The Difficult Path of Discernment

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.


  • Wesley Vander Lugt is the former editor of Transpositions. He earned his PhD at the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts (ITIA), where his research focused on the dynamic interplay between formation and performance in the theodrama. Currently, he is lead pastor at Warehouse 242 and Adjunct Professor in Christianity and the Arts at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC

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  1. says: Chloe Reddaway

    Asking whether something is truthful is probably the best starting point, and one way of finding the answer to this may be to ask another question: “Does it acknowledge the consequences of an action or attitude it depicts, as well as showing the action or attitude per se?” It seems to me that the danger lies where causes and effects are separated, and where the real consequences of an action or attitude are divorced from these.

    1. says: Wes

      This is a great suggestion, Chloe, and could you provide an example of this kind of discernment in order to see how this might work in practice?

  2. says: Jim

    Wes, thanks so much for this very helpful post. As you point out so well, I think that these are very difficult questions. I don’t have very many answers, but I do have some more questions (don’t feel like you have to answer all of these). Here they are: When does offensive pop culture become morally corrupt pop culture (i.e. I think that pornography is a morally corrupt system that abuses people)? How and when does popular culture become morally corrupting? What does it mean to ‘passively consume’ something, and how is our perception (i.e. sight, touch, etc.) related to morality?

    Apart from questions, I do have one suggestion. I have found it helpful to remember to give artefacts of popular culture some time before I make any judgements about what they may or may not mean, and whether I do or do not like them. I think it is often the case that something may appear on the surface to be offensive, but if it is given some time we might find that there is more to it than we originally thought (i.e. The Last Temptation of Chirst). Allowing ourselves time with an offensive movie or song or story also gives us space to ask “why is this offensive to me?” and to consider “is it possible to see this in a more positive and constructive light?”

    1. says: Wes

      Thanks for the questions and great suggestion, Jim. I think you are absolutely right that it is important to allow time to discover a particular work or artist before making judgments. On Sunday morning with the youth I was trying emphasise that it is important to discover a work (how is it made? what does it mean? etc.) and to dialogue with the work before making any decisions or determinations. This is important in order for discernment to avoid blanket condemnation or commendation.

      Regarding your other questions, I am really not sure when popular culture becomes morally corrupting. I do know, however, that an important way to resist the potential corruption influence of pop culture is to interact with it rather than passively consume. This leads to your second question, and my short answer is that to consume passively means not to interact or dialogue with pop culture, but merely to soak it in and imbibe its values.

      A professor I respect once shared with us how instead of shielding his children from the ‘corruptive influence’ of TV, he encouraged them that when they did watch TV, to respond verbally to what they were watching and hearing. This reinforces the idea that we should be interacting and dialoguing with entertainment rather than simply consuming. Of course, there is a time simply to enjoy pop culture without having to do the intellectual work of discernment. But there is an enjoyment on the other side of discernment that is more meaningful than if one has never learned how to engage and dialogue with pop culture.

      I realize I haven’t answered all your questions yet, but hopefully this gives some fodder for discussion.

  3. says: Cole Matson

    Two points:

    1) Re: offensive art: There’s a drama professor in North Carolina, Scott Walters, whose post on this very topic I return to frequently: In it, Prof. Walters quotes Wendell Berry: “I would distinguish between the intention to offend and the willingness to risk offending. Honesty and artistic integrity do not require anyone to intend to give offense, though they certainly may cause offense.” It’s perfectly legitimate for artists to risk giving offense because the thing they’re saying needs to be said, or the story needs to be told, not just because the artist feels like telling it despite any consequences it might have, but because the good that will come through it is greater than any negative consequences it may have. However, IMHO, it is immoral for an artist to create a piece of art with the intention of offending. It violates charity to purposely insult your neighbour.

    2) Re: discernment: I would suggest to the kids to use the idea of “discernment of the spirits”. How does the piece of art make them feel afterward, and does it affect the way they think or behave in a positive or negative way? For example, after hearing several friends talk about how funny it was, I started watching Family Guy, and watched it regularly for a couple years. They were right: it was often hilarious, though I would feel uncomfortable after some of the jokes. After a couple years, I realised that when I was watching it, I was more anxious than I had been before, and both during and afterwards I was a bit more irritable. My sense of humour was also coarser. I realised that inappropriate thoughts, comments, and jokes popped into my head more often now, commonly associated with jokes I had heard on Family Guy. And I didn’t always stop myself from saying them.

    Two things made me stop watching Family Guy. The first was when I attended a summer seminar-in-residence at the Kilns, C.S. Lewis’s house, and for the first time in a long time was surrounded entirely, without break, by Christians whose purity and gentleness of speech and thought were noticeable. They would have been horrified if they had heard the kinds of jokes that were popping into my head. I realised that those kinds of jokes used to horrify me as well. I used to share their purity of speech, but I didn’t anymore, and I wanted to again. I resolved to surround myself with more people like them, and fewer people (and cultural influences) that used scorn, sarcasm, and coarse humour to communicate.

