What Should a Christian’s Response be to Pop Culture?

Did you know that Jesus Christ is your homeboy, hates zombies, is afraid of a boxing match with Satan, drives an Escalade, is better known as Buddy Christ, had a child with Mary Magdalene and that God doesn’t like Earth because Jesus hasn’t been the same since he went there?

At least that’s the view of Christ and God portrayed in modern fashion, comic books like Jesus Hates Zombies, and in television shows and movies like Family Guy, South Park, Dogma, The Simpsons, and The Da Vinci Code (I know it was a book first).

Three Typical Reactions

As far as I can see there are three ways that Christians have typically reacted to these portrayals of Christ and Christianity. Either we have condemned them and run for the hills, written books specifying why they are biblically incorrect and then sold them to the people who have run for the hills, or we’ve thought they were funny and haven’t wanted to consider if it’s wrong to watch or read them just in case it is.

On the whole, mainstream culture has fewer taboos than ever before. Family Guy and adult targeted cartoon networks like Adult Swim are seeking to push boundaries like never before (a reoccurring theme in Family Guy is the family’s liberal, atheist dog being sexually attracted to the sexually adventurous mother despite the dog being the father’s best friend).

They Love to Make Fun of Christians

Many of the most popular proliferators of popular culture are outspoken in their atheist views. Ricky Gervais, a regretful but committed atheist, takes part of his stand up comedy act directly from Genesis chapters 1-3 in a manner startlingly familiar to modern preachers. Seth MacFarlane, the creator of family guy, is a proud atheist and self declared gay rights activist (though not gay himself). It would be going too far to say that these two and the likes of Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Kevin Smith, and others have an agenda to destroy Christianity (they are equal opportunity mockers for the most part) but they do love to make fun of us.

The irony is that their mockery and satire has probably done more to bring Jesus and Christianity into the minds of Generation Y than most preachers in the world (Jesus has appeared in Family Guy in 19 episodes and that doesn’t include appearances made by God or other biblical characters). Generation Y is a generation that is deeply interested in spirituality yet many of its members have virtually no experience with the Church, let alone any conception of who the biblical Jesus Christ is.

Are We Missing a Genuine Opportunity?

If we as Christians remove ourselves from the pop culture discussion by only condemning portrayals of Christ like those mentioned above then the only conception of Christ that many members of Generation Y have are those which the likes of Family Guy shows them. If we are not a thoughtful and interesting part of the conversation, then we are missing a real and genuine way that we can engage people with the true gospel and the real Jesus Christ.

It is ultimately a conscience issue as to whether or not an individual Christian can watch a certain television show and they should weigh the issue against Scripture and let the Holy Spirit guide them. No believer should go against their conscience in the name of being culturally relevant or even for evangelism’s sake. However, if we fail to recognize the awesome opportunity that pop-culture depictions of Christ and Christianity are giving us to engage with a culture that ordinarily shirks at the name of Jesus, then we ignore Paul’s lesson at the Areopagus to engage a culture in a language they understand in order to preach to them a message they desperately need to hear.

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This post was written by James Snare, from Hills Bible Church.

James raises an issue with which every Christian grapples – When it comes to engaging our culture, where do we draw the line?

Should a believer conform to contemporary culture or oppose it?

Is engaging with culture for the sake of the gospel the same thing as accepting it?

What do you think?

22 thoughts on “What Should a Christian’s Response be to Pop Culture?

  1. StuStu

    Thanks for your post James. I’ve often wondered how I should respond to pop culture’s often condemning/ridiculing depiction of God and Christ. I had an experience seeing a comedian who made a complete mockery of Christ and his sacrifice on the cross.

    Since that day I have restricted going to comedy acts as the ones I have attended are either very lewd, swear all the time or mock Jesus. It makes me cringe and feel uncomfortable. Some other Christians may be able to cope with that, but I struggle.

    However I like how you put it James that there are opportunities here to converse with people about Jesus. Maybe we don’t have to go to such events if we choose not to, but be more open to talk about them and not dismiss them with a disgusted look. Try to present our experience of Christ and what the Bible teaches even if their introduction to Jesus was to gain a few laughs by the Comedian.

