redemption with real redemption. “ I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Redemption isn’t neatly packaged at the end of a story. It isn’t in the road taken to achieve peace of mind. It isn’t in the submission to defilement because you love someone.
It’s on a bloody cross, won by a God who broke through the sin and darkness that plagued us, to show is in vivid detail what our neutrality cost him. The name Raymond Reddington, Ironman, or Christian Grey will not be remembered two thousand years from now. Either they will be long forgotten in our grandhildren’s minds, or Jesus Christ will have returned to this earth and His Name will be what is on the whole world’s tongue. His Name will be triumphant. His name will be worshipped. His name will be remembered. And it is His name that dispels the counterfeit gods of this culture, and shows them exactly what true redemption looks like.