Discernment / The Skill

Discernment 202: Pop Culture: Why Bother?

In a cover story in USA Weekend, movie critic Michael Medved invited readers to make a toll-free phone call, responding Yes or No to a simple statement: “Hollywood no longer reflects—or even respects—the values of most American families.” The response was overwhelming. USA Weekend’s phone lines were swamped, and hundreds called after the deadline complaining they had tried, but the lines had been busy. “The actual yes vote,” USA Weekend noted later, “would have been much higher had the thousands of backed-up calls gotten through.” The final tally was 54,453 Yes; 21,221 No. “Hollywood does have an anti-religious ax to grind, and they continue grinding it despite the fact that it makes no box-office sense,” Medved says. “We’re talking about a lemming mentality. We’re talking about suicidal behavior. It’s unfair to the stockholders, for goodness sake.”

The problem isn’t limited to the movies; a person can feel morally assaulted listening to some pop music or watching some television shows. Focus on the Family’s newsletter Plugged In, for example, can find little of worth on the CD Alice in Chains. “Several tracks use the ‘f’ word to punctuate strains of hopelessness and despair. With a vengeance, ‘Grind’ and ‘Sludge Factory’ take pleasure in the pain of others,” they say. “Other songs glorify drug use. ‘God Am’ is a bitter, blasphemous ‘prayer’ that blames the Almighty for the world’s problems.” And Plugged In concludes the review with a warning: “Dark. Brooding. Cold. Rolling Stone magazine said the band is ‘like a slashed wrist—stark, bloody and dramatic, but more indicative of a cry for help than a true desire to spiral into the void.’ Surely, their well-chronicled drug use isn’t helping. Teens should steer clear of Alice.”

To make matters worse, it isn’t simply the content that can be objectionable; the form of pop culture also has an impact that can be negative. “You won’t be surprised to learn that there is not a great deal of room on television for complexity,” ABC’s Nightline anchor Ted Koppel told the graduating class of Duke University. “We are nothing as an industry if not attuned to the appetites and limitations of our audience. We have learned, for example, that your attention span is brief. We should know. We helped make it that way.”

But all of this is obvious. Few are unaware of the problems associated with modern popular culture. Even if you don’t have a TV, never watch movies, and listen only to music composed by J. S. Bach, you have friends who mention how some movie or song or TV program assaulted their sensibilities or was less than admirable or edifying. Small wonder then, that some Christians conclude they should just steer clear of the whole sorry mess. Why not just skip popular culture altogether? Is it really worth the aggravation?

Why should Christians bother with pop culture? There are at least four reasons:

Reason #1: Human Culture is a Good Gift of God
Popular culture is worth some attention, first, because it is a form of human culture expressing the creativity of people made in the image of God. When human beings creatively cultivate the world God has made, the result is human culture. Thus, the development of culture is not a surprise to God, but is a legitimate outworking of the original mandate the Creator gave his creatures in Genesis 2:15. Modern popular culture is one tributary in this wider stream of human creativity. Even in a fallen world, human culture and creativity are good gifts of God.

But what of all the problems with popular culture? The proper response is found in this principle: the misuse of something is not a sufficient reason to stop using it. Cults misuse baptism, for example, but few orthodox Christians are willing to scrap the sacrament as a result. Playboy misuses photography, but only the narrow-minded would therefore suggest that cameras must be avoided by those who wish to treat women with respect. Similarly, there is much in pop culture which is unedifying, but that does not necessarily mean the only Christian option is to stay clear of it. Pop culture is misused and perverted by sinful people in ways similar to the misuse and perversion we see at work in all other spheres of human endeavor. This means we must be discerning, certainly, but the misuse of popular culture is not, by itself, a sufficient argument to conclude there is nothing of value in it, or that the only legitimate Christian option is to refuse all involvement.

Besides, pop culture is not all bad. Take film for instance; it is easy to list movies that are well made and very worth seeing, not simply because they don’t offend, but because they are good films. Here’s just a few of the more obvious examples:
Sense and Sensibility (rated PG), Emma Thompson’s masterful adaptation of Jane Austin’s well known novel.

A Man for all Seasons (rated G), the story of Sir Thomas More who courageously chose to die for his faith; winner of six Academy Awards.

Chariots of Fire (rated PG), about two Olympic runners, one seeking to glorify God, the other seeking meaning in winning.

Tender Mercies (rated PG), in which a derelict country-western singer comes to faith.

Mr. Holland’s Opus (rated PG), about a music teacher who learns both the value of teaching and to love his own son.

Apollo 13 (rated PG), director Ron Howard’s film about the nearly disastrous space mission.

Little Women (rated PG), a flawed adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel which is still a fine film.

Saving Grace (rated PG), the story of a pope who sneaks out of the Vatican to serve needy people.