    What I am most curious about is how to connect with our culture despite our call to be like aliens in this world, ‘salt’ in a decaying civilisation, so that we build relationships and God willing lead people to Christ. We must never compromise what God has said to us is wrong for the sake of ‘evangelism’. It angers me when people use evangelism to cover their own selfish and sinful motives. We must also be aware of our own humanity and where we struggle so that we can best protect ourselves from being tempted to sin and plague our relationship with God.

    Ironically I feel it’s being honest about our humanity and struggles that best connect us to our culture. People want to know that they are not alone in their struggles. The difference is those in Christ have hope and choose to follow Him each day. We need to portray/communicate that hope to others in the context of our fallen humanity.

  2. Matthew Johnston

    Hi James – thank you for this post. You pose some questions that must be addressed and considered by Christians every particularly those in gospel ministry.

    Consider this from my blog.

  3. Don

    I think the issue becomes much more complex than this.

    As Matthew suggested, contextualisation has its place. Theologian Karl Barth is credited with saying, “preach with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other”. So clearly the importance of the preacher (Christian worker) being knowledgeable about his or her cultural context is not a new concept. As James points out, our earliest example of this (Acts 17:1-34) is the Apostle Paul at the Areopagus or ‘Rock of Ares’.

    However, to what extent does the believer engage with people, things and places that are diametrically opposed to the fundamentals of Scripture?

    And when does this “engagement” become a yoke that inexorably draws the believer into a sticky web from which only the intervention of the Spirit of God can extricate?(1 Thess. 5:22 ; 2 Corinthians 6:14; 7:1) I believe Paul’s warning here is that one person’s conduct and direction of life can strongly influences or control the other’s.

    But one can even go deeper than this. Engagement can to some extent imply support. I’m not talking about moral support or even agreement with what is clearly contrary to Christian beliefs; but what about financial support?

    I’ve heard believers offer the “contextualization argument” to justify viewing and being ‘entertained’ by movies containing content that, from even the most liberal of believer’s perspective, is contrary to the Scriptures. But, do these viewers ever think about where their box office fee goes?

    And ones support can be even less direct than that. Just viewing certain TV programs contributes to the boosting of ratings which keeps these programs on the air. Just today I was reading how “American Idol” is providing money under their “Gives Back” program to fund abortion.

    Now I am not suggesting that believers have to completely withdraw from the world into isolation, but the Apostle Paul is clearing talking about the need for God’s covenant people to live chaste circumspect lives. (2 Cor 6:17)

    Our challenge is to find an uncompromising balance between this teaching and the charge of the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19.

  4. David

    Come on Don! Tell us what you mean plainly, not ‘I am not suggesting …’. If we followed the money from the weekly shop at Coles we could find something sinister in funding there if we wanted.
    I have absolutely no doubt that the Lord Jesus would offend our sensibilities by what he would be prepared to do today. You can tie yourself up in knots being highly theoretical, but the essential thing is to be a real servant living a real life of service in your own generation. Many believers are incredibly brittle and thin skinned. Its not all about us, its about the Lord and His glory. If we don’t engage, we lose our opportunity. We run the risk of being misinterpreted, yes of course. And that my point, the Lord spoke to women! He spoke to women of ill repute! He stood up for an adulteress.
    Be bold and courageous and LIVE for Him!

    1. Don

      David, thanks for your comment. I particularly relate to to your words,

      “the essential thing is to be a real servant living a real life of service in your own generation.”

      and, ” If we don’t engage, we lose our opportunity.”

      We are in full agreement here.

      Every generation has ‘contextualised’ the Gospel. It’s natural and inevitable.

      It’s how we understand things. It’s how we learn. We start with what we ‘know’, interpreting what we learn in the context of what we know. It’s how a good teacher teaches – starting with a known principle moving to the unknown. And to bring this theory into our context, it should be how we witness, starting with what the hearer knows and building upon this by contextualising the Gospel, by explaining the Gospel in a context that makes sense to the hearer.

      So the question isn’t whether we contextualise or not, but rather, how we do so.

      The purpose of my comment was to alert readers to the fact that contextualisation had broader implication than one might first think and I referenced a few examples to make this point. There are inherent dangers lurking within contextualisation.

      In the rush to contextualize some may attempt to lessen the demands of the gospel or sacrifice Biblical truth to make the gospel or church more acceptable. This may lead to syncretism.

