FIRST-PERSON: Jesus did not die so you could be cool

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) -- My kids watched VeggieTales the other night, and as Bob the Tomato plopped around the screen, it struck me: I am thankful for so-called "Christian culture."

Yes, products of this kind can veer into kitsch and easy moralism. Some companies seem to operate by the philosophy that if you slap an evangelical-friendly label on an item, you can gull some folks into buying it regardless of craftsmanship or theological thoughtfulness.

That stated, I've been strengthened, blessed and helped by intentionally Christian products and efforts. Some folks sneer at "Christian school" or "Christian homeschooling," but I'm thrilled to hear of little children receiving a deep education in the things of God, whether in a formal school or the kitchen.

While you can get irony points in some circles for laughing at "Christian art," I'm thankful that artists over the centuries have sought to create beautiful works that lift up the spirit.

In truth, we need not choose between pursuing beauty and glorifying God. We need not feel shame for using our gifts for the explicit purpose of praising the Lord and training the church's eyes on excellence. It can be great to teach kids the faith through radio-show skits. It is a lovely thing to write books aimed at moral education (even if every single page doesn't have a two-paragraph summary of the Gospel). It is terrific to create a home environment filled with the happiness of God-celebrating media.

These endeavors and a thousand others will not get you cool points from a secular culture; a secular culture aims at, bends at, getting you to do the opposite. It wants you to be persistently cynical and model that stylish cynicism to your children. It wants you to feel weird about training your kids in the faith, but to dive deeply into the world and skirt around Christian truth. It wants you to praise your kids for liking secular bands, watching an unending stream of secular movies and thinking in secular paradigms.

But when taken together, this amounts to anti-formation, not spiritual formation. It is a long, slow undoing.

Some may wonder whether children of Christian fathers or mothers should consume only so-called Christian culture. I don't think this; my point is to advocate for excellent things, beautiful things, enduring things as the pursuit of a Christian home. This cannot mean only what elite magazines say is "good art." It must fundamentally and primarily mean the things of God (Philippians 4:8). We do not cram fistfuls of so-called Christian culture into our kids' minds; we do, however, cheerfully introduce them to all sorts of uplifting, edifying products.

You could say it this way: We raise our children as if they possess a soul that needs and even craves spiritual nourishment, theological feeding, fog-clearing wisdom and jaw-dropping beauty. All such gifts center in and proceed from God, not secularism. He is truth (John 14:6). He is beauty (Isaiah 33:17). He is goodness (Luke 18:19).

We need to square with this: Christianity is not supposed to be cool. Individual Christians may end up being cool (hopefully with minimal effort), but you will search the Bible in vain for a summons to coolness.

Christianity stands for something better, thicker and more meaningful than being enviably set-apart in social terms. It stands for maturity, for wholeness, for earnest seeking after God, for honesty, for genuine love. Christianity is not about laughing at the social misfit, as the cool kids do; it is about befriending the social misfit when no one else will.

Jesus did not die so you could be cool. Jesus died so you could escape the torments of hell and sing His praises in the new heavens and new earth for all eternity.

There is freedom, very substantial and enjoyable freedom, in the Christian life. We love to see excellency wherever it is found. But as my favorite theologian, Jonathan Edwards, taught in spades, our primary interest in excellency is theological, spiritual and moral. Everything else stems from this theocentric starting-point.

This is personal for me, as I am sure it is for many others. I remember being a bit adrift in college after consuming a good deal of non-Christian culture, knowing I was spiritually malnourished. Randomly one night, I stumbled across the Gospel Gangstaz on a television show. I immediately ordered their CDs. Through them, I discovered a whole underground galaxy of Christian rap, one in which a diverse and underappreciated group of artists skillfully plied their trade. Braille, The Cross Movement, Grits, later Lecrae, Trip Lee and a host of others -- these artists built me up. They strengthened my faith. They showed me Christ and helped me love Him more than I loved the world.

To any artists and other folks engaged in such work, I say God bless you. Thank you for not caring about the praise of man. Thank you for helping a goofy college kid laser in on the glory of God. To the authors, skit performers, textbook writers, television show creators, rappers, Christian school administrators, homeschooling mothers and a veritable army of creative men and women of God: Thank you for building up my children in the most holy faith.

As Christians, we not only read Austen or listen to Strauss. We also might find ourselves watching Bob the Tomato and, in gratitude, laughing along with our children at his antics.

Owen Strachan is associate professor of Christian theology and director of the Center for Public Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., where this column first appeared at its http://cpt.mbts.edu website. Strachan is the author of several books, including "The Colson Way" (Thomas Nelson, 2015) on the life and legacy of the late Chuck Colson.
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