Last Sunday I started a series with the youth in our community on the topic of discerning popular culture as Christians. They’re loving it. I’m excited but scared.
The youth are loving it because they long to discuss and discover how the Christian faith is relevant to the music charts, popular comedians, and the latest films. They sense that their faith affects what they see and listen to, but they struggle to know how to discern what is appropriate.
I’m excited and scared because I have thought about these long enough to know that these questions are really important but really difficult. The easiest positions are the extremes: either condemning and avoiding all offensive culture on moral grounds or commending and absorbing all culture for appreciation and engagement. In the middle lies the difficult and dangerous path of discernment, and it’s easy to trip and fall into the valleys of complete condemnation or commendation.
This is a popular topic at Relevant Magazine, and Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clay recently voiced his opinion in Can Offensive Art Be Christian? His answer, in short, is that art should be truthful and not deceptive, which is going to mean stepping on some moral toes. For one, art should disturb our comfortable pretensions gleaned from living in consumer societies. He writes: “We have come so far from reflecting the rebel Jesus in our art and cultural engagement that we do not recognize Him when He surfaces.” In addition, art should describe uncomfortable realities, and not just prescribe how the world should be. In other words, “we relegate our art to the way we wish the world should be and not how the world actually is.”
So, does Haseltine’s article help us walk the dangerous path of discernment? In some ways. Haseltine reminds us that Christian should be less easily offended because art should describe the world as it is: broken, twisted, and longing for God’s gracious restoration. What is more, Christians should be less scared to offend, willing to articulate truth that conflicts with mainstream ways of thinking, boldly creating art that describes the world honestly and prescribes the way things were meant to be and will one day become.
This is helpful, but it still does not give sufficient guidelines for whether the youth should be following South Park, watching Frankie Boyle, or listening to Eminem. And most likely there will not be specific guidelines that match every person because each person is at a different point in their faith journey and each person struggles with particular things. But one thing is certain: South Park, Frankie Boyle, and Eminem should not be passively consumed. Given their frequently offensive nature, Christians should approach this work with a posture of dialogical discernment, taking the time to discover what is there and dialoguing with it to discern proper use and enjoyment. At times, there will be justification for turning off the television or skipping the song, and at other times there will justification for watching or listening to it again, whether for enjoyment or deeper engagement. Either way, discernment is a difficult path, but it is a better path than complete condemnation and commendation.
If you were teaching this series on discerning popular culture, how would you help the youth navigate the difficult path of discernment? What guidelines would you provide? What examples would you give? I look forward to your thoughts and even your stories.