      Accordingly, I would limit the use of contextualization to those means and methods which are in harmony with the Word of God, our final authority. For example, I would not, as the contemporary theologian Dr. Bruce Waltke is reported to have suggested, change my position on the Genesis creation record in order for my gospel message to be more widely accepted.

      I suppose the question of engagement is slightly different. It is absolutely necessary and a good thing for believers to engage with non-believers. There are many ways of doing this that don’t involve compromising one’s desire to live a holy life (Hebrews 12:14). One doesn’t have to use rude or obscene language to connect with non-believers. One doesn’t have to be ‘entertained’ by media that depicts every form of ungodly behaviour in order to understand the context of the unbeliever. Intelligent, well read Christians are fully capable of forming opinions about all sorts of contemporary topics without necessarily having been directly involved in them. I can read a movie or book review to become informed about the content without having seen or read them.

      When interacting with people who have little or no church context, it is important that I don’t react in negative ways to their comments, or behaviour. And it is necessary that I’m sufficiently informed about contemporary issues and culture that I can relate to and understand their perspectives. It’s also important that my witnessing doesn’t come across in a sanctimonious manner, but rather blends in naturally to the conversation of the moment.

      But most importantly, it is essential that my way of living, my manner of conduct and the affections of my heart reflect a godly life. This is not to imply that Christians should behave in a ‘holier than thou’ manner, for it is only by God’s grace that we are believers. Other than the work of Christ in us, we are in no way different from anyone else.

  5. David

    Yes I think we are agreed on these principles, and I think there are many things we might agree with those who are FAR from the Evangelical position (historically defined), but words are one thing, and actions quite another!

    If we live as servants with our hearts right before the Lord, seeking to walk in His ways, then all the things you describe follow, without a conscious list of things we may allow or not.

    Is the Word of God sufficient to guide the believer in the day we live in? Of course it is! Was the word of God sufficient to guide the growing church in Corinth? Yes it was. Do I think the church in Corinth had an easier time than in our day? Absolutely not! Paul was pretty straight with the Corinthian Church, and he called a spade a spade. But at no time was a fence put around the church (as some churches in the UK are tending to do). Its easy to live a ‘risk free’ Christian life, and live by the do’s and donts of others. We have to engage with others, and there will be times when we might feel very uncomfortable doing so. We might be misunderstood (from within and without the church), but as I have said previously, the Lord was misunderstood also (friend of sinners …. can we have the top spots in the Kingdom!).

    I think I would rather take a risk, get it wrong, and learn rather than live in a secure bubble (of church life lived as exclusively as possible with other believers) where we can pat ourselves on the back and congratulate each other. A lot of the writings I see in Evangelical newspapers and magazines reflect this latter standard, and I just don’t think its helpful when you are living in a modern day ‘Corinth’. Don’t you think so?

    By the way, much of the fuss over Genesis is froth and bubble generated by academics with too much time on their hands! Personally, I see nothing in the Scripture which demands I understand a day as anything other than a literal day (why would God choose to be obscure or misleading in the revelation of Himself and His work). The only reason for the fuss is to respond to unproven hypotheses based on a paltry amount of ‘evidence’ from creatures who have lived over the last couple of centuries. When Job got a bit big for his boots (and yes I understand this godly mans distress at the time), God said: ‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!…..” .

    I love the Lord’s sarcasm! It puts man where He truly belongs. His Word is SUFFICIENT for our every need in EVERY GENERATION. There are no exceptions – not even us!

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  7. stu

    Hi David,

    God’s Word is sufficient. I find that truly amazing and reassuring when trying to discern God’s direction for my life. It has stood the test of time with many cultural changes and opposition.

    It saddens me when people try to ‘add’ to the scriptures because they don’t feel it’s relevant today. They twist what is written to fuel their own agenda in adding to the teaching to ‘fit’ in to our culture today, to make it relevant. Really what they are doing to trying to make the Bible suit them and others instead of trusting God with what He has given us in His WOrd. Tragically they miss the guidance it has for them and the wisdom that God wants to grant us. It gives us the tools to stand up in our culture and be an influence for Christ no matter where we live. We are to be aliens in this world, yet reach out in the hope of seeing others come to Christ. If people don’t notice a difference in how we live, then we need to look at how we are living. Are we obeying God? Are we compromising His direction? Are we blending in for the sake of ‘connecting’ with others?

