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Licking the Chocolate Off Poison Pills: A Comment on Cultural Engagement

Is there any potential risk in enjoying arts and popular culture? Is anything out there poison to us? How should we react to things we enjoy but know are harmful to us?
| Jul 18, 2019 | 53 comments |

This bit of writing will first post of the first day of Realm Makers, a writing conference I have attended ever since its beginning. I had loosely planned to post about the conference (like I did last year)–but there’s a bit of a problem with that. As of my time of writing, I haven’t attended the conference yet! I’ve only experienced one thing that relates to it. Which is, my drive from my home to Saint Louis in preparation for tomorrow. So maybe it would be better to post about the conference next week.

However, something that happened on the drive inspired a thought, which relates back to post by Cap Stewart and E. Stephen Burnett concerning cultural engagement just a few days ago. Please allow me a minute to work my way around to my point.

So driving on the road, I happened to be surfing through radio stations. I actually don’t do a lot of listening to the radio when I drive, generally speaking, but I do sometimes. On a oldies channel, I ran into an early ’80s hit: (I wish I had) “Jessie’s Girl.”

I surprised myself by knowing almost all the words–I always was disconnected from most of popular culture, even of my own supposed time–the loner and oddball type of person, who read more books than watched TV and movies. Of course I was into speculative fiction culture: science fiction, some fantasy and some horror, but that was a long time before being a nerd or geek became a stealthy form of cool. So there were icons of popular culture from my own supposed formative years that I had little exposure to. However, I did actually listen to a lot of the top 40 music of the era (and I did watch MTV!).

So while I was listening to “Jessie’s girl” and enjoying the song, especially because of my memories of hearing it decades ago, I suddenly realized the song in effect normalizes what the Bible classifies as sin–covetousness. Oh, I’m not claiming that listening to the song makes you someone who covets automatically or that it’s not possible to enjoy the tune without absorbing the attitude the song reflects. Which is, desiring someone who is definitely in a relationship with someone else. The song treats that like stuff that just happens–you might feel ashamed of it, but it’s normal, it happens. There’s even a song about it!

I said to my wife, “This song is like a chocolate-coated poison pill. It’s fun to listen to, but it has a toxic message.” Of course not enough poison to kill, not in a single song, but enough to make a small effect, a little bit of “liver damage” as it were. A song that contributed to pushing the culture a tiny bit further from a Biblical view of covetousness than it had held previously. But of course, a fun song. As fun as a chocolate coating.

If “Jessie’s Girl” were a solitary phenomenon, it probably wouldn’t be significant. But there have been songs and media that normalize pretty much every item on any Biblical list of sin. I just recently watched an episode of a horror/science fiction series on Netflix (The Mist) which portrayed homosexuality in a way clearly intended to reflect the writer’s view of reality, but if it happened to be the case you did not agree with the writer (as I don’t), the story tend to have the effect of normalizing that behavior (because in general, people get used–desensitized to–whatever they are exposed to).

Am I perhaps wrong to suggest “normalizing” sin is a bad thing? Could it be that in fact, what I’m calling “normalizing bad behavior” is a good thing, because it’s more realistic? I am actually in favor of realism in general. And I agree it may be necessary in some instances to portray a sin to show how empty and fruitless sin can be–but portraying a particular sin in a negative light does not seem to be what the writer of The Mist episode I’m talking about intended–if anything, the story portrayed a person denying he is gay in a bad light, not homosexuality itself.

Or could it be what I’m calling “normalizing bad behavior” is essentially neutral, because such portrayals affect different people differently? Look, just because some people may not be affected by something has nothing to do with whether it’s potentially damaging in a general sort of way. To draw from the poison pill analogy a bit (in what someone may complain is a logical error of “reasoning by analogy,” but which actually applies), not everyone is effected by non-metaphorical, i.e. literal, toxins in the same way. Some people can absorb more particles of, say lead, than other individuals before experiencing ill effects. But not being affected personally doesn’t actually mean the poison isn’t there. And not being affected at first doesn’t mean an effect can’t grow stronger with exposure over a longer duration. As is the case with exposure to lead–or radiation–or many other things.

