It should come as no surprise that the things that are most important to (“popular”) culture show up whenever people come together. What is astonishing, however, is the transformation that can occur based on whether the gospel is present.
Take food, for example. Historically speaking, food has always been a prism into the balance of power — a tipping point between those who have and those who have not. While many regard it as little more than legend in its accuracy, take the story of Marie Antoinette and her response to the plight of the poor in France as they’ve run out of bread. The infamous remark “Let them eat cake” scoffs at the hardships the impoverished had to face. It takes little more than a moment’s insight to see how I am just as guilty of indifference to the empty stomachs in the world. Some two thirds of the world lives on less than two dollars each day, and here am I, fattening up as I can spend a whole week’s worth of that wage on a single meal. I’m continually taught more and more about just how precious food is the more I see God’s love for those who are desperate.
This last week in D.C., I’ve eaten foods from some wildly varying global cultures and I was taken aback at the discovery that the food budget of the trip was a mere two dollars per head, per meal. After the trip concluded I was graced with the opportunity to sample Korean bar-b-que, and a Maryland shellfish dinner that would leave my brother bed ridden with gout (inside joke). The combined cost of these two meals alone could’ve easily covered my food allocation for the other five days. In the end, whether it was Salvadorian pupusas, Indian tandoori, Korean beef spare ribs, or a bowl of cold cereal, I cherish the experiences for the people who experienced it with me. Some day we will gather again, around a table (perhaps with wine [another inside joke]), and remember how God brought us together then and again and just how good He’s been to us… And one day further the table will be big enough for all the nations of the world, and it is available for those who seek only to take a seat and partake in the communion of the gospel.
Still another juxtaposition forms around the world of sports in America. Take just a quick glance at the work stoppage in the NFL and you’re faced with 32 billionaires at odds with 1700 millionaires over how to divide a 10 billion dollar industry. How magnificently futile it all is. Fandom spreads like a plague as egos are fed from the richest of owners all the way
down to the viewers at home. All along the way separations are made and classes are formed around the different levels of success that are achieved. We build mountains as smooth as glass and delight as we watch player after player, team after team, strive to reach the pinnacle only to forget about them as soon as they are overthrown. There’s always another height to scale and never a moment’s rest for those who dare to challenge the summit, especially now in the age of Twitter.
I wasn’t there to experience it directly, but my pastor played a game of stickball in a D.C. suburb that included the presence of the gospel. He already wrote a detailed blog about the experience, but just the nature of a gospel driven competition… Where players and spectators alike strive to be inclusive at every turn; where seeing a challenge overcome is met with cheers from the hometown favorites and visitors just the same… I encourage you to read his thoughts here: How a Game of Stickball Could Change the World.
The music industry is yet another that is stifled by the effects of greed and glamour. Popularity is based on the number of the records sold, and little attention is paid to the artistic value or message of the music itself. So many of us fail to recognize the difference between what is good and what is popular, and we are bewitched to believe that a work is good solely because it plays on the radio. The worst part is that we forget what music was intended for. As we lose our ability to discern the soulful from the superficial we also lose the purpose of music – to bring us together. The quality of the sound isn’t supposed to be as important as the people producing it, and if you’re with friends this should be all the more true.
What could possibly bring 15 young people who have never met before, together into a little bedroom and cause them to sing to their hearts’ content without fear of what the others would think of them? A guitar and the gospel. Music alone might bring people together, but without the gospel, people will tend to shirk back at the notion of actually joining along. Several years ago a man leading a worship session for fifty high school kids said something I’d never forget: he said to “be selfish” in our worship. Up to that point I was always hesitant to sing as loud or as full as I could in worship for fear of distracting someone else… but what way is that to worship? To come to God and praise His glory with timidity and fear? That’s no way to recognize the transformation of the gospel, and we had that power with us in D.C.
On two separate occasions, the music began and we just sang and sang and prayed and sang. Some of the members of the other groups came and joined us and we were happy to invite them in. In the end we were selfish enough to praise God like we meant it, and yet selfless enough to look beyond the human imperfections that came up in each other’s technique. The gospel gave us the courage to sing like we meant it, and the love to allow others to do the same…
Why does pop culture seem to break people apart far more often than bring people together? Without the gospel pop culture becomes a display of power and control—of money and greed, but when the gospel is allowed to infiltrate people’s hearts it also influences their response to cultural rifts between us. Things like food, sport, and music were designed to bring people together, and yet we taint them with self-centeredness. Allow the gospel to transform your heart, however, and you’ll see culture for what it was made to be: an avenue to get to what’s really important. The community that God desires for us should be the end result, and we can get there only if the gospel is at the center of our lives, our culture, and our community.