    God’s Word is eternal and relevant for every culture because it is the inspired Word from our Sovereign, eternal God. God knows what people need as He articulates it in His Word. Let’s trust Him with it, teach it faithfully and see what He does with it.

  8. David

    I think God’s word is designed to give us the confidence to live in our own generation, and to be ambassadors for Christ. The majority of our lives (and the most useful part of it) is spent in the daily routine of our work. Here, we have no pulpit to stand behind, we are naked before the eyes of the world that sees every inconsistency. Many believers (in my view) hold their colleagues at arms distance (in the name of separation), and abandon their responsibility to love their neighbour and bring Christ to them by word and life. True contextualisation of the gospel is to take it in your own vulnerable life into all your relationships. It takes guts to do this. It takes a life led by the Spirit to do this. It takes a life filled with confidence in God and His word to do this. In our day, as in Paul’s, this is what really counts.

  9. Aaron Armstrong

    Hopefully these thoughts aren’t too scattered:

    For what it’s worth, my thinking is it’s beneficial to understand the culture around us in order to speak sensibly to them. The issue, though, I think is one related less to our understanding the culture and more to our being conformed to the gospel.

    I think David’s argument is solid that we aren’t to hold unbelieving friends and coworkers at arms length. On the contrary, if the principle above is true, it’s necessary for them to be up close so they can see that what we preach and what we believe really affects how we live.

    If we’re seeing the implications of the gospel work out in our lives, it’s evidence of it’s power. So how we use money should be different. What we watch and read should be different. How we speak should be different.

    It profoundly affects how we respond to pop culture because though it can be helpful to watch certain popular shows to have an understanding of what those around us are ingesting, it may not be beneficial. If it violates your conscience, don’t watch. It’s a sin. Anything that encourages sin in your life, shouldn’t be watched. And in all things, be discerning and prayerful.

    1. James

      Hi Aaron, fantastic point that what we watch may be helpful on one level but not beneficial on the whole. That’s the tension with this isse that each of us have to let the Holy Spirit guide us through.

  10. David

    I think thats a good balance – watch and pray. We need our wits about us, and we need to be aware, but as you say, its a fine line.
    What I’m advocating is a life where we are as salt in the world. Wherever we go we make a difference – death to some, life to others, but we DO make a difference wherever we are. We are most definitely in the world, but not of it. Some say (by implication) we should avoid being in the world as much as we can. But it is self evident that this is a ridiculous position that makes the believers life useless in effect.
    From the above, I think it ought to be clear that if we simply follow the fashionable drift that many believers are following, we will not be salt or light in this world. There has to be a difference that our friends and family can’t quite make out, or get over. I don’t think you need to make spiritual or gospel points all the time in conversation, but there are times when you can ask questions to make them think (and hopefully ask other questions). We have every reason to be like our Master and befriend sinners. I was thinking today as I was gardening how the Lord left the 99 to rescue the silly wandering sheep. If he focussed on the lost – one by one, then perhaps this too is a model for us.
    I hope that isn’t too scattered!

    1. Aaron Armstrong

      Not scattered at all in my opinion, David. It’s a great (I hesitate to use the term) goal for us to aspire to. I know the challenge in this for me is that the majority of my time is spent around Christians, since I work for a Christian NGO by day.

      Relatively recently I’ve changed how I work so that I’m rarely ever in an office, basically working where I want, when I want, however I work best. The thing I realized just now was I reading your comment, David, is that it’s actually an extraordinary opportunity for me to be a witness for Christ, especially when I’m working at Starbucks.

      Now I just have to remember to take advantage of it. Thanks for the reminder :)

  11. David

    I often think of Esther when I consider situations I go into “who knows whether you have not come to the Kingdom for such a time as this”. I sometimes get the impression from some believers that they think the Scripture should say: ‘you have been brought into the kingdom to ESCAPE from such a time as this’.
    On the matter of understanding and engaging with our own culture, I remember an assistant pastor taking a young peoples meeting, and playing a compilation tape of pop songs that I felt at the time was a bit out of place. But what he was doing was drawing attention to THE WORDS expressed which all pretty much indicated frustration with this life, and a reaching out for ‘something’. The assistant pastor went on to describe what that ‘something’ is. This, I think is an excellent example of using context to make a connection.
    Paul in the Areopagus () adopted that same principle of starting where people were, and leading them onwards. He knew the writings of his day (see ).
    There is no ‘one size fits all’ principle to leading people to the gospel, just as the Holy Spirit does not deal with us in one way. He treats us as individuals, understanding all the things that affect our thinking, so that He can speak powerfully to our situation.
    It is easy for unbelievers to stereotype (unfavourably) believers as those that don’t really think for themselves, or engage with this world in a meaningful way. Personally, I want to use my life as profitably as I can. Grow in understanding of people as well as God, so that I can, little by little, turn their thoughts to the Saviour.
    Press on!