This can be a slippery discussion, in part because the analogy of poison pills starts to break down, so let me drop the analogy for a second (I’ll pick it up again in a bit, though) and appeal to a Biblical statement, Philippians 4:8 (NKJV): “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” It happens to be the case that the Bible recommends thinking about virtue over thinking about vice. Note I have no problem seeing that verse as a general admonition and not as an absolute prohibition of anything that could be seen in any way as negative. The Bible itself often portrays sin! Though the Bible includes things like consequences and Divine judgment, stuff that human arts and expressions of culture often skip over when on the topic of sin. (In fact, denying that sin is “sin” that comes with inherent consequences seems to be the main component of normalizing a sin in human culture.)

So why am I saying this? Am I singing the praises of creating a list of sinful stuff in popular culture and then metaphorically whacking other people over the head with our rolled-up list, telling them they need to straighten themselves out? No, that’s not what I’m saying, first of all because we need to embrace the responsibility to police against sin in our own lives, not create lists that have the true purpose of bossing other people around. It’s up to me to guard myself from sin, not up to me to guard you–which of course doesn’t mean I can’t warn you about potential problems. But does mean in the final analysis, you stand before God to answer for yourself, so I have no obligation to control your behavior. Offering a warning or a bit of advice is sufficient.

But assuming you are generally like me, dear reader, some things in human arts, literature, and popular culture have to power to be like poison pills for you. Maybe you won’t be affected by the same toxins to which I’m vulnerable, but still, I’d say the poison tuned to affect you the most is out there somewhere.

And it is more than possible such a thing that has the power to hurt you might be enjoyable. Like a chocolate-coated poison pill.

It makes sense to me that it’s possible for us to develop a skill of extracting the pleasure out of entertainment without being affected by the negative messages it contains. But that would be a little like licking the chocolate off pills we know are poisonous. Most people would not do that–most people would avoid the poison pills and instead chose pills they know are non-toxic.

“Oh, but the chocolate on the poison pills is so tasty, soooo good!” (Please bear with my dry observation at this point that Satan is not a figment of the Christian imagination.)

Image credit: Homdor.com

Maybe we ought to collectively prefer seek out what are in my metaphor “non-toxic pills.” Maybe part (part, not all) of our role in being sub-creators is to produce art/popular culture that celebrates virtue, rather than us delving into popular culture around us in a way that’s rather like licking chocolate off poison pills.

Believe it or not, I’m not actually saying anything profoundly different here than what Cap Stewart and E. Stephen Burnett said this week. I agree that God intended humans to create culture and that being sub-creators is something with a tremendous power to honor God–and I agree that participating in the culture we live in is to a degree normal. I also do not automatically classify all of popular culture as sinful–not every 80s song was oriented towards numbing a person to a Bible-prohibited sin!

I’m making a call in part for discernment concerning culture, which was not the topic Cap and E. Stephen were covering, but which I am certain they personally embrace.

What I’m trying to make clear is that it’s actually normal to embrace a type of sorting process for popular culture and refuse to engage in areas we know are potential problems for us. Maybe that’s more like avoiding foods we know are unhealthy than avoiding poison, but we should in effect produce our own nourishment in entertainment and recognize it’s a good idea to eat from it whenever we realize what is being offered up from the world around us will make us sick.

Perhaps therefore we should look on abstainers with a bit more favor–if someone thinks he or she needs to avoid as much as possible all the metaphorical foods at the supermarket and only eat from his or her metaphorical garden, OK, maybe he or she is making the exact right choice for that person. Which doesn’t mean I am obliged to make the same choice–still, I very well know I shouldn’t eat just any food sold at the market, willy-nilly.

However, if we are going to try to extract the pleasure out of things we know are hazardous for ourselves (which nothing I’ve said prohibits you from doing, even if it isn’t the best idea, because I know it’s possible to be exposed to sin without sinning yourself), let’s at least be honest with ourselves that we are taking a risk. There is the possibility we will become so drawn to the pleasure aspect that we eventually don’t even care about the poison. In effect swallowing the pills whole, even though we know the poison is there, like smokers who know what they are doing is bad for them, but struggle to quit.

“But oooh, the chocolate on the poison pills tastes soooo good! So goooood!” 🙂

Travis Perry is a hard-core Bible user, history, science, and foreign language geek, hard science fiction and epic fantasy fan, publishes multiple genres of speculative fiction at Bear Publications, is an Army Reserve officer with five combat zone deployments. He also once cosplayed as dark matter.

