God loves diversity. He has woven it into every aspect of his creation. Stars, galaxies, mountains, lakes, forests, flowers, birds, beasts, clouds, snowflakes – all of them appear in seemingly endless variations, each of them reflecting the glory and creativity of their Maker.

Human beings most especially, made as we are in the image of God, embody this diversity as men and women of every ethnicity, language, body type and personality – each of us equally bearing the Imago Dei. Because we bear God’s image, we reflect something of his creativity, each in our unique way. Among other things, we create culture in various forms of art and entertainment.

Being diverse image bearers of a God who loves diversity, we might expect our cultural work to express this quality. Strange, then, that diversity in arts and entertainment has become in our time a divisive trigger word. One extreme position views diversity with suspicion, as part of an alarming agenda. The other extreme makes diversity an idol that outweighs all considerations of creative quality and integrity.

There is a third way, however – the way of the Gospel. Approached through that lens, we can create and enjoy works that express diversity honestly and well, respect others who do it differently, and glorify our God whose gift it is.

Ancient culture: “Dead white males”

Because of sin and the Fall, human history became a tale of cruelty and injustice. In place of the shalom in God’s original creation, there arose war and violence and oppression: the rich against the poor, the strong against the weak, men against women.

These actions and attitudes were reflected in the art and literature of the ancient world. The gods fought wars, raped, and inflicted vindictive torture on their enemies for the slightest offences. Men behaved much the same and were considered heroes despite and sometimes because of it.

To be fair, these works often expressed ambivalence and revulsion at the events they portrayed, rather than glorifying them. In fact, the cultural achievements of Greece and Rome in the arts, sciences, history, literature and philosophy laid the foundation for our Western civilization. Even so, the fact remains that most of these surviving works, while insightful and valuable, were produced by a small group of rich, educated men to whom the lives and stories of the poor, foreigners and women mattered little.

Church culture: Whitewashing history

It’s no exaggeration that the life and teaching of Jesus turned the world upside down. The contrast between the beliefs of the ancient world and Jesus’ love and respect for all people as God’s image bearers cannot be overstated. As a result, Christianity became the most countercultural, radical, diverse and inclusive movement the world has ever known.

Unfortunately, the church, past and present, hasn’t always been true to her Lord’s vision and instruction. Jesus was a brown Jewish man from the region of Palestine, as were his first disciples. The church was born in Jerusalem and spread initially through the Near East, the Mediterranean and North Africa. There were church buildings in Ethiopia centuries before there were any in Western Europe.

This didn’t stop Western artists from depicting Jesus with pale skin, light brown hair and clear blue eyes. Although we don’t know what Jesus looked like, the early Greco-Roman mosaics that portray him with semitic features, brown eyes and black hair are surely much closer to reality.

This whitewashing approach in Western art isn’t limited to portrayals of Jesus. His mother, disciples and figures from church history have also been subjected to it. Numerous paintings of Saint Augustine, the great 4th-century theologian from North Africa, depict him as a fair white man with silver hair. A children’s video about two early North African martyrs, Perpetua and her slave Felicitas, portrays Perpetua as a tall noble white woman and Felicitas as a brown girl cowering at her feet.

Opponents of Christianity frequently mischaracterize it as a white man’s religion. However, all too often, the culture of Christendom has given these opponents the ammunition for doing so. For followers of Jesus, our arts and creativity ought to reflect our Lord’s teaching and example, as well as the diverse nature of his church and his world.

Contemporary culture: Blind spots and reaction

According to contemporary secular thought, concepts such as equality, dignity and basic human rights for all people are universal, self-evident truths. Such beliefs, however, would have been utterly alien to most ancient societies and remain so in many current cultures across the globe. It was Christianity, driven by the conviction that all people are created in the image of God, that introduced these radical concepts which have formed the framework for the Western world view.

That said, Western societies – including their Christian and non-Christian members – haven’t always acted consistently with these so-called self-evident truths. The history of slavery, misogyny, racism, contempt for outsiders, mistreatment of indigenous peoples and exploitation of the poor bears this out.

Predictably, these attitudes have had a parallel life in our arts and entertainment. Books, movies and TV shows have a history of racial stereotyping and sexist portrayals of women. Fictional characters have typically been assumed to be white by default unless otherwise indicated. A disproportionate amount of our entertainment has been created by and for white males and focuses solely on their viewpoints and interests. Women and minorities in these stories, if present at all, have typically served only as foils for the heroes, as victims, adversaries or objects of desire.

The last generation or two has seen concerted efforts to address these blind spots and tell stories from different perspectives by creators from a variety of backgrounds, targeted at more diverse audiences. Such efforts, however, have not been welcomed by everyone. For some who prefer the status quo of earlier times, these initiatives represent a threat. Their feelings, in turn, are only exacerbated by the more zealous champions of diversity, who can at times forget that their goal is to entertain and perhaps to inform, but not to preach.

Imago Dei: Dignity and representation

The first chapter of Genesis teaches that every human being is created in the image of God, and therefore of infinite value. Jesus embodied this teaching by how he treated each person he encountered, and ultimately by dying for our sins – including our failure to live up to our role as God’s image bearers.

Since we share in the Imago Dei, we also share in God’s creative nature, and our species reflects the diversity that he loves so much. These two aspects of our being were meant to intertwine, our creative work expressing the wondrous variety of our stories and our cultures. Yet our history has shown how frequently we’ve fallen short of this ideal.

If we genuinely believe all women and men of every ethnicity and social status possess equal value and dignity as God’s image bearers, then we’ll recognize that all their voices have an equal place in our arts and entertainment. More than that, we’ll welcome the differing viewpoints of others as they complement or challenge our own and enrich our societal fabric. Their stories may feel unfamiliar to us, but no more than ours do to them. It’s no less vital for them to feel respected and represented, to see themselves on the page or on the screen, than it is for us.

Through the Gospel, God is redeeming a people for himself from every tribe, language, people and nation (Revelation 5:9). For followers of Jesus, “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus,” and “In Christ there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). From beginning to end, God has wired diversity into his creative and redemptive purposes. Our arts and entertainment are at their best when they echo these realities.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

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