    1. James

      Hi David, that’s such a great example of engaging the culture to preach the gospel. Music, movies and probably all other forms of media is a culture’s voice. When we listen to it and speak to it we immdeiately become a part of the culture and can have an influence in it. We may run the risk of being adversley affected by it but that is where we have to listen to the Holy Spirit’s guidance as to what personal boundaries we need to set.

      Love the passion this debate is generating!

  12. Matthew Johnston

    @Anon

    I have personally spoken to Don, Stu and James regarding areas like the “young and reformed” and how we are to engage the culture…..I thought they would enjoy hearing Paul speak on this issue.

    I dont see any anonymous comments in this this particular thread – so I ask what have “we” been discussing? and…whats your name mate? :)

    1. David

      I don’t know why my post was inserted as ‘Anonymous’!
      I’m trying to see what you think, and how Paul Washer’s video fits in, thats all.
      Too many people claim the title ‘reformed’ because they own a few books written by ‘reformed’ authors etc. For me this is not enough. . Spurgeon once said ‘it is easier to furnish your library than to furnish your mind….’. So come on Matthew, lets hear what YOU think!

      1. Matthew Johnston

        Hi David,

        Thanks for your reply and clarification.

        I have spoken to the men involved in this thread personally and voiced my opinions regarding this – of which I am in total agreement with, for the most part.

        I believe that it is fine to engage in culture; pop, surfing, gothic, mystic etc as long as we do not lower our standards of conduct and morality inorder to engage them. – AND we must never shrink from proclaiming that man must repent and believe.

  13. David

    Matthew,
    I have answered your question, but you haven’t answered mine: ‘”I’m trying to see what you think, and how Paul Washer’s video fits in, thats all”.
    If you want to engage in this blog by pointing people to a video, then I think it would be helpful to say HOW you think it is relevant, so we can take the discussion forward – if you want to take it forward that is.

  14. Tia

    Hi! I hope the authors here still have time to discuss more on this. Its just that lately I have been feeling really down. I have been a Christian (that is, a believer) for quite a couple of years now, but I think that it is only now that I have actually seen the wrongness of the pop culture. One of it is the songs and artists nowadays. Most of the songs are about sex, drugs, getting drunk, etc. Also, in their music videos, the artists would make hand gestures symbolizing the “666” sign or the “rock & roll” sign. And the clothes these artists wear, especially the women, are close to nothing. And I think that it is what’s been keeping me down because a lot of kids are watching these and are “idolizing” these people. And I can’t deny that I have been singing some of these songs, too. I guess what I’m trying to ask is that how can I distinguish the “contemporary” songs that I CAN listen to without compromising anything. Because I’m into music and so I tend to listen to what’s new. But I try to check first the lyrics of the songs to make sure that the words do no conflict with my faith. But the problem is, I still feel that it’s wrong to be listening to any of these because of the possibility that it is marketed by the enemy. What are your views and insights about these?

    1. Andrew CourtisAndrew Courtis

      Hi Tia. I really appreciate your comment and your desire to think through this so as to honour the Lord. This is a matter in which you must display godly discernment. It is important to remember that as a believer it is your goal and duty to glorify God ().

      Ask yourself, what are the things that honour God’s name and what are the things that undermine His greatness and holiness in a given situation. In humble submission to His word, respond in a way that glorifies Him according to His word. If your conscience provides a sense of guilt in a matter, don’t ignore that (). However, there will be times we need to biblically inform our conscience. It is a real battle in serving the Lord and fighting sin. We need to be wise and remove those particular hinderances in our own lives – anything that will remove our thinking from the holiness of God. The Scriptures say, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” ().

      I trust you can obtain some helpful encouragement from your pastor or a leader in your local church. Thanks again for your great question.

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