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notleia
Guest
notleia

Welp, then we have guys like East, who we were making fun of yesterday, who start on how seeking chocolate in the first place is suspect and degenerate, and why not this black licorice here? Because that’s totally the same.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Black licorice is ew.

Kristin Janz
Guest

I like black licorice. Although obviously it’s not as good as chocolate. (I also like carob. Blame my hippie parents.)

Autumn Grayson
Guest

I’m not much for licorice in general. I can tolerate it, and the red licorice is ok. But since I don’t actively like it, I don’t see the point in eating it when it probably isn’t healthy. It’s cool if other people like it, though 🙂

Travis C
Guest

Black licorice is the best Autumn! But I respect your dislike of the unique flavor

Kristin Janz
Guest

This is not the first Christian critique I’ve seen of “Jesse’s Girl”. Yours is basically the same as the other one. But I never heard the song that way. For me, the key to interpreting it is the line: “Aren’t I funny, aren’t I cool with the lines? Ain’t that the way love’s supposed to be?” (I’m quoting this from memory, so it may not be word-for-word correct.) Even as a teenager, I recognized that no, of course that’s not the way love’s supposed to be! And the fact that the song’s first-person protagonist (who is not necessarily the same character as the songwriter) believes it is goes a long way toward explaining why the girl is dating Jesse and not him.

This encapsulates one of my biggest problems with these sorts of culture war discussions. It’s just as bad on the secular left as on the Christian right. “This art is not consistent with my values, therefore it is bad” doesn’t leave much room for irony or artful ambiguity, where a story may appear to have one message but hides a sting in its tail, for those who are paying attention, that calls everything on the surface into question. Or where you can’t actually tell what the author believes about a particular issue from reading the story.

Of course, the Bible is full of ambiguous stories. One of my favorites is in Acts, where a dispute has arisen over whether Aramaic-speaking needy widows were being favored over Greek-speaking ones in the church in food distribution. The Apostles’ response is basically, “We shouldn’t neglect the preaching of the word to wait on tables. We’ll hand this over to a committee instead.” Many Christians seem to read this as: Committees are good! My reading is: [head>desk]–Were you guys *at* the Last Supper? You know, the one where God strips down to his underwear to wash your feet and then says, “Now go and do the same for each other?” Peter, when Jesus said, “Feed my sheep”, did you really think that was entirely metaphorical, and what he actually meant was, “Give someone else the job of feeding my sheep while you do more prestigious things?”

Luke could have been more clear about what message we were supposed to take from that incident, to make sure we all “got it”, but I think the story would have lost some of its power that way.

I don’t think Christians need to engage with pop culture if they don’t want to or believe it would be bad for their spiritual health. (Like people who are not obviously allergic to gluten but still think it’s healthier if they avoid it.) But, I also don’t want to hear a lecture about how no humans can digest wheat properly every time I eat a sandwich in public.

For me, part of the value of engagement is knowing what the conversations are. Because sometimes I have something to contribute, as a Christian in the general market speculative fiction field. And I’ve been in that field long enough that sometimes people are willing to listen to what I have to say. I was on a panel at Arisia, a very progressive and secular science fiction convention, and the panel was about the apocalyptic in speculative fiction, and I was actually encouraged to talk about what Revelation says about the apocalypse and God’s judgment being good news for the oppressed and marginalized. That wouldn’t have happened if I couldn’t also talk about general market stories I’ve read that many Christians would feel were best avoided.

And sometimes I encounter really brilliant stories in the general market that get at the heart of some Biblical theme much better than anything I’ve read in the Christian world, if you can get past all the anti-faith sentiment on the surface, and all the profanity.

On the other hand, I often don’t enjoy my engagement with secular pop culture. At all. Sometimes my heart sinks when I turn on the podcast for another story, because I feel like I am drinking poison (metaphorically). For me, the answer to this is to make sure I’m also dosing myself with the antidote. Which is usually not Christian fiction, but Scripture, and Christian theology, and time spent in prayer.

Finally, for me, the stumbling blocks that lead me into sinful attitudes are not representations of behavior and beliefs that I don’t share, but things that encourage me to think I’m morally superior to others. I read the Babylon Bee, for instance, and while I think it’s some of the sharpest political satire out there, it’s far more likely to lead me into the sins that I’m most susceptible to (pride and vanity) than a hot sex scene or a story about an unmarried couple living together. Same for reading political commentary on Twitter (which I gave up for Lent, because I was spending too much time on it, and it was encouraging me to feel self-righteous).