Enchanted April (rated PG), in which four British women rent a castle on the coast of Italy, complete with “wisteria and sunshine” and discover the meaning of rest.

Howard’s End (rated PG), from the novel by E. M. Forster, a film about forgiveness, ethics, and family.

Searching for Bobby Fischer
(rated PG), a film for all ages about a family who discovers their seven-year old is a chess wiz.

My Father’s Glory (rated G), a French film (English subtitles), the story of a family from the perspective of the little boy, and My Mother’s Castle (rated PG), the sequel.

Cyrano de Bergerac (rated PG), Gerard Depardieu in the classic story (in French with English subtitles).

The point is that we must approach movies in the same way we approach other art forms in a fallen world, namely, with discernment, but not with disdain. “As a Christian we know why a work of art has value. Why? First, because a work of art is a work of creativity, and creativity has value because God is the Creator,” Francis Schaeffer wrote. “Second, an art work has value as a creation because man is made in the image of God.”

Modern popular culture—film, TV, and music—made by people who bear God’s image involves creative expressions of culture which can be received with thanksgiving and enjoyed with discernment. That is the first reason why Christians should bother with it, for human creativity and culture are good gifts of God.

Reason #2: Culture can Be a Window of Insight into a World View We Do Not Share
If we want to understand a world and life view which is different from our own, we will need a window of insight into that world view. Such a window of insight will accomplish two things for us. First, it will give us information about that world view, about the ideas and values which it contains, and second, it will help us to see life from the perspective of that world view. If we are to understand those who do not share our deepest convictions, we must gain some comprehension of what they believe, why they believe it, and how those beliefs work out in daily life. In other words, a window of insight allows us a tiny glimpse inside a world view which we do not share.

As a Christian, for example, I have found it difficult to imagine life from the perspective of an atheist. How can they keep going, especially in hard times, convinced there is no final significance to life, no absolutes, no God? I know people who profess such a world view, but I find it difficult to see life from their perspective. I’ve needed some way to “get inside,” to be able somehow to “see things” from that perspective, even if briefly and incompletely. The window of insight that has been most helpful to me in this regard has been the films of Woody Allen. Annie Hall (rated PG), a brilliant story about significance and relationships in a meaningless universe, and Crimes and Misdemeanors (rated PG-13), about justice, morality, and guilt in a world without God, have both served as windows of insight into a view of life very different from my own. And for that I am very grateful to Woody Allen.

Similarly, two films by Terence Malick, who studied philosophy with Martin Heidegger, served as a window of insight for me into existentialism: Badlands (rated PG), and Days of Heaven (rated PG). Catch-22 (rated R), a Mike Nichols film based on the novel by Joseph Heller, gave insight into nihilism. And more recently, Reality Bites (rated R), cleverly introduces viewers to the postmodern ethos of the so-called Generation X.

Finding a window of insight into our culture is a task which Christians must pursue with great seriousness. Popular culture is not the only window of insight available to us, but it is a crucial one. Ideas and values expressed in art can be powerful because the art engages both mind and imagination. The world and life view of a large percentage of the next generation is being significantly molded by popular culture. Many of their assumptions, values, and deepest convictions will be at least partially formed by the movies, television, and rock music that fills their lives, minds, and imaginations. Those same movies, television programs, and rock music can for us, in turn, be a window of insight into their world and life view.

Why should Christians bother with pop culture? Because it can serve as a vital introduction into the lives, values, thinking, and imaginations of people who do not share our most important beliefs. Popular culture can be a window of insight into the world and life views of the culture in which God has called us to live faithfully for his glory.

Reason #3: Culture Can Provide Hints of Our Cultural Captivity
We are people of our times, affected by the culture in which we live. We can never afford to ignore the apostle Paul’s warning to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2). The surrounding culture can mold our thinking, our feelings, and our behavior in ways in which we are simply unaware. Then, because it seems so “natural,” we may even justify it with proof texts from the Bible.

Consider, for example, the reasons usually given by characters in movies when challenged about why they hold some belief. Movies tend to reflect the ideas and values of the wider culture, and so the reasons given in films are similar to the reasons most modern people would give. And what are those? Subjective reasons—what “works” for them, or what “makes them feel good.” Now, listen to the reasons many Christians give when they are challenged about their interpretation of the Bible. “This is what it means to me,” someone will say. “The Lord’s given me real peace about it. This interpretation has always worked for me.”

This is not a Christian approach to the text of Scripture, of course, it is rather a form of worldliness. Yet, it may seem so “natural” to the person in the Bible study that they would bristle at the suggestion that they need to repent of their subjectivism and work hard to adopt new habits of interpretation, study, and thought.

