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Don’t Be a Pop-Culture Pharisee

Don’t Be a Pop-Culture Pharisee

If you haven’t noticed, Christianity has been beating a steady retreat from the cultural and moral center of Western public life. And that’s OK, because Christianity was never supposed to be the mainstream.

But it does mean that engaging with culture as Christians is a difficult prospect, especially as our lives become more and more inundated with cultural media and as culture becomes more and more secularized.

For most Christians, complete withdrawal from culture is not an option—after all, it’s the world we live in. So how should we approach movies, television shows, books, music, blogs, web comics, Twitter accounts, etc., when the content or messages are at odds with Christian teaching?

The truth is—whether we’re talking about a movie with casual attitudes about sex, a song that uses profane language or a talking head who belittles Christian faith—there is no easy answer to that question.

Scripture itself counsels different responses in different contexts, on the one hand reminding us to keep the surrounding culture removed, while on the other hand urging us to reach steadfastly out to the doubters of this world: “But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 1:23).

This may seem to be most relevant to those Christians with the talent and the inclination to create art that speaks to the unbelieving world. But even as mere consumers of culture, we are called to live up to the standard Christ set for His followers: “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world … As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:16-18).

How we as believers respond to secular media—whether we embrace it, reject it or something in-between—will have to be a judicious process of negotiation and self-reflection. It will depend on the specific messages involved, the tone, the delivery, the context, as well as our personal spiritual strengths and weaknesses.

While by no means a strict guideline, here are some questions we might ask ourselves when confronted with problematic or spiritually troubling media content.

Does this really contradict Christian values, or am I actually being challenged to re-examine myself?

Of course, we cannot always expect non-Christian works to totally align with biblical teaching. But we can expect the best works of art to illuminate and affirm essential human and moral truths—and these will be consistent with Scripture.

So before assuming that there is anything genuinely problematic about a work in the first place, due diligence and close reading are in order. For some Christians, the Harry Potter books were an invitation to witchcraft. For others, the books were a celebration of the Christian ideal of sacrificial love.

Not only should we weigh the content of the work in question, but also how we as individuals tend to be affected by external messages. For instance, culture that openly criticizes Christianity may undermine some Christians’ trust in the tenets of Christianity. On the other hand, culture that points out legitimate criticisms may bring certain believers closer to the faith by reminding them to shed un-Christian attitudes and to be receptive to the needs of their non-Christian neighbors.

Ask: Does this work condone or encourage ideals counter to Christianity, or does it merely depict them? Do I find myself defending this work based purely on secular reasoning, or is there a Biblical justification? When I encounter this work, do I find myself doubting God or growing closer to Him?

Can I consume this content without being consumed by its messages?

So what about works that we decide do contain immoral content? Are we obligated to renounce them?

Unfortunately, as mainstream culture continues to drift away from—or even blatantly revolt against—Christian values and Christian definitions of morality, more and more media will fall into this category. (Just one example that comes to mind is how even forgiveness has come under question as a moral virtue.)

Again, our responses to these kinds of media will depend partially on the works themselves and partially on who we are as individual believers—on whether we can separate harmful content from valuable content. If we manage not to lose sight of Scripture, if we remember that our relationship to Christ must take precedent, and if we recognize messages that are extraneous or contrary to Scripture for what they are, engaging with otherwise worthwhile media that has morally questionable content can be an acceptable—indeed, inescapable—part of inhabiting culture.

Ask: Is the thing that troubles me central to the message of this work? Do the good things about this work outweigh the bad? Can I maintain a critical distance from the negative aspects of this work?

Am I being called to turn away from content that threatens to seriously compromise my Christian principles?

Sometimes, we do have an obligation to reject works that come between us and our faith. While some Christians are probably too eager to boycott or condemn works for being un-Christian, others are probably overly reluctant to give up watching that one TV show or to unsubscribe from that one podcast, or so on. In either case, serious, prayerful reflection is required. We need to be as wary of insulating ourselves from opposing perspectives as of forgetting our place as Christians in this world, but not of it.

Ask: Whom am I glorifying when I choose to engage with this media – is it culture, or is it God? Am I, by consuming this work, financially contributing to or tacitly approving of immoral actions? Am I choosing to reject a given work out of a weak faith (that fears being challenged) or a strong faith (that prioritizes the relationship with God over earthly pressures)?

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