The following is a slightly edited version of a blog post I did in 2011 on the Credo House blog.
In my earlier Christian years, I was taught to hate the world and to avoid participation in it, especially as it related to culture. That means it’s products – music, books, movies, etc. I recall at times being torn because in the early eighties, music video was really taking off and I did like movies. Well, some movies were ok as long as there was no sex, drugs, violence or bad language (God forbid there would be a curse word!). The proof-text that was always used was 1 John 2:15 – “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” That seemed pretty simple. That meant Christian movies with distinct Christian themes, Christian music, and Christian literature was acceptable. This is sacred and worldly things are secular. And Christians did not participate in worldly things, lest they love the world.
Over the years, I have come to a different understanding of what it means to hate the world and to love the world. As Christians, we must love the world since God does and seeks to reconcile it to himself. Yes, for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son (John 3:16). So why does John say don’t love the world? I’m no Johnnine scholar but W. Hall Harris III is. He identifies herethat world in John’s gospel (3:16) refers to humanity and particularly broken humanity, while 1 John references the philosophy and values that are separate from God. Examining 1 John 2:15 in light of the next verse, he says
We are dealing with people who operate purely on a human level and have no spiritual dimension to their existence. This is the person who loves the world, whose affections are all centered on the world, who has no love for God or spiritual things… It is not a reference to culture.
Nothing solidified this more than a class I took in seminary with Glenn Kreider on Theological Method with a particular focus on theology and culture and the fact that God not only operates through his word but through His world. That means that Christians must interact in the world, which means interacting with the world, i.e. culture.
Steve Turner agrees. In his book Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts, he identifies the problem of hiding from the world in the name of Christianity when we ought to be contributing to it through the various cultural mediums to a reflection of the glory of God. I concur with Turner that creating Christian sub-cultures to avoid the world only end up 1) alienating the world and 2) prohibiting meaningful interaction from our unique point of view. We do this to the detriment of loving the world, particularly when we treat it with hostility. He says of using the 1 John 2:15 passage,
Confusing these two usages can lead to disaster. Some strict fundamentalist sects show disdain toward creation and culture, and yet in doing so become proud, arrogant and uncaring. They therefore become worldly in the very way the Bible condemns and yet are not worldly enough in the way the Bible commands. We are told to be in the world but not of it. People like this are often of the world but not in it. (pg 43)
He then goes on to say
Positively, the world is all that God made and Christ came to redeem. This includes culture because humans have never lived in isolation from each other, and when they get together, they automatically create culture. It would be impossible to think of loving humans and yet hating human culture, of loving individuals and yet hating their music, songs, stories, paintings, games, rituals, decorations, clothes, languages and hairstyles. God made us cultural beings.
Therefore, Christians should be worldly in this positive sense. They should be lovers of life because God is the giver of life. No one is more worldly than God – He made the world, He upholds the world and sent His Son to die for the world. Christianity doesn’t teach that the world is an illusion that will trap us or a hell that prevents us from attaining our true purpose. (pg 44)
Right about now, I can hear the protests regarding sin and depravity. How can we appreciate products that come from sinful creatures? (of course not recognizing that describes us to only that our eyes have been opened to it and our need for a Savior). Turner concurs that there is some art that reflects nothing of God or goodness and such should be avoided. But overwhelmingly, the products of culture are but a reflection from those who bear the image of God though may not honor him as God. Yet, the glimmers of God and his story is embedded in culture. Consider this passage.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men and women are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)
The problem with the group that Paul is describing is not that they don’t reflect the nature of God but that they don’t recognize it or honor him as God. In Covenantal Apololgetics, K. Scott Oliphint describes it this way;
[I]t seems altogether true and right that man (male and female), by virtue of being created in the image of God, always and everywhere carries the knowledge of God with him. this knowledge does not come by the proper and diligent exercise of our cognitive, emotive, or volitional capacities; it rather comes by God’s own relevatory activity within us . . . It is a knowledge, we could say, that is presupposed by any (perhaps all) other knowledge. For this reason, it may be best to think of it as more psychological than epistemological. It is a knowledge that God infuses into his human creatures, and continues to infuse into them, even as they continue to live out their days denying or ignoring him (in Adam).
It makes sense then, that the products people make are going to point back to God in some way or the other. This can be incredibly instructive for us as we look to connect with people who are in Adam. Oliphint goes further;
This means that entailed in our condition as human beings is access to the world as created. Behind every culture, behind any context or conditioning, behind any linguistic construct is the world known, and known as created by the true God who is known. As God reveals himself through the universe, the universe is known to us even as God is known to us. To put the matter theologically, we must know the world in order to know God, and we must know God because are his image. There is, therefore, a universal and ncessary access to the world in such a way that we know God through knowing it.
Now, of course, saving faith is conditioned upon accepting God’s revelation through the Son. But it is through the Son that the world was made, by him, for him and through him (Col. 1:16). So it seems if we are to be ambassadors of Christ, who loved the world, including the people in it so much he died for it, so we too should be compelled to love his world, love for the fingerprints in creation and live for the glory of God.