Years ago, while sitting in a movie theater watching The Lion King, I had a profound experience of encountering God. The opening credits, accompanied by cinematic brilliance, set the stage for a powerful narrative of kingship, family, and the land they rule. As the heavens opened to shine upon the newborn prince, I found myself immersed in the spiritual practice of contemplation. In this blog post, we will explore the concept of contemplation, specifically focusing on seeing God in the culture that surrounds us.
There are three typical ways we contemplate God:
- Through culture.
- Through creation.
- Through our own world.
Contemplation through Culture in Scripture
When I saw God during The Lion King, I contemplated God through culture. For some people this is a foreign idea — God at work in the things created by non-believers? But we see this in Scripture. The most famous example of this is Paul visiting the city of Athens in Acts 17.
Paul sees God embedded in culture.
The leaders of Athens invited Paul to speak in front of the city at the famous Aeropagus. It was the center of thought, creative thinking and new ideas. It was an honor and an opportunity for Paul. He begins his talk like this:
“Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.”Acts of the Apostles 17:22-23 NLT
Paul, standing before some of the intellectual giants of the day, uses their own culture to point out God to them. Now here is an important question to ask, so we can have this same impact on our own world: How did Paul prepare himself use the culture around him to see and be God to the Athenian people?
Paul began the process as he walked the city alone with God.
“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply troubled by all the idols he saw everywhere in the city.”Acts of the Apostles 17:16 NLT
Paul had just been run out of the city of Berea, and he was forced to wait for his co-workers Silas and Timothy. He didn’t waste the time and anonymity given to him. Paul walked the city taking in its culture. Scripture tells us he was troubled by what he saw. Paul used this agitation in his spirit to talk to God about what he saw. He meditated and prayed about it. He compared what he saw to the scriptures.
This is contemplation. As Paul thought about all he was seeing, God pointed him toward the tomb marked for an “Unknown God.” God opened Paul’s eyes to the fact that God had hidden himself within the culture and within the heart of every man. It was Paul’s job to point it out to the Athenians. In other words, Paul was to ‘be’ God to the people of Athens.
Paul sees God in pop culture
Paul saw more than just that tomb in their culture. In his talk Paul goes on to say:
““His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ And since this is true, we shouldn’t think of God as an idol designed by craftsmen from gold or silver or stone.”Acts of the Apostles 17:27-29 NLT (emphasis mine)
Some historians have compared the ancient lyrical poets to pop stars of today. These poets were invited to perform at dinner parties and festivals. Paul used their popularity to his advantage. First, Paul was not unaware of them or their messages (see God in culture). Second, Paul let them help make his point (be God to the world).
Just like God placed Paul within the Greco-Roman culture of his day, God has placed us within this Western/multi-cultural world. Paul used that opportunity to contemplate God. Are you contemplating God in culture?
In Culture, Not of Culture
Followers of Jesus tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to culture. We either reject culture out of fear, or we immerse ourselves in culture, become desensitized and miss God altogether. God doesn’t want us to live in either of these two extremes. Our goal should be to walk the fine balance of that old saying, “be in the world not of the world.”
First, let’s analyze the two negative ways of dealing with culture. Culture in and of itself is not evil. In fact, culture is based on the principles God has created. Let’s take the top movies of 1994 as an example.
The top two movies of 1994, based on box office gross, were Forest Gump and The Lion King. That same year dozens of movies, if not hundreds, were released to the world. The tenth most popular movie of that year was Interview with a Vampire which grossed $99M. Forest Gump and The Lion King nearly tripled those numbers. Each of those two movies doubled the third movie on the list, the Arnold Schwarzenegger film True Lies. To date, combined, the Forest Gump and The Lion King have made over $2B!
Why? What made those two films so wildly successful during the year they were released and in the 30 years since?
God is the creator of culture
God is the creator of stories. His stories tell beautiful and compelling narratives. Forest Gump and The Lion King were runaway successes because the very essence of God is baked with them — a beautiful, well told story.
The Bible is an example of this. It’s God’s creative and compelling story of the redemption of his creation for his glory. The Bible contains stories of heartache, intrigue, and beauty. It is a book full of twists and turns. There is a reason it is both the best selling book of all time.
Your life is an example of this too. God is telling a creative and compelling story through the heartache and triumph you have experienced. It may not have the storyline of Forest Gump, but the feelings are just as real for you in the moment to experience it.
Just like most things, the fall of man wrestled story away from God, but the principles of a great story still point us to God. Great stories have a redemption arch. Beautiful stories are full of heartache and intrigue. We shouldn’t be afraid of the beauty in culture because God has created it. Our job is to wrestle it back from an evil purpose. Sometimes this means making our own stories – through film, art, music, literature. Other times it means seeing God in what those who don’t follow Jesus create. In both cases our ultimate job is to use culture to point people to Jesus.
Everyone is a disciple.
However we don’t want to be so immersed in the culture that we miss God altogether. It’s easy to use contemplation as an excuse to dive headfirst into culture only to find ourselves drowning in the thing we want to rescue. Or we discount the danger that the anti-God nature culture holds.
A great way to analyze this is through the context of discipleship. Someone or something disciples all of us. In other words, something or someone is growing you as a person. Are you growing in the values of God through his word, other believers, mentors, worship, etc? Are you growing in the values of culture through any number of media channels?
Here’s a great barometer for yourself: Where is your free time going? Where you spend your free time is shaping who you are. If your time is spent on social media, cable news, or unbelieving friends they are shaping your walk with God. If you use your time to be in Scripture, with Christian friends and meditating on God you are growing as a follower of Jesus.
Transformed not Conformed
In Romans 12, Paul gives us a useful way of dealing with this tension of being in the world but not of it.
“And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”Romans 12:1-2 NLT
The NIV uses the words conformed and transformed. We shouldn’t be so immersed in culture that we are conformed to its ways of thinking. We counterbalance this by bathing our minds in the things of God, and this transforms our minds.
At the same time, Paul doesn’t tell us to run from the world. He’s clear on this point in 1 Corinthians 5:
“When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that.”1 Corinthians 5:9-10 NLT
I can’t be sure, but my guess is you aren’t called to become a monk retreating from culture. We are to engage with culture without letting ourselves be conformed the culture around us.
How to Contemplate in Culture
It’s clear through Paul’s actions and Paul’s writing we are to contemplate God within culture. So how do we do it? Here are three tips:
1. Ask God to open your eyes.
I’ve made it a practice as I meditate in the morning to ask the Holy Spirit to fill me fresh for the day. As part of this process, I ask him to open my eyes and ears to see and hear him throughout the day. A great first step to seeing God in culture is asking him to reveal himself to you.
2. Train yourself to see God in culture.
For many of us, we’ve learned to compartmentalize the secular and the sacred. We have taught ourselves to that God belongs in their box, and the world belongs in a different box. We need to train ourselves to see God doesn’t remove himself from either box.
When you watch a movie, listen to a song, read a book or consider a piece of art ask yourself where you see God. Here are some common themes you’ll see in art – redemption, love, and a search for truth among many others. All of these are basic principles of how God operates. This is seeing God in culture.
3. Share what you see with others.
Contemplation isn’t just seeing God in culture, it is using what we see to be God to the world around us. So when you are having a conversation about the latest movie, television show, book or song with friends, share how you saw God or His principles in that creation.
God is the original creator. God embeds himself into our creations. Do you see God in the culture around you?