    The second thing that made me stop watching Family Guy (and this occurred afterward, when I was still trying to wean myself away) was its Star Trek reunion episode, when they brought in the entire Next Generation cast for a plotline with Stewie. This was the sole plotline on the ads for the episode, and as an avid ST:TNG fan, I was looking forward to it. However, the Star Trek material turned out to belong to the episode’s B-plot, and almost the entire plotline was shown in the ad. The episode’s real plot was about Meg becoming a conservative Christian, and subsequently burning books and telling everyone that they were evil and going to hell. Brian the dog, an atheist/free-thinker, finally gets fed up and makes a big speech near the end of the episode about how religion turns people crazy and evil, and the only possible stance for a reasonable person who isn’t stupid is atheism. Meg realises the error of her ways, and leaves off Bible-thumping. The speech was very much presented as the moral of the story, and I could hear no longer Brian, but Seth McFarlane himself, speaking through the words to tell me that if I was devoutly religious, I was either evil, stupid, or brainwashed. Besides feeling insulted as an audience member, I also felt betrayed. I realised that the creator of the show was not above pulling a bait-and-switch on his viewers, by presenting the episode as a fun romp for Star Trek fans, and then replacing it with anti-religion polemic. Wil Wheaton, a member of the Star Trek cast whose blog I follow, said that he and the rest of the cast were not aware of the A-plot. If I had been a member of the cast, I would have felt betrayed on another level, as someone whose work was attached to a piece of art meant to attack the things that are most important to me, without my permission. I decided I no longer wanted to support the work of someone who would trick both his audience and his artists. That’s what finally got me to stop watching Family Guy.

    On the other hand, when I read The Lord of the Rings, for example, I always come away from it feeling strengthened to face life’s challenges, and generally peaceful, calm, and joyful. It heals me each time I read it. Family Guy corrupts me when I watch it. That’s the criterion I now use when deciding whether a piece of art deserves to have a place in my life.

    1. says: Wes

      Good thoughts, Cole! The distinction between intending to offend vs. risking offense is a good one. I definitely think Christians should be more willing to risk this offense, especially since what we believe is inherently offensive to relativist sensibilities.

      Your advice regarding the practical wisdom of discernment are helpful, but I think many youth would lack the ability to determine the effect of particular shows/songs etc. on their attitude and behavior. Also, when you are listening to/watching so many different elements of pop culture, how is it possible to isolate the effects of Eminem vs. South Park? Also, what if particular youth are so jaded that these shows and songs no longer have any effect? Despite these looming questions, what you have offered is very helpful. As I expected, Family Guy has already come up several times in our discussions, and practical perspectives on walking this difficult path of discernment are very welcome!

    2. says: Dave

      These are great thoughts. I experience the same tendencies toward engaging in too much of the portrayal of the broken, leaving me longing at times for an innocence that I have lost. The event horizon for this experience is different, I think, for each individual, and perhaps for each experience, but one that must be tread with caution.

      I also concur with your encouragement that Christian artists must be willing to risk offense. Sometimes, people need to be offended. I think we do as much harm by fanatically avoiding offense as we would in intentional affront.

  4. says: Paul Weinhold

    I suspect that a healthy familiarity with tradition would cultivate prudence on these issues, Wes. What C.S. Lewis writes of books applies, I think, to other media as well:

    “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”


  5. says: Nathanael

    When I was at Southern Evangelical Seminary I discovered Doug Beaumont’s book ‘The Message Behind the Movie”, (and website:, and was initially rather excited about it, encouraged by his approach that seemed a more nuanced and literary look at film storytelling than the usual Christian movie review that merely notes ‘objectionable material.’ Also his point was well made that good art is honest, not nice; it tells the truth, not pleasantries. It’s a good book and media series from which you might consider cribbing. However, that said, I was disappointed, despite what seemed good promise, he tends too much to what is the incessant mistake of contemporary Christians, to view art morally and not aesthetically. I think this would be something worthwhile to consider stressing in your teaching, the aesthetic, that we Christians can and should take an art critic’s stance and decide something is good or bad, worthwhile or garbage, based on that. We’re not limited to the surface evaluation of ‘objectionable content.’ And from here you can show them that aesthetic value can lead to moral value, and is even inextricably wrapped up in it. A great example (and speaking of ol Jack) is that Lewis said his imagination was ‘baptised’ by reading George MacDonald. On the contrary Puff Daddy is not worth giving and ear not just because he says mean things, but because his art deteriorates the imagination.

    I’ve read an excellent article on ‘popular culture’ recently in the New Criterion, which I think you’ll like. I’ll email it to you.


    1. says: Wes

      Thanks for this lead, Nathanael, and I think your evaluation is very wise. I completely agree with that we must engage with popular culture on an aesthetic and moral level. I used to talk about this in terms of the substance and style of any particular work, but a colleague here at St Andrews recently suggested that there are three facets to any work: the content, craft and context. In other words, it is important to discern what a work is communicating (content), how it is being communicated (craft), and the factors that gave rise to this act of communication (content). Keeping the aesthetic, moral, and social aspects of cultural discernment seems to me to be a good way forward. Thanks again for your interaction!

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