Culturally savvy Christians follow the path of neither the cultural glutton (who consume too much) nor the cultural anorexic (who abstain completely). Instead, they are marked by their discretion and thoughtful discernment.
To discern means to see something that is not very clear or obvious. The apostle Paul taught that only renewed minds are able to discern God's will. Because popular culture is powerful, pervasive, and persuasive, each day we will be called upon to practice discernment—but what does it mean to show discernment? How do we do it?
Fortunately, Paul used a concrete cultural example facing believers in Corinth to provide a set of timeless guidelines on how we should be discerning as we evaluate our involvement in culture. In first-century Corinth, pagan temples were common, and as part of their temple rites, pagans offered meat to the gods enthroned there. Not wanting to waste good meat, the priests gathered it up, ate what they needed, and sold the rest to the markets, where it would be resold to the Corinthians.
Wanting to be culturally savvy, some devout Corinthian Christians wondered whether buying and eating meat that had been offered to pagan gods was spiritually unwise. Because this meat wasn't specially marked, they were concerned that they would be spiritually polluted, even if they bought it unintentionally. Christians took different positions on the matter, some of them deeply held, and bitter disagreements began to divide the Corinthian believers. Paul was asked to rule on the matter, and he concluded that believers were free to eat the meat but should exercise their liberty responsibly.
Paul's guidelines can be summarized as follows:
All things are lawful. "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof." Paul began by establishing each individual's personal responsibility for making these decisions. Believers are not bound by some legalistic set of rules but are responsible before God for making prudent decisions. He reminds us that everything on earth is the Lord's, including meat offered to idols. Jesus taught similarly, that it is not what goes into us that defiles, but what comes out of us.
All things are not beneficial. "Not all things build up." Paul asks what individual and community benefits will result from our decision. Having concluded that we are free to make our own decisions, Paul reminds believers that not everything is equally good for us. Applying Jesus' rule, you can eat anything, but not everything has nutritional value. Paul constantly pushes believers to ask what is the highest and best behavior, not just what we are allowed to do.
Do not be dominated by anything. "I will not be enslaved by anything." Paul recognizes that regardless of how believers choose to exercise their liberty, under no circumstances should they allow any behavior or practice to master or control them.
Do not cause another to fall. "Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall." Paul recognizes that although we are free to make personal choices, believers should not use their freedom in a way that causes other believers to lose their faith. In legalistic circles, Paul's command to "not cause your brother to stumble" is used as a way to control and restrict other people's behavior, but Paul makes it clear in Romans 14:1-4 that even in this matter, we exercise individual freedom and personal discretion: "As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?"
Whatever you do, do it for the glory of God. "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." Paul reminds believers of their ultimate calling to glorify God in everything they do, which is consistent with Abraham Heschel's classic teaching: "God is of no importance unless he is of supreme importance."
Applying Paul's guidelines to our relationship with popular culture starts with acknowledging our liberty and then asking four specific questions about our choices: (1) Is it helpful? (2) Does it bring us under its power or have a controlling influence in our lives? (3) Does it pose a serious risk to the faith of other believers? (4) Does it glorify God?
Discerning whether a specific movie or song or game belongs in your life starts prior to its consumption. Just as we might evaluate the ingredients in a box of cereal prior to eating it, there are plenty of resources available to help us gauge whether an element of popular culture is appropriate or not. Once we've decided to listen to a CD, play a game, or watch a movie, for instance, the discernment process continues. Paul advises believers to "take every thought captive," and this means monitoring the content we take in by asking, Is it helpful? Addictive? Harmful to others? Glorifying to God?
Paul stated these principles differently to the church at Philippi, saying, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil. 4:8). Some people use this verse to argue against consuming any media item that includes violence, promiscuity, nudity, adultery, swearing, or other questionable behaviors. However, the Bible itself is packed with descriptions of these very behaviors because they are true aspects of human life.