R. J. Anderson
Member

Excellent commentary, Kristin! And I agree re the character of the narrator in “Jessie’s Girl” — that line is very telling about how we’re supposed to view his level of maturity and his understanding of what love is really about. It’s easy to assume that we’re meant to sympathize and identify with the POV character in a song or story, but “Jessie’s Girl” reminds me of more recent pop songs like Sarah MacLachlan’s “Possession” and Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Possess Your Heart”, both of which are written from the perspective of a stalker — and it’s up to the listener to discern that the narrator’s view is warped and destructive even though he clearly doesn’t see it that way.

None of which is to say that there isn’t real poison out there and that we don’t need to exercise discernment and self-control — but the deadliest poison isn’t always where we think it is, or even what we think it is.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Kind of interesting how different sayings/analogies can frame the issue completely different. You mentioned chocolate covered poison pills. Another person I knew during college mentioned the idea of ‘eat the meat, spit out the bones’ when it came to engaging with culture. I think both things are important to keep in mind when deciding how to handle stuff.

Growing up, I would see a lot of strictness when it came to certain things. Some people would be like ‘oh, that song has a cuss word or drug reference, so don’t listen to it.’ Part of that might have been that I was young and so were my peers. People are stricter with children. But, I dunno, over time I’ve had a more nuanced look at what I listen to and I know some people in my life are less strict than they used to be. Thing is, though, someone might reject a song just because it has a drug reference, but the song could actually be interpreted as being against drugs. I wasn’t avoidant of this song at first, but initially I didn’t listen closely to the lyrics and interpreted it as being more supportive of drugs than it actually was:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRUOGd_9orc

Now I see it more as something that can show people why drugs are undesirable. Maybe drugs will be enjoyable at first, but then they’ll wreck the person’s life, and trying to get off the drugs will be miserable. In the meantime, the whole issue can destroy one’s relationships and leave someone in pain and alone.

And this next song is basically talking about how drinking too much is like ‘flying too close to the sun’ and will destroy someone eventually(or at least that’s the main thing I get out of it):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5JaxMaCIw4

A lot of times, if I listen to or watch something, I interpret it as narrating the life and beliefs of another person. So, basically as a tool for understanding them so I can figure out how to make things better. It’s also a lot of good story fuel for me. Like, this song has some cussing in it, and there’s no way I’d act anything like the person in the song except under the most absolutely extreme circumstances. But, it’s one of the many songs I use to gain inspiration for the main girl char in my Faust themed story (especially since there’s a couple arcs where she’s kind of evil):

Jill
Guest

There are times and places where the entire culture is so corrupt even the food culture must be avoided, as in the story of Daniel. But aside from that extreme scenario, people have different sin proclivities. It never occurred to me that Jesse’s Girl could cause somebody to stumble because it’s not something I struggle with, plus strikes me with its irony: he might have somebody like Jesse’s girl if he weren’t the type to pine after another man’s girlfriend. Sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It reminds me of the “do you like pina coladas” song. It’s about adultery, but it’s funny because it has an O’Henry twist and reminds us that people don’t change all that much. Does it make light of adultery? Absolutely, and it could be bad for somebody who just needs a nudge that direction, somebody who misses the point of the song. We tend to miss the point when we’re looking for self-justification.

The culture of the arts is such a mixed bag of benign for some people and not for others — as well as outright sin that all professing Christians should avoid. Oddly, we even argue about those things. I shouldn’t be surprised by now, but am when other Christians think it’s okay to watch movies where the actors strip naked and do everything but have sex with other actors they aren’t married to. It might not cause those Christians to lust, which seems really abnormal to me, but they are paying to watch real human beings sin (actors are, after all, humans).

I don’t know where I’m going with this. I only know art culture is both marvelous and difficult. There are stories and songs I avoid because they breed nihilism and misanthropy in my soul. That’s my proclivity, and it’s not cute like those old Grumpy Cat memes. God does not want me to be in that place. Also, have fun at the conference.

