Sacred and Secular in Conflict

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Today I had the privilege to talk to the hosts of the brand new podcast, “Beyond the Pulpit.”

They are first-class Millennial leaders engaging challenging ministry topics and equipping pastors and ministry leaders with resources and valuable information. I’m a big fan of their work collectively and individually. If you haven’t listened to their show yet, you should really check them out. You can subscribe to the podcast here, and follow them on Twitter here.

They asked me to be a guest to kick off their Black History Month series, and talk a bit about my doctoral research and the need and challenge of engaging “secular” music and entertainment. I’ll be honest and say that I was honored to be asked to be a guest on their show, but beyond that, I’m much more excited that they’re tackling such a relevant, far-reaching issue that affects all of our churches and ministries.

Parishioners are constantly asking us, “Is it okay too…?”

This question is a red-flag for an underdeveloped faith experience (let that sink in). At its heart is an honorable intent. Nevertheless, it is borne out of an inability to carefully address the real heart of the matter when it comes to the kinds of media and entertainment we consume.

I believe that we speak about these issues in such conflated and convoluted terms. Many believers have equated listening to secular music and watching secular TV shows with damnation, salvation and sin. While our entertainment choices have implications for our spiritual lives, we should avoid using such rigid terms to gauge something as fluid and dynamic as our relationship with God.

Imagine measuring the love you have for a spouse or a child with how many times you did or didn’t hug and kiss them. Foolish right? Exactly! Relationships don’t work like that. However there are elements here that need to be explored.

We are often conflicted between two extremes. On one hand you have asceticism, and on the other hand there is hedonism. Ascetics believe that pleasure in all of its forms is dangerous and evil. Hedonists seek perpetual pleasure. If we look closely, we see these two extremes at work all the time in church and in religious spaces in general. We are taught (most times implicitly and every now then, explicitly) that it’s one or the other.

I think the heart of the discussion should be rooted in the very last line of Rom. 14:23, “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” I think we often overlook this important principle about lifestyle choices. Our relationship with God guides our convictions. Our convictions are the basis of our faith. Whenever we abandon the convictions of our hearts, we are betraying our faith.

It’s also important that we explore the work of introspection that’s necessary for us to evaluate how it is that we make those entertainment choices. How do my faith and my convictions come to bear in the realm of entertainment? I have to consider what entertains me. What do I like/want to see? What do I not like/want to see? Why is that? Yet, we shouldn’t simply leap to making blanket statements like, “Listening to secular music is sin.” It oversimplifies what all is at work.

Today I was asked where do we draw the line with our choices and how it is that we should relate to that which is sacred and that which is “secular”? It’s a very difficult question to answer, but it’s essential that we develop a mature perspective here.

I remember when I was in undergrad, the homiletics (preaching) professors taught us to take a notepad with us wherever we went to take notes about experiences and ideas all around us to be used in preaching moments (this was before smartphones). How is it that worldly, everyday, "secular" experiences can have sacred use for preaching? It’s simply because God is with us and gives insight in the moment. In other words, it immediately becomes sacred if God is there with us in the space.

I remember hearing the saints talk about the places where the angels do not go. I like to put a different spin on that idea. Where do I experience life and time with God? Where do I talk to God, connect with God and hear from God? I’d like to submit that all of those are sacred spaces.

When we think about it carefully, we can see that the sacred and secular are constantly intertwined. For example, God took the dust of the ground and formed Adam. He used a donkey to speak his word. A raven brought Elijah food. Then, he sent his perfect son to earth and wrapped him in imperfect human flesh in an effort to save the world. And now he uses flawed individuals with broken lives and seedy reputations to share in the work of spreading the good news of the Gospel. It’s very hard to read scripture closely and not see how God operates in the gray areas.

I suppose it’s necessary to work this out further, but for now, I’ll just challenge you to think about your own life. Despite all of the bad things that have happened to you, despite all of your mistakes and shortcomings, despite all of your hardheadedness and stiffneckedness, God still provides for you, protects you, works for you and through you. It’s because God operates in the gray areas.

I often tell people that one of the most formational moments for me along the road to conversion happened in a nightclub. I was a teenager at an after-party for a high school talent show. I didn’t even have permission to attend the party because I was on punishment for shenanigans the week before. But there I was in the middle of the dance floor when I had a moment of clarity about the foolishness that was surrounding me in that club. I was convicted that this was a waste of my time and I decided to leave. Providentially, my good friend (whom I went to the party with) wanted to leave as well. It was a watershed moment for me. And shortly thereafter I decided to follow God wholeheartedly. I'm grateful that God spoke to me that night in the club. I’m glad that he still speaks in spaces that are dark, noisy and sinister. I’m truly grateful that God operates in the gray areas.