The issue, therefore, is more nuanced. Because evil is part of the human experience, good art will take evil seriously. Rather than eliminating all popular culture that includes evil, culturally savvy Christians will want to discern how a piece of art handles evil. Does it simply depict evil in ways that maintain the integrity and truthfulness of the story? Does it discourage evil, elevating the good by revealing the nature and consequences of evil? Does it endorse evil, portraying it as normative and without consequence? Does it incite us to evil acts, as pornography might? Is the evil gratuitous, unconnected to the story, unnecessary except to appeal to our baser instincts?
Today, the toughest test we can apply is to ask whether the media items we consume represent the highest and best spiritually, intellectually, and aesthetically. As our faith grows deeper, our concern for nurturing our soul will affect our media consumption. Today, many Christians think discernment refers only to the content of art, but discernment extends to artistic quality as well. Our appetite for media products that excel in every way will motivate us to encourage thoughtful, talented artists of deep faith to create more and better art. Once, as I addressed a group of artists, one of them, a very accomplished craftsman, expressed his frustration with Christians' criticizing his work for its vivid portrayals of evil while readily accepting artistically inferior, romanticized art. I quickly shot back, "Bad art is evil." I was not trying to minimize the problem of content that pollutes our spirits by virtue of its superficiality or immorality but rather to articulate a holistic approach to the matter of discernment. So what can we conclude about practicing discernment in today's media culture?
Discernment means being serious about our faith commitment. If our allegiance is to God, we will want to please God in every area of our life, including our media consumption. Our greatest protection against the pollutants in culture is to love God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul, and to live each day with a sense of God's indwelling presence.
Discernment means practicing a healthy respect for the dark side. The first challenge faced by Daniel, a Jewish believer exiled in Babylon, was an attack on his allegiance to God. An edict was signed that made it illegal to pray to anyone but the king. Daniel refused to yield, dropping to his knees and praying three times to God. In exile, Joseph was tested with lust when Potiphar's wife offered herself to him. Joseph fled. Today, temptations tailored to our vulnerabilities are presented via the sights and sounds of entertainment media. Only a fool would think that the enemy of their soul has not mastered a devious competence in using these to his advantage in the fight for our souls. Time magazine's cultural critic Lance Morrow described one Oscar-winning movie as "sneaky in its philosophical emanations; gases may enter undetected and start to affect the brain before we realize what is happening. I begin to think we should each carry a canary into darkened movie theaters. If the canary starts to gasp and keel over, we should run for our lives."
Discernment means evaluating the nuances of art, not just evaluating it based on a superficial checklist of unacceptable elements. Good art deals with truth, and we are required to think on things that are true along with things that are honorable, just, and pure. Some Christian media critics warned people not to watch Schindler's List, a film that depicted the horrors of the Holocaust, because of a brief scene depicting Jewish women being stripped of their clothes. Obviously, the truly horrifying depiction of evil in the film was the portrayal of ashes of incinerated Jews rising from the smokestacks. Similarly, the violence in Training Day is relentless and horrific, yet germane to the story. After first reading the script of this movie, for which he received a Best Actor Academy Award, Denzel Washington wrote across the title page, "The wages of sin is death." Evil is depicted in this movie but not endorsed.
As culturally savvy Christians, we will practice selective acculturation, allowing ourselves to experience resonance with art that connects us with the joy, pain, and realities of our fellow humans while also identifying and guarding against dissonant values, ideas, beliefs, and behavior. We can be both connoisseurs and critics of culture. At home and in church, our responsibility is to teach an appreciation for the arts, along with the skills of discovery and discernment that will allow us to enjoy, evaluate, and engage culture in ways that enrich both it and us.
—DICK STAUB is an award-winning broadcaster, writer and founder of The Kindlings, a movement devoted to rekindling the creative, intellectual and spiritual legacy of Christians in culture; adapted from The Culturally Savvy Christian, ©2007 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Reprinted by permission.
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