Kevin Robinson
Guest
Kevin Robinson

Very good article. Carefully non-judgmental and yet thoughtfully warning. The fact that so many Christians get so defensive on this subject is because we’ve already developed such a taste for the poison that we no longer want to hear about the poison. The fact that we are not repulsed by so much of what we take in is a testament against us. I thought your smoking analogy at the end was the better analogy. Smokers KNOW how deadly smoking is, but because it doesn’t kill them immediately, they keep making excuses and partaking in it becoming less and less healthy. So many of us are so caught up in culture, we’ve lost something that too few even acknowledge, let alone appreciate: anointing. God intends us to walk in Holy Spirit anointing for the work of his kingdom and the healing and deliverance of others. But we are too sick ourselves to minister to others with power. We are too drunk on culture, often, to be filled with the Spirit. We’ve long departed from Phil. 4:8 and only focus on what’s permissible, not on what’s beneficial. We need revival and deliverance.

notleia
Guest
notleia

In random, off-topic news, seems like Josh Harris of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” fame is getting a divorce.

PS: Up yours, purity culture

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

I Kissed Dating Goodbye was a blight on the universe.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Was that the one that tried to replace dating with courting?

Lauren Beauchamp
Guest
Lauren Beauchamp

Yes, he was all about “courting” instead of dating and saving your first kiss for the altar. In his defense, he was an 18 year old kid when he wrote that book, I don’t why so many (my mom included) took his word as almost another gospel.

That was one of the better purity culture books my mom gave me though. Sarah Mally didn’t even think you should be friends with a guy (or barely speak to) unless he had expression permission from your father to court you.

Hence, why mother was so devasted when I moved in with my now fiance.

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Hm, yeah, some aspects of courting concern me. Mainly…how can two people truly get to know each other if they’re under direct supervision of a guardian all the time?(If I recall correctly, that’s one of the main aspects of courting?) People are more likely to be on their best behavior when around their significant other’s parents and whatnot. It probably isn’t necessary for the two people to live together before marriage, but they should be able to have dates by themselves often enough that they can get a better idea of each other’s character.

Courting could probably be ok for some people. And personally I do think it’s better to avoid sex outside marriage. But people discuss the topic/go about it all wrong. At the very least, people shouldn’t act like courting is the only way to go.

Lauren Beauchamp
Guest
Lauren Beauchamp

Oh I agree in principal! Living together first was the right choice for us (so many of the first marriages in my family have ended in divorce, including my mom’s, I really wanted a trial run so to speak) but that doesn’t make it the right choice for everyone.

What really bothers me about courting is the idea that the couple can’t be trusted to be alone together.

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

What bothers me about the courting idea is the romanticization (it’s a word, I promise–just don’t look at a dictionary) of relationships. It can set up a Disney-land idea of what marriage is. Marriage isn’t about test-driving each other, or being “custom fit to each other.” It’s about growing into each other, compromising your lives to suit each other, honoring and serving each other, and loving each other faithfully despite difficulties (which are bound to be massive). So many guys have this selfish set of ideals because of the culture. Christian guys many times think the woman needs to submit to their wishes no matter what (“I don’t need to change, obviously they’re just not the One for me”), and non-Christian guys tend to think they can still live how they want no matter what (“I don’t need to change, I’m living my Truth and they can get over it”). It’s the same prideful attitude, and both end in divorce because from the outset there’s a sort of poisonous attitude where the person’s consistently dishonoring their partner. Disdain is one of the most destructive expressions in a marriage. I read about a study once that linked it more to divorce than anything else. I should find that to confirm… but it kindof intuitively makes sense to me. Hookup culture and purity culture both look at relationships in a very similar way, with this bizarre, romanticized view of what it’s supposed to be (same dish, only their worldview changes the flavor). When it turns out to be very real and very normal and not-so-rosy-colored all the time, they pull out. OR they use their ideals to justify abuse, which is much worse.

Lauren Beauchamp
Guest
Lauren Beauchamp

This is so true and I never thought of it that way before! Thank you!

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Dating can lead to a lot of romanticization too, though. So I wouldn’t say it’s ‘safe’ in that regard, just a better tool as far as getting to know a potential spouse. Assuming it’s used correctly.

Brennan S. McPherson
Member

Right!

Autumn Grayson
Guest

Guys, look:

http://spaceengine.org/

http://spaceengine.org/manual/making-addons/creating-a-planet/

Haven’t tried the program, but it looks pretty cool and useful for worldbuilding.