Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to engage popular culture.
We do this for the glory of God and for gospel-sharing with your neighbor.
Why? To sum up: Because popular culture reveals God’s creativity, God’s common grace via his image in humans, and the idols we make to corrupt his gifts.1 Very often (and not just when superhero X dies to save the world) popular cultural works even reflect the gospel of Jesus Christ.
You can engage this stuff via streaming, music, memes, games, comic books, blockbuster film franchises, podcasts, and beyond.
Yes, that’s right, faithful Christian! You needn’t automatically shun these things as evil or suspect these things as worthless.2 You may even get to enjoy some of these things. They are not “mindless entertainment.” Rather, they are human heart-reflections that reveal not only Society but the longings and idols of your individual neighbors. You get to discover the good, the beautiful, and the idolatrous and ugly that gets subverted and answered by Jesus Christ himself.
Hurrah! You don’t even need to boycott Disney or cancel Netflix.3 Instead, you can pursue this gospel mission in the real world—a real world in which popular culture was/is God’s idea, and in which your neighbors love popular stories and songs.
Oh, one other thing: Your mission might also include engaging popular culture like this:
Alas. I hear wailings and gnashings of teeth! Some of us, especially younger Christians, claim to favor such blunt approaches in response to badness.
So I must give this approach right back to ourselves:
You. Have. No. Exceptions.4 No exceptions.
If you accept the mission of engaging popular culture for the good of your neighbors, then this mission. Includes. Engaging with Trumpism.
And engaging right-wing talk radio.
And engaging conservative websites, TV network(s), and memes.
That means engaging thoughtful stuff, like from David French or Peggy Noonan, and less-thoughtful stuff, like from Sean Hannity or Todd Starnes.
Engaging does not equal condemning. A Christian parent does not “engage” her teen’s heavy-metal albums by burning them in the backyard.
Engagement means more than this, for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors.
“Many Christian movies are too preachy. They use truth as a weapon. They don’t engage well. To reach people, you must identify the good in their culture.”
“IF YOU VOTE FOR THAT TERRIBLE GUY THEN YOU’RE JUST AN IDOLATER AND A HYPOCRITE.”
—some of the same people
— Stephen (The Pop Culture Parent) (@EStephenBurnett) October 8, 2020
To engage right-wing popular culture, you must find and praise God’s ‘fingerprints’ in it.
Yes. This means you might find the good in those memes and shows and cable network(s) that terrible Aunt Marge is obsessed with.
You might find the good in asking about Uncle Bill’s favorite silly right-wing news website, no matter how you wince at those “BUY GOLD!!1!” ads.
One might even need to listen The Rush Limbaugh Show, perhaps even today, to understand the latest trends in Donald Trump-ism.
Call it: The Pop Culture “Parent”-to-Your-Own-Parents (or Your-Parents’-Generation).
This also means you must not act like a stereotypical 1980s dad angered because little Brad has been sneaking peeks at M-TV. You are not called to issue simplistic damnations such as “hypocrite!” and “idolatry!” against your fickle flag-waving voters who (no matter how reluctantly) voted for You Know Who, and then declare, with great sanctimony, your prophetic task well accomplished.
Instead, you’re called away from such separatist, fundamentalist instincts. You must actually engage the thing before you.
To pursue this mission well, you must:
- Know the “story.” What is the pundit’s “plot”? How do they understand the history/present/future of one nation or Western civilization?
- Explore the world. What are the stylistic and moral assumptions in the universe(s) of these narratives? For now, just describe. Don’t judge.
- Praise the good. Ask yourself: What is true and beautiful about Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, or yes, even Trumpism? What can we affirm?
- Find and subvert the idols. Many younger Christians can do this part very well. But we can’t skip steps 1–3, or step 5. They give vital context.
- Answer with the gospel. This isn’t just about moral condemnation! How does Jesus fulfill the “story’s” good longings that idols cannot fulfill?
On this theme I may have more to say.
We need specific examples. We need to see this done, not just be taught how to do this. Someone who is more skilled at this approach—though sometime I might try it, if this doesn’t weaken my Fantastical Stories Brand—must give a live demo. This skilled teacher must listen to real, unredacted talk radio, like Rush or someone else. She must lay aside prejudices and irritations with The Church Back Home, and act in genuine fairness.5
For now this will suffice as an initial challenge and conversation-opener. It may especially (and I hope kindly) challenge my oft-disillusioned Christian friends, who often fail to apply their own positivity about popular culture, not so much in relationships with their kids, but with their own parents.
- This is a great idea for a book. In The Pop Culture Parent, however, we don’t get into political narratives as much. This seems like worthy sequel material. ↩
- The only exception, which is not rare but serious, is this: You need to shun or suspect a popular cultural work if it makes you (or perhaps someone close to you) tempted to sin more than usual. ↩
- I did, however, recently cancel Netflix myself. My wife and I had already been thinking about it. But the company’s pompous indifference to Cuties concerns pushed us over that decision point. ↩
- Only one exception: porn. ↩
- Such instructors must also be educated beyond a set of skills associated with “professional ministry pundit.”
By this I refer to one growing problem with some Christian punditry about/against right-wing popular culture. Much of these wider-spread opinions come from church leaders in what we might describe as the “professional ministry” class. They may pastor churches, and/or teach at universities, and write as experts about political topics for evangelical webzines, yet they may have limited exposure to right-wing culture beyond its fringe elements. Many others have read much in fields like “biblical social justice,” but haven’t read well into topics such as the origins and philosophies of Western civilization and representative government. (These elements are reflected dimly in some popular-level right-wing popular culture, but they are there.)
Some evangelical pundits—a bench of pro-ministry “bishops,” if you will—lack expertise in topics like immigration law, and lack real-world experience with no-win-scenarios in secular government. This may lead the pro-ministry pundit to reduce these issues to symbols. Instead of asking about legal or human rights concerns about a border wall, the pundit follows popular media trends and (frankly) rank emotionalism. He may view “The Wall” as symbology, leading to personal associations with people “kept outside the wall,” and disfavoring whatever group views itself “secure inside the wall.”
Other pro-ministry pundits seem genuinely blind to actual threats against religious freedom. David French is a notable exception. I don’t always agree with David French, especially when he seems to paste his own pro-ministry experience atop more-nuanced issues. French, however, does represent the kind of broad qualifications and experiences that the better evangelical-ministry-class writers must have to expand their scope of understanding. ↩