06/19/2013 03:42 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2013

What Evangelicals Can Learn From Superman (and Other Secular Culture)

To mark the opening of the much-anticipated Man of Steel, the marketing machines were churning as they always do when a blockbuster movie is coming to a theater near you. But amid the merchandizing madness comes a "product" tie-in that might surprise you -- outreach to evangelical pastors with free resources they can use to preach and teach on themes from this Superman reboot.

Take it as a sign of the changing times that a secular movie is being embraced as a teaching opportunity for Christians, not ignored or condemned as it might have been in the past as a threat to godly values from an evil Hollywood. Credit the change instigators in evangelical America for a new understanding that it's better to engage the wider culture than hunker behind a wall of insularity. After all, you can't learn from, or influence, that which you shun.

Orchestrated by Grace Hill Media, a public relations firm focused largely on the Christian market, the Superman campaign equips pastors with sermon outlines, Man of Steel photos and film clips, and free pastor screenings. "Superman's mythical origins," the sermon notes say, "are rooted in the timeless reality of a spiritual superhero who also lived a modest life until extraordinary times required a supernatural response. ... How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?"

The parallels between the film and the Bible are hard to miss: a father figure from on high who sends a supercharged savior to make a sacrificial intervention on behalf of us mortals; the initial reluctance of the intervener to accept his daunting assignment; the earthly powers-that-be who fear and reject the messiah when he steps into this destiny.

When it comes to secular pop culture, evangelical America has come a long way since the days of "hit and run" -- hit, as in condemn, and run, as in teach your kids and flocks that this stuff is to be avoided like the devil. Some images from the past might be etched in your memory: Conservative Christians protesting works of art (remember Piss Christ?) or movies (The Last Temptation of Christ, among many others) deemed offensive to their faith; evangelicals making headlines for their rejection of the wildly popular Harry Potter series on the thin pretense that it promoted the occult; evangelical pastors exhorting teenagers to burn their rock-music CDs and tapes and, with them, their satanic influences.

In place of all these "secular" creations were offered Christian alternatives. Christian rock, Christian rap, Christian movies, Christian art, Christian news, Christian television, Christian novels, Christian colleges -- these have been the hallmarks of an evangelical subculture that, for decades, felt compelled to manufacture a cleansed and Christian version of seemingly everything.

More recently, there has been a growing understanding that walls meant to protect Christians have also barred them from participating in a secular culture that, for all its crass commercialization and glorified sex and violence, offers much that is enlightening and uplifting. The increasingly common call in evangelical America: Engage culture. Learn from it. Create it, with or without the explicit faith references.

As Andy Crouch writes in his book Culture Making, if Christians want to change culture for the better, they need to participate in its ongoing creation.

You might be surprised by the pop culture sources that today's evangelical thought leaders draw from. In a recent article at Patheos, Paul Louis Metzger finds powerful sustenance for Christians amid the profanity and blood of the Quentin Tarantino classic Pulp Fiction. Deep theology, a hit man's search for redemption, an ambiguous possibility of divine intervention -- it's all there.

Obviously, engagement with secular culture must come with a great deal of caution. Degrading pornography, gratuitous violence and caustic humor also define what's going on out there in the secular culture, and they are not directions in which Christians (or anyone) should want to go. Christian porn? No.

Yet as more evangelicals are realizing, when you stop seeing the wider culture as the road to hell, there might be a hell of a lot to learn from Superman, Springsteen, Scorsese and other "secular" culture-makers. And, no, they don't run with that other S-man who sports the horns and tail.

This article originally appeared in USA Today, June 17, 2013