Advice for the Pop Culturally Perplexed
by Ted Turnau
We live in a world that is saturated with non-Christian popular culture, and many Christians don’t know how to respond. Some just enjoy it without giving it another thought. Some try to withdraw into a “holy huddle,” avoiding it to preserve their purity. Can we respond in a way that seeks to connect with our children and friends while at the same time guarding our hearts? I believe we can, but we must look past the surface of popular culture to see how it affects one’s worldview.
How does popular culture influence worldview? The best popular culture doesn’t preach or shout slogans. Rather, it engages our imaginations with its stories, images, and songs. It creates imaginative worlds for us to live in, even if just briefly. Last summer, many got to live in a besieged Gotham City, fighting alongside the Batman. The year before, we rode in a motorcycle gang along with Lady Gaga, thinking about the relationship between Jesus and Judas. Popular culture creates imaginative worlds that reveal blueprints for how the artist believes the world is or should be. Every piece of popular culture gives us an alternative vision of the world. This is the power of popular culture.
If this is the case, shouldn’t we just avoid it? No. Christ called us into the world, not out of the world. But we cannot simply enjoy it uncritically either. We must intentionally understand and engage it. Only in this way can we understand the world of our friends, children, and even ourselves. But how should we engage it?
First, we must understand that at its heart, popular culture is about worship. It is a way of commending a certain understanding of the world as reality, commending something (besides God) that is worth living for. No matter how trivial it may seem, popular culture is ultimately religious.
Second, we must understand that every piece of popular culture is a complicated mixture of good and bad, truth and lies, grace and idolatry. God is so generous that He gives gifts even to those who will never bow the knee to Him. That is why non-Christians can work for justice, tell the truth, and genuinely love and serve one another. Theologians call this “common grace,” and popular culture is laced with it. Consider how a particular piece of popular culture resonates with grace. The self-sacrifice of Batman in The Dark Knight Rises, for example, resonates with another heroic sacrifice that Christians cherish. The honest portrayal of the pain of a failed relationship in Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” resonates with the Christian understanding of how sin produces alienation in relationships.
Third, we must understand how popular culture uses that grace to promote idols. Batman may be like Christ, but unlike Christ, he depends upon nothing but his own strength and ingenuity to overcome evil. Thus, he is a picture of mankind’s illusion that we can save ourselves. Often, just analyzing popular culture’s idols can defuse them. Yes, Batman defeated Bane. But how often in reality are we faced with evil concentrated in one villain? Is overcoming evil so simple? Isn’t evil woven deeply into every human heart? Into every human society? Ten thousand Batmen could not defeat the reality of evil. If evil is that subtle, that ingrained in us, then we cannot save ourselves.
Fourth, we must understand how the gospel delivers just where idols default on their promises. Take Batman’s idol: that humanity can save itself. We cannot finally defeat evil. But the gospel promises that Someone much greater than Batman has grappled with evil and won, not by punching it into submission, but by sacrificing Himself for those captured by evil, by bringing peace. The Spirit of this Hero, this Jesus, has been given to us, so that we might go into the world and fight evil and injustice with a sure hope. God will end the story by cleansing the world of evil, even cleansing our very hearts of evil, doing what ten thousand Batmen could not.
Understanding how to engage and respond to popular culture can lead to interesting and important spiritual conversations, because the best popular culture deals with human heart issues. Thus, popular culture is a mission field where we can meet our friends and family members, to challenge and encourage them with the reality of the Christian worldview.
Fifth, we must understand that not every piece of popular culture is appropriate for every Christian. There are issues of age appropriateness. Watch and listen to popular culture with your children. Talk to them and find out how it affects their walks with God. An understanding parent can be a great encouragement to a child. And pay attention to your own heart-idols, where you are weak. You should not withdraw from popular culture as a whole, but engage it wisely.
By intentionally thinking through the imaginative worlds of popular culture, we can see the gospel shine as we wrestle with these difficult heart issues with friends and family. Popular culture is where worldviews are formed and distributed in our culture. It is time we got involved in the discussion.