The point is not that some of us are affected by our culture while others are not, nor that every effect of the culture upon us is inherently bad. The point is that all of us must seek God’s grace, day by day, in order to keep the world from forcing us into its mold in ways that are contrary to Christian faithfulness. Understanding the culture in which we live, identifying the beliefs, assumptions, and values which animate it is a helpful step in this process.

Movies, TV, and pop music tend to reflect (as well as mold) the ideas and values of the wider culture. Thus, pop culture can serve the Christian in helping to identify the contours of the culture of which we are a part, and in the process raise hints about ways in which we may have been molded by the world. That is the third reason why we should bother about popular culture.

Reason #4: Culture Can Be a Point of Contact with Non-Christians
When Paul was in Athens, he spoke to people in three distinct settings: in the synagogue, in the marketplace, and at a meeting of the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34). When he spoke in the synagogue, he addressed people who shared some of his deepest convictions. His audience there, Luke says, consisted of Jews and God-fearing Greeks. We’re not told much about those who met with him in the marketplace except that the discussions occurred day by day with those who happened to be there. At the Areopagus, however, Paul’s audience consisted of people who held convictions very different from his own. Neither the Epicureans nor the Stoics shared Paul’s convictions concerning God, the Old Testament, or about Jesus and his finished work on the cross. So, when Paul spoke to them of the gospel, he found a point of contact with them in order to begin the discussion.

Actually, Paul found two points of contact. First, he pointed to the Athenian altar to an Unknown God, and said he would make God known to them, identifying their “unknown God” with the God who had revealed himself in Scripture and in Christ (vs 23-24). And second, he quoted their own Stoic poets, agreeing with what Cleanthes and Aratus had said, even though those poets were pagans (vs. 28). These points of contact from the Athenians culture helped serve to bridge the gap between Paul and his unbelieving audience, helping them to understand his message.

When Paul spoke to Jewish audiences, he could use the Old Testament as his point of contact. In Acts 13:13-52, when he was in Pisidian Antioch, he did just that, and his message there, unlike the one he gave in Athens, is full of biblical references and quotations. In Athens, however, his audience did not accept the Scripture as God’s Word, so though his message was biblical, he found points of contact from their world to help illustrate and make plain his proclamation of the good news.

In precisely the same way, we need points of contact with those we seek to reach with the gospel of Christ. This is especially true when we are dealing with those who are unchurched and who have little or no knowledge of Christianity. One rich source to find such points of contact is popular culture.

Many films, for example, deal with the big issues of life and death. Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (rated PG-13), for example, not only explores the meaning of morality, guilt, and justice, it concludes that these notions are meaningless in a universe without God. Christians can not only use this film to spark discussion, we can agree with what the film asserts, for truly apart from God no true justice or morality is possible. Shadowlands (rated PG), based on C. S. Lewis’ life, deals with suffering, death, and the reality of faith. Pulp Fiction (rated R), is a profoundly disturbing film which captures the postmodern ethos brilliantly, allowing for discussion of morality, fragmentation, and (believe it or not) divine revelation.

Much rock music does the same. Joan Osborne’s hit “One of Us” and “God Shuffled His Feet” by the Crash Test Dummies both ask important questions about God and his relationship with his creatures, and they raise the questions creatively in songs that are cleverly composed and performed well. At Ransom’s last Board Meeting, Steve Garber began one of our Bible studies by playing the song “Numb” by the rock group U2. A haunting and poignant piece of music, it set the stage for all sorts of discussion.

So, that’s the fourth reason I would give in answer to the question as to why Christians should bother with pop culture: it can serve as a point of contact for the gospel with people who do not yet know Christ.


“Has Hollywood Gone Too Far?” by Michael Medved in USA Weekend (March 27-29, 1992) pp. 4-6
“75,000 Readers Flood Us with Calls: Hollywood turns Off Most Moviegoers” in USA Weekend (April 24-26, 1992) p. 24.
Art and the Bible by Francis A. Schaeffer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1973) 63 pp. A brief but helpful introduction consisting of two essays: “Art in the Bible” and “Some Perspectives on Art.
All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture by Kenneth A. Myers (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books; 1989) 187 pp. + bibliography + notes + index. The producer of the Mars Hill tapes thinks Christianly about pop culture.
Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture and the Electronic Media edited by Quentin Shultze (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 1991) 309 pp. + bibliography + index. A series of thoughtful papers which grew out of research at the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship at Calvin College.
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman (New York, NY: Penguin Books; 1985) 163 pp. + notes + bibliography + index. A classic study of our modern entertainment-oriented society.
Images of Man: A Critique of Contemporary Cinema by Donald J. Drew (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1974) 117 pp. + notes. Unfortunately now out-of-print—find a copy if you can—Images of Man remains an excellent model of how to enjoy movies Christianly.