using cultural references
This MTI blog series aims to help you and your readers sharpen your skills in communicating faith matters to secular readers – skeptics, seekers, and the spiritually disinterested.

When I heard that night about his sacrificial act – and that his life hung in the balance – I wept … and prayed for his safety.

In southern France, a gunman commandeered a supermarket and took a female hostage.  A courageous gendarme (French policeman) volunteered to take the female’s place, convincing the terrorist to swap his life for hers.

Perhaps he thought he could resolve the crisis from the inside.  In an ensuing melee, the gendarme was shot and later died.  The female hostage survived.

What valor.  What selflessness.  World leaders extolled Col. Arnaud Beltrame.

No greater love…

This episode brought to mind the words of another courageous, selfless leader centuries ago:  “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  When Jesus of Nazareth said that to his close companions, he was helping to prepare them for what he was about to do: submit to a cruel execution so they and others could find forgiveness and new life.

Maybe you, too, heard Beltrame’s story when it happened in March, 2018.  If you share my interest in helping people understand and appreciate Jesus’ message, I suspect you can see how a true story like this could aid you in connecting with your audience.  It could be a doorway into listeners’ hearts, using a poignant life situation with which they very likely were familiar – at least during and shortly after that news cycle – to meet them in their world and introduce them to yours.

Cultural connectors

Life is filled with events, relationships, experiences, media, literature, and more that can be keys to listeners’ souls.  A skilled Christian communicator will use these cultural connecting points liberally.  They can show a listener/reader that you care about their life, which can enhance their emotional receptivity to what you say.  Cultural connectors can bridge gaps and help point people to God.

Jesus, of course, practiced this method.  Speaking about seed sowing and harvesting tapped hearts in an agrarian society.  The Jewish-Samaritan conflict informed his teaching about loving your neighbor.  He referred to the (apparently recently) collapsed Tower in Siloam.  No doubt his news app kept him abreast of current events.

Paul followed suit.  In Acts 17, with philosophers on Mars Hill, he mentioned an Athenian altar to an “unknown god,” using that as a bridge to tell them about the God he knew.  He used athletic imagery: “Run to win!”  Might he have made an effective Athletes in Action or Fellowship of Christian Athletes staffer?  He also quoted unbelieving philosophers and poets  like Epimenides, Aratus, and Menander.

Current events; movies

For many years my writing outreach focused on using current events to get people interested in God.  Articles like “Forgiving Bernie Madoff?” about the master swindler noted that grudges hurt the grudge holder, and that divine forgiveness remedies exist.  Then I discovered that more people would read my articles if I tied them to current movies and television.  Les Misérables communicated that mercy triumphs over judgment.  Justice League – with obvious Jesus resurrection parallels – depicted hope lost and hope restored.

The Real MVP television movie portrayed NBA superstar Kevin Durant’s mom Wanda and her heartwarming tale of love, faith and persistence amid struggle and sacrifice.  Of course, you, too, can use stories like these in your conversations, speaking and writing.  Sports, current events, local news or customs, music, the arts, films, holidays … the possibilities seem endless.  It just takes a willingness to observe, read, and watch with an eye for connection candidates.

Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Gospel?

Consider this fun example of using cultural references to communicate faith.  Though the entertainer references below are from my generation, I’m guessing many reading this will be familiar with some of them.

University reunion organizers often create reunion “yearbooks,” inviting alumni to write about their lives and lessons learned.  Here’s the closing of my submission for one university reunion:

I’ve been married, divorced, very happily married again, then widowed in 2016; hired, fired, and hired again; ill and now well again (still jogging most days).  Three life lessons especially stick out:

  1. As the esteemed British psychotherapist Sir Mick Jagger famously counseled, “You can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometime … you just might find you get what you need.”  I’m still learning the difference.
  2. Another British sage, Sir Richard Starkey, reminds me, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”  Close friends have helped me to land on my feet and remain in the race.
  3. When we were young, the lovely Ms. Judy Collins recorded a famous eighteenth-Century hymn with evocative lyrics and a sweet melody that still inspire today.  Written by a slave-trader-turned-pastor, Amazing Grace also resonates with some of my own journey from false confidence, fears and failures to finding hope and friendship in the One who makes all of life possible.

Still enjoying reading, long walks, sunshine, beaches, The New York Times, good movies, and most of all – until cancer took her – my lovely wife and special gift from God, Meg Korpi.  Looking forward to seeing her again, as well as to seeing everyone who attends this Reunion.  Warmest greetings to those who can’t make it.

Keep your antennae up for cultural connections.  Maybe they can help enlarge your ministry’s borders.  Hope so!

Want to know more?

Gratis online resources:

  • Film-related outreach articles: Examples of using contemporary motion pictures and television programs as springboards to consider faith matters.
  • Racism-related outreach articles:  Examples of using a hot, contemporary social issue to sensitively communicate faith perspectives.
  • Ethical Insights from the Headlines:  More examples of using current news to generate faith discussions.  Business, finance, economy, government, political science, international relations, popular culture, culture wars, sports/athletics, education and more.

by Rusty Wright. Rusty is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

Copyright © 2023 Rusty Wright

Photo by Jurre Houtkamp on Unsplash

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