Charles Spurgeon said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.” That line between right and almost right is one that culture’s influencers walk with fine-tuned precision, because no one will drink poison in a bottle with a bright red skull and cross bones painted on it – it has to be mixed with something that our appetites crave.
I sat down with my family to watch the new Disney film Zootopia the other night. It had all that I have come to expect from the Disney name: cute talking animals coexisting in a universe with unanswered existential questions that you hope your child doesn’t start bringing up to you. Zootopia in particular from beginning to end is a grab bag of fashionable cultural causes thinly disguised and tossed together with glaring logical holes that test the limits of believability for even a child’s movie. In spite of the film’s preachiness, you are left with overwhelming sense of irony that in real life, carnivores would devour the other animals, and even within the Zootopia universe, a rabbit would make a terrible police officer.
However, setting that all aside for a moment, I find these personal empowerment themed movies troubling because they preach an “almost truth” that is difficult to detect and correct. We all want our children to dream big, but the way in which they dream can very well determine whether they end up as a saint or a narcissist, whether they work hard to achieve big things, or simply become a legend in their own minds.
An old hymn once posed the question “Is this vile world a friend of grace to help me on to God?” The answer to that question is clear. Not only does secular society not help us to God, it sends us in the opposite direction. Though we share the desire to address some of the same problems, such as low self esteem, hatred, or bullying, culture’s solutions are diametrically opposed to Scripture’s solutions. Secular culture’s path to fulfillment is found in embracing our true selves, being confident in whoever we are, believing that we can do anything, and not allowing others tell us who we can or cannot be. Such notions are completely incompatible with the Christian worldview, and fundamentally incoherent.
We can’t be anything we want to be. Every adult grows up to face the harsh reality that not everyone gets to be president, a famous athlete, a rock star, or an astronaut. Furthermore, despite pop culture’s endless refrain that we must “be ourselves,” no one really believes that. No one gets cut off in traffic by a road rage driver and thinks, well, he’s just being himself, or sees the face of a mass murderer and thinks the same. While society says “be yourself,” it fails to provide a coherent idea of who “myself” really is, and why it is good to be that person instead of something else. Consequently, popular culture has become the default standard, and those aspiring to be themselves are often left simply mimicking what they see modeled.
Modern media, especially children’s media, struggles to provide a coherent positive message regarding self-identity, precisely because it has removed God from the equation. Without an external concept of value, we conclude that the secret of identity and personal worth lies within ourselves. If we truly cling to that presupposition, we have to also conclude that all lifestyles and choices are equally valuable. If that is the case, then there really is no objective difference between the living life as Hitler and living life as Mother Teresa. Both were true to themselves.
Why does mankind insist upon clinging to the muddled idea of subjective self-worth, while preaching it as the one true gospel? Because of the first sin. First chronologically, and first in prevalence. It is the one ugly infection that drives the most secret internal sin along with the most grievous display of hatred towards God and man. I am speaking of course of the singular desire of a person to shake his fist at the God of the universe, stomp his feet, and shout with the defiance of a toddler, “No! I want to do it my way!” It was there when Adam and Eve took the bite of the fruit, believing that their loving Creator was withholding some good thing. It was there when Cain killed his brother. In our society, it is everywhere, as people cast off Biblical moral standards, even to the point of denying the undeniable realities encoded in their DNA.
Scripture gives a robust answer to the identity question, but it comes with certain realities that man’s sinful nature recoils from, like a vampire from a clove of garlic. If God created us, crafting the particulars of who we are, then we have to come to the humbling realization that we aren’t in control. God gives us value and roles in His kingdom and He didn’t consult us in the process. In so many self-affirmation themed movies, including Zootopia, there is a complete reversal of the appropriate posture toward God and fellow humans. Though we should live lives focused upwards toward God, and outward toward others, pop culture spins a different tale. Instead we find an inward focus that asks, “What do I have to offer? How can I show the doubters and haters what I can do and how special I truly am?” Sure, there is a place for kindness towards others, but only because it aids my own self-expression, and ensures kindness in return. Absent is the self-sacrificial love which God requires that places my own needs in the distance, and eschews praise, admiration, affirmation, and validation from others. Nowhere do we see room for the faithful servant serving out of the limelight, putting way more into service than he or she could ever get in return, but content to simply occupy the place that God has given them in life.
It’s not a glamorous life, but it is a satisfying one for all who humble themselves and seek God’s will. For them, fulfillment doesn’t simply belong to a few who are able gain recognition from others. They don’t need to attempt the futile task of inventing meaning and value for themselves. There is a sovereign Lord who sees fit to use feeble humans in His grand design, and He has guaranteed that for those who entrust everything to Him, there is always meaning, purpose, and a lasting identity as a child of God.