Get Your Hands on Pop Culture
“Engaging culture” has become a worn out phrase. It seems to come with some connotations amongst the Christian community, and I have been thinking through these things.
I am a slow and deep processor. My friends liken me to a coffee percolator. Basically, this means nothing comes across my path without getting chewed on a bit. Without intentional effort, I tend to ask why something matters. How does it relate to God and the things he has said for our lives?
Building an Outlook
I have been in the process of creating and sharpening a rubric for the heavy media and stories we intake. What is a saved heart to do with the stories being told? How does a human mind think biblically? How do reformed eyes look at worldviews from a Trinitarian perspective?
Loads of books, articles, lectures, and sermons are available on this topic. There is a lot out there, and for my slow percolating self, this can be more confusing than helpful at first. However, I’ve learned writing is a way of taking some initial action with your thoughts. C.S. Lewis pointed out, “If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.”
Three Avenues of Engagement
So, here are some overarching banner thoughts on engaging the pop culture. I’ve observed you can take three co-inherent approaches.
- Identify the good, the bad, and the ugly.
- Internalize accordingly with the good, the bad, and the ugly.
- Relate with people and your environment regarding the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Christians have gained a reputation for being able to identify what is wrong in the world. It is not difficult to point out the sin in a song, a movie, novel, etc. More recently, there has been a movement of Christians that have become skilled in pointing out and defending the good things in a cultural piece. Everyone is made in God’s image, and the things we make bear witness to God’s plan in a variety of ways. For some people, these aspects are also known as the common grace of God, where his presence is evident despite the immoral content surrounding it.
There is bad, and then there is ugly. Christians tend to be aware of what is ugly, and yet enticing. In this article, we can refer to the “ugly” as when it has the potential to cause temptation towards sin. Our personal response to temptation is critical. Worldviews are being projected through pop culture. When we look at the political and ethical cultural landscape today, we see some of these values being played out. How did they become so widely accepted? It is a complex issue, but pop culture definitely plays a role. Stories and their outcome are tuning people to a particular narrative that is a lie. What you do internally with a potential snare should be considered carefully.
Identifying what is biblically right, wrong, and tempting is crucial to the Christian life. This requires knowledge of the Word, and also discernment of its application at game speed. We have to identify what is God-pleasing according to our standard: God’s Word. We are meant to contrast gospels and the meta-narratives of the day. This is a normative approach to engaging culture because it focuses on how we understand things under the governing authority of God’s revelation in scripture. Our understanding of the story of the world needs to be the right one in order to contrast it with falsities.
There is an existential aspect to this endeavor as well. We have a personal experience that thickens our governing thoughts about pop culture. There are many ways the goodness of the gospel message is displayed through pop culture mediums. For example, we find some prime examples in hip hop. And it doesn’t stop there. We have seen Christians do their craft with excellence in many different arenas. Christians can enjoy this fact, celebrate it, and grow inspired by it.
We can also buffer how we internalize facets that oppose God’s ways. We can see the “bad” as an honest part of reality, and even make the “good” much more astounding. For example, Leland Ryken, trained in seeing classic literature from a Christian perspective, relayed, “Writers are sensitive observers of reality. It is part of their craft to be such. Literature offers a kind of experiential knowledge and truth that everyone needs. Literature and the Bible alike tell us that we live by more than abstract ideas.” Literature and other forms of stories teach us about the ways of humanity, for better or worse.
The wise development of our scriptural lens is necessary. Your fixed normative thoughts can help keep you in check and allow for mature interaction (and internalizing) around the content within reason.
There is reason to be cautious here. As I stated above, droves of material have been produced to help believers along this avenue. I’d encourage you to write a code of biblical ethics for your media intake , and stand by it as the times continue to become more hostile towards Christianity.
What does all of this have to do with the people in your life? How does this affect the institutions, organizations, and communities you are a part of?
The way Paul related to people on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17) is often referred to when discussing cultural interaction. It is mistakenly cited that Paul used the cultural setting and language of the Athenians as a starting point for conversation and relationship with them. He used what was “common ground” to attract them and “build a bridge” between Christianity and non-believers. However, this is not the whole story.
Paul first was provoked by all the idols he saw (17:16), and so he preached Jesus and the resurrection (17:18). They took him to Mars Hill to ask him more about this new teaching (17:19-20). Paul begins speaking to them and quotes a secular poet, showing them how the topic relates to what scripture says. And he takes it a step further.
Paul calls them to repentance. If you have ever done this with someone, you would know it comes with a loving confrontation towards their worldview. Many people don’t like to go here with a non-believer; the engagement stops at finding “common ground” with a person. As you can imagine, it is often not received well. In Paul’s instance, some of the Athenians mocked the resurrection, others said they were interested in hearing more, and some people joined him and believed.
Paul was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. In the end, it’s the gospel that sparked the Athenians’ interest in the beginning, not the so-called “bridge” found in the secularist’s poetry. This begs the question of whether we should stop trying to bridge the gospel and unbelievers with the cultural works of people. Jesus is the bridge.
For Paul, saying what was wrong with their cultural set-up was actually not enough in his relating to these people. Speaking to what was common among the people and agreeing with parts reflecting the reality of God was not enough either. This reveals it is crucial we are not afraid to bring things full circle (or triangle) and tell people about the gospel.
This is a difficult one for me, personally. Sometimes, it seems so hard to go there. Yet, we can’t be afraid to truly love people. I am not sure every single conversation you have should go back to Jesus and the resurrection directly, but if you feel the conviction to do so in love and wisdom, I would not be the one trying to stop you. We can all continually ask ourselves this: Am I willing to obey? Am I willing to show someone how the gospel transforms and enriches culture, not inhibits it? We can’t be afraid. Remember what true love has done.
A Step Further
So, we find in pop culture the good, the bad, and the ugly. As we culturally engage, we will identify, internalize, and relate to people over many different mediums and messages. None of these three approaches are wrong, but they are incomplete when we emphasize one at the expense of another. I can’t say one avenue is better. They simply have different roles.
I believe the gospel helps me use all of the approaches together. Let’s say, I watch a movie. At a given moment and space, I may do all of the following:
- Mentally identify and slice up what was right and wrong in the movie.
- Find the reimages of truth-narrative and common grace, throw out what would compromise my faith, and take note of what I can handle without compromising in the future.
- As I dialogue and relate with others about it, I take a humble approach to learn from people’s perspectives in order to love them and grow personally. I am also not afraid to talk lovingly and genuinely about Christ.
Try pointing out what is honorable and what is offensive in pop culture. Enjoy good craft, appreciate illustrations of harsh realities, and flee what wants to devour you. Go to every length possible to love people and show them the relevance of the most important story. Be human, and don’t leave out Jesus. The love and glory of Christ in the gospel message is what ties all these things together and makes for a profoundly robust, wise, and loving engagement of culture.
I’m looking forward to refining these thoughts and learning more from you all.
The Christian Imagination – Leland Ryken
“Retaking Mars Hill” – Russell D. Moore
He Gave Us Stories – Mike Cosper