My attention was recently turned to an essay written by Dr. Brad East entitled “Against Pop Culture” on Mere Orthodoxy. Before reading any more of what I have written here, please read and consider Dr. East’s essay. Perhaps I am not interpreting it in the light in which he intended although I will attempt to do my best to understand and critique his essay on its own terms.
East lays out his thesis as follows, “The boring fact is that Christians like pop culture for the same reasons everyone else does—it’s convenient, undemanding, diverting, entertaining, and socially rewarded—and Christians with an audience either (1) rationalize that fact with high-minded justifications, (2) invest that activity with meaning it lacks (but ‘must’ have to warrant the time Christians give to it), or (3) instrumentalize it toward other, non-trivial ends.”
This is a classic false dilemma. The fallacious technique assumes that it is only logically possible for Christians to “be enthusiastic consumers of pop culture” for these three reasons. It becomes a fallacy if there is a fourth reason that may decide to consume popular culture. Quite simply, Christians may decide to consume popular culture because it can serve as a bridge to show the Gospel with other people, one of the most important things we can do while we are here on earth.
For all I know, East may consider this to simply be me falling into his first option. He might say that I am making up some kind of high-minded justification for Christian engagement with popular culture. With the argument I am about to make, he might say that I fall into his second option. Maybe I am imbuing popular culture with meaning it does not have. In fact, he also might even say that I could fit in his final classification my arguing that I am using popular culture as an instrument towards something that we, as Christians, all agree is certainly not trivial.
However, I would contend that this is an unnecessarily bleak way to view any engagement with popular culture. I would agree that Christians must use discernment. I’m not arguing that all popular culture ought to be consumed. Bluntly, some of our contemporary American culture is garbage.
Instead, I will argue that even culture created within a dark society is created by individuals created in the image of God. While Romans 1 tells us that unbelievers suppress the truth in unrighteousness, I have found in my experience that this suppression sometimes has momentary lapses. What I mean by that is that there will be times that nonbelievers long for the truth. They seek to suppress those desires, but those desires find their way out.
Perhaps an example might help illustrate my point. George Lucas does not hold traditionally Christian beliefs although he was raised as a Methodist. The Star Wars universe is much closer to Buddhism than it is to Christianity. That being said, it is hard to deny that you can find many values that are consistent with Christianity in that series. You can find themes of love, nobility, self-sacrifice and many others. These are not uniquely Christian values, but they are values that are consistent with Christianity that we find in the Star Wars universe.
How did they get there? George Lucas created stories that had those values embedded in them. Remember that he is a nonbeliever. He indeed falls into the Romans 1 population that is suppressing the truth. Perhaps from his upbringing, or perhaps from somewhere else, he came across some values that he thought were good to put into his stories. For us who believe in the objective goodness of God, we recognize why these beliefs are good. Lucas does not have that same solid foundation embedded in his worldview which seems to be some type of spiritual mishmash. Why do we have someone who is suppressing the truth in unrighteousness nevertheless building elements of truth into his stories?
Broadening this discussion to movies in general, Lucas is certainly not alone. There are tons of non-Christian filmmakers who intentionally or unintentionally build objectively good Christian values into their films. The whole movie may not reflect these themes, but you still see elements of objectively good truth shining through. This is why that suppression is cracking and vulnerable. The nonbeliever suppresses the knowledge of the truth of God. This is true. What the nonbeliever has a harder time suppressing though are those desires to want what God originally designed humanity to want, chiefly Himself and His objective goodness.
Nonbelievers betray this vulnerability often. Even in something as ridiculous as horoscopes, we see people looking for purpose, meaning and structure in their lives. Even if they are in chaos, they want something that tells them that not only will everything be all right, but someone is holding the future. Our politics betray this vulnerability. Justice is a very popular term in our current discourse. They do not realize the reality that justice is of God, but they ultimately want there to be justice. It is a genuine longing for something that is objectively good even if there is interference courtesy of the nonbeliever’s suppression of truth.
If these longings are present in the film, I would suggest that there is then a dual purpose to watching film. First, as a Christian, with proper discernment, film can help us celebrate our longings as well. Is it wrong for me to enjoy the reconciliation at the end of Remember the Titans? It is not a Christian movie, but I am able to enjoy the goodness portrayed on screen. I know that my longing for reconciliation will one day be satisfied in eternity whereas the nonbeliever would not, but it is certainly not a bad thing to celebrate that which is good.
Secondly, considering beauty, I do not know that I have seen a movie better suited for the big screen than Inception. The cinematography was simply remarkable in my opinion. Again, it was certainly not a Christian movie, but I do not think it is bad to look at something that is beautiful. I know it will not ultimately satisfy any longing either I or the nonbeliever have for true beauty. We cannot experience that yet. However, I again do not believe it is wrong to enjoy beauty for its own sake. Humans were designed to enjoy beauty.
For the nonbeliever, celebrating these good longings also will point them towards something, but they will not know what it is necessarily. They might feel a desire for reconciliation or real beauty. This is not meant to instrumentalize film to use East’s word. Instead, it is simply a recognition of reality. That suppression cracks every now and then. Films do not only show complete depravity. Sometimes they bear testament to the good, true, and beautiful for no other reason than the fact that the storyteller has a desire that he or she cannot explain but wants to put in the story.
Is it possible that God can use instances like this to bring people to Him? He did it in Acts 17. The apostle Paul used popular philosophers in the Greek world to speak to his audience of philosophers on Mars Hill. He used the culture that his audience would be familiar with to explain the Gospel to them. Is it not possible that God can use our culture not as an instrument but rather a bridge? The Gospel is the only thing that will bring salvation. The culture cannot do that. However, the culture can help people understand what the Gospel is saying. After watching a portrayal of selfless sacrifice on screen, does it not help someone understand a little bit more of what Christ’s selfless sacrifice meant for us? It would be an imperfect reflection. It is not even close. That said, it is something, it can be that lightbulb moment that can make an eternal difference.
Consequently, I think that we have found our fourth option that illustrates why East to put forward a false dilemma. I tried to avoid being high-minded. I don’t know how I can dispute that kind of subjective criterion, but I don’t think I have been.
I don’t think that I have built any meaning into film itself intrinsically. Rather, I have only pointed out the reality that certain good qualities are in films, and those qualities can possibly correspond with what God has made objectively good. This does not mean that outside of God people are good or anything like that. Instead, it is simply a recognition that their God-given desires slip out of them every now and then. I think the evidence is on my side in this. We can go through hundreds of movies with built in Christian themes that were written and made by non-Christians.
Finally, I think I have avoided using pop culture as merely an instrument. We do not use culture as an instrument towards a non-trivial end. Rather, culture exists, and by virtue of what it is can help point people towards that non-trivial end. It is not something that we use as a hammer. Instead, we simply help people recognize what they are actually longing for and how the Christian worldview can more satisfactorily satisfy those longings than whatever else they might be chasing.
I don’t have a beautiful name for this alternative, but I think it is clear that there are not only three possible options relating to Christian engagement with popular culture and why we do it. Some of us do it because first of all we enjoy recognizing the good, true and beautiful ourselves (with discernment obviously as stated before). Secondly, we do it so that we are able to talk to those around us about what they have seen and recognize why they feel the way they do. It is not like there is some kind of spiritual alchemy where we want to automatically turn popular culture into some type of allegory for the Gospel. Instead, we simply recognize that God can use the good, true and beautiful in culture as a bridge to bring people closer to Him. We are just pointing people toward that bridge.