My boys love to read, they love knights, dragons, and castles, and they love tacos. So naturally, my fantastic wife found and purchased the very silly book, Dragons Love Tacos. Near the end, (no spoilers), something caught my attention. A purely cultural reference to one of the dragons being a good Samaritan due to performing a good deed.
It got me thinking, “How many other examples of pop culture adopting a biblical reference are there?” Because of my own Christian blinders, I’ve never stopped to think about how casually someone may use the phrase “the Promised Land” or hundreds like it. Perhaps more importantly, I started to wonder if the employment of these phrases as common idioms was likely to continue given the trends of decreasing religious service attendance among other things?
Phrases birthed by the Bible are everywhere in our culture.
Once I noticed it, I saw casual references to ideas or scenes from the Bible all over our landscape. It's probably not a safe assumption to presume that everyone who uses these phrases is a Christian, so my ears began to perk up for more examples. It didn't take long to find them.
How many times on any given weekend is a matchup between an underdog and a heavily favored opponent referred to as "David versus Goliath?"
There's a song from the band 30 Seconds To Mars called "Walk on Water."
Ever hear a group of parents comparing notes on their adult children and hear the phrase, "the prodigal?"
And speaking of parenting, how about these zingers: "you reap what you sow" or "go the extra mile."
It turns out that with a little research, I quickly found several others who had mentioned this phenomenon while writing about biblical literacy like Ed Stetzer and others who made an entire catalog of examples.
I’m not bemoaning the separation of these phrases from their biblical heritage.
The temptation to go on a rant from this point might be real for many of you. For some it will be motivated by gospel-centered sadness over the fact that according to one study, the same percentage of people read their Bible everyday as those who rarely or never read it. Stetzer's series of blogs on biblical literacy is helpful for many reasons, not the least of which is to remind us that Christians who regularly read the Bible are more likely to be comfortable in sharing their faith, more likely to go on a missions trip, and more likely to be deeply involved in their church community.
There may also be a knee-jerk reaction to use this as a launchpad for any number of political and legislative priorities. And while those things have their place, if we're not careful we can end up metaphorically rending our garments and shouting at the world to stop "co-opting our stuff!" I'm suggesting a different route.
Maybe there's an opportunity here.
Have you even been in a conversation where someone brings up the etymology of a word and people rally around the topic with the glee of trivial pursuit? I recently heard a podcast in which the hosts spent several minutes humorously but completely distracted by the origin of the Hamantaschen pastery, a longtime component of the Jewish Purim observance. For the hosts, the distraction was culturally motivated, but it was so easy and enjoyable for them to chase that rabbit that it reminded me of a story from the Bible.
In Acts chapter 8, we read the story of Philip encountering the Ethiopian eunuch just as he is reading passages from Isaiah. Philip asks the eunuch a simple question, "Do you understand what you are reading?" We have to infer from the eunuch's response that the question was asked in a respectful way, because the eunuch admits his ignorance and invites Philip into his chariot to explain the scripture to him. My favorite verse from that passage is verse 35: "Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus."
Full disclaimer: I'm not about to suggest that this blog be considered the start of a full blown evangelistic strategy or that you try to pounce on everyone who employs one of these phrases into gospel conversation. I'm suggesting that once you are aware of this phenomenon, it may be helpful on occasion. On occasion, I write again.
Don't employ the "Jesus Juke.”
Jon Acuff once wrote about the "Jesus Juke" in a way that I found humorous, helpful, and prescient. A key takeaway from Jon's blog is that if you're not careful, an intentional cop-opting of a conversation to make it overtly spiritual can often generate shame. He writes, "The Jesus Juke is a great way to tell a friend, “I wish you possessed the uber holiness I do and were instead talking about sweet baby Jesus in this conversation.”
For instance, my seven year old son and I enjoy watching football together. I heard the announcer talk about how the team I was rooting for was "David" to the opponent's "Goliath," and I asked my son if he knew what the term "underdog" meant. He didn't, and I got the opportunity to talk about underdogs using the story of David and Goliath from the Bible and God's faithfulness to David and his people against all the worldly odds. There's a big difference between that two minute encounter and someone dragging down a Super Bowl party because the announcer didn't fully articulate that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, and a descendant of David.
Is it possible in our continuing quest for non-confrontational methods to begin spiritual conversations, that culture's adoption of phrases birthed by scripture is an opportunity to introduce people to Jesus? Possibly- when this method is considered a tool among many employed for a specific situation. But definitely when taco-eating dragons want to do something helpful and be labeled good Samaritans.
Josh Ellis is Executive Director of Union Baptist Association. He has a PhD in Leadership Studies and has served on the UBA staff since 2005. With both practical and scholarly knowledge, he leads the association into innovative collaboration for the sake of strategic gospel advancement.