When Josh Larsen graduated from college, he knew that he wanted to write about and critique films.
“At the time,” he said, “my options were limited to the likes of Movieguide, a Christian website with a detailed rating system designed to ferret out every last bit of ‘objectionable’ content.”
For Larsen, Movieguide and similar sites felt too isolated from mainstream culture. He chose to write for the mainstream press instead.
“I didn’t want to give up the idea that Christians can mine movies for theological resonance, even if the movie itself is largely interested in other things,” Larsen said.
Larsen is hardly alone in feeling this tension. As Christians, how does one engage with, advance, and contribute to culture without isolating themselves from it?
On the following pages, three different Christians offer examples of how they are wrestling with that question and adding a Christian perspective to our world’s broader culture.
On Think Christian
After years of writing about films for mainstream audiences, Larsen joined ReFrame Ministries’ English-language program, Think Christian, in 2009.
Today, as Think Christian’s senior producer, Larsen writes about pop culture from a Christian perspective. He hosts podcasts and “movie club” conversations with fellow movie lovers and edits posts from other Think Christian contributors who also want to use their writing to help Christians engage pop culture in a meaningful and faith-forming way.
One recent Think Christian article takes a scene from the popular Netflix series Stranger Things and compares it to Philppians 4:8.
“Even though we do not dwell in the fictional Upside Down, our lives encounter their own inevitable darknesses,” the article states. “It is only when we remain close to Christ, who reminds us of our reality as saved, forgiven people, that we are no longer bound to the power of our depression, sins, shame, or trauma.”
Through Think Christian, two or three such articles reach about 40,000 email subscribers each week.
“Think Christian feels like a welcome home and a new creative outlet,” Larsen said. “Movies have long been analyzed by particular people through their particular lenses, and film culture has been the richer for it. Surely there’s a place for Christian criticism of this sort as well.”
You can find that sort of place at ThinkChristian.net.
At Calvin University
While preparing for an engineering course called “Sustainability Challenges” at Calvin University, professors Jeremy Van Antwerp and Matthew Kuperus Heun struggled to find a suitable book. They wanted something that would challenge readers not just to understand environmental issues, but to contemplate the moral and ethical issues surrounding sustainability. They decided to fill this gap by writing it themselves.
“We want to make a contribution to the broader conversation about sustainability,” said Heun. “It’s not only Calvin people, or even Christians, who are concerned about sustainability.”
The co-authors describe their new book, A Framework for Sustainability Thinking: A Student’s Introduction to Global Sustainability Challenges, as “easy to read, but hard to digest.”
In the book, Van Antwerp and Heun take into account the overlapping domains of sustainability—environmental, economic, and social—and nudge readers to consider their own values in these spheres.
“The book is a critique of the way things have been, a critique of various proposed solutions, and an opportunity to think about how things could be different,” Van Antwerp said.
The book concludes with two compelling chapters suggesting collective and individual actions that can make a difference. These suggestions for change, as the title suggests, offer a framework for thinking about the multifaceted and constantly changing challenges of sustainability.
Heun refers to the book as “the burden of exposure,” a phrase he learned from a pastor who lived in an impoverished township in South Africa. While visiting, Heun and some of his students were asked by the pastor how long they were staying. When they responded, “a few hours,” the pastor replied that while that was not enough time to change anything, they now knew what it was like and how people were living. In other words, they had experienced “the burden of exposure.”
“I believe that is a role for this book,” Heun said. “Readers will have been made aware and have the opportunity to understand sustainability challenges in a new way, to think about their values in a new way, to be encouraged to make a change.”
“As Christians,” he added, “we are familiar with being in despairing situations and lamenting about it. We know this isn’t the way things are supposed to be, so what can we do about it?”
According to Van Antwerp, everything is a tradeoff. “Even if you prefer everything exactly as it is right now, you are making a tradeoff,” he said. “The decision to burn petroleum and petroleum products is implicitly deciding not to save these for future generations.”
The authors hope that readers come away with the realization that the current situation is not the way it has to be—different tradeoffs are possible and could result in positive change.
“There is so much you can do right where you are,” Van Antwerp said. “I’m at Calvin and, as a professor, I teach a lot of students. I want to work on these issues and, hopefully, impact a lot of students, impact culture, and, as Steve Jobs said, ‘make a dent in the universe.’”
Unlike Larsen, Heun, and Van Antwerp, Yijun grew up in China with little knowledge of the Christian faith. In fact, the first times he read the Bible it was strictly for academic purposes.
Yijun’s love of knowledge led to an ambitious career path. Hoping to one day be a high government official in China, Yijun began studies at Peking University, a school often referred to by North Americans as “The Harvard of China.”
But when Yijun was studying for his graduate school entrance exams, the pressure he felt to succeed began to catch up with him. Despite his years of preparation and hours of study, he failed the exam.
“I wanted to kill myself,” Yijun shared. “I felt that there was no more fame, no more money, no more power, no more hope.”
Not long after receiving his failing grade, Yijun took out the Bible he used for studying and began reading it in a different way.
“Words from the Bible entered my heart,” he said. “I realized that three things in it began to attract me deeply: hope, belief, and love of Christ.”
Now many years later, Yijun still remembers the hopeless and suicidal feelings he had in his dorm room, and he wants fellow Chinese speakers to challenge the nation’s academic pressure that pushes many to despair.
Recently, Yijun shared his story with ReFrame’s Chinese ministry partners so they could publish it in a collection of testimonies from Chinese speakers. That book and similar projects will be printed this year to reach other students from Peking University and Chinese speakers around the world.
“I love (China) very much,” Yijun shared, “but I also dare to expose its evils. In 5,000 years of tradition … we have inherited not only good culture, but evil as well.”
Pray that Yijun’s story, along with others in the new collection, will contribute to a new academic culture in China.