What would happen if your favorite pastor only taught about how not to read the Bible?1
Imagine that in this pastor’s every podcast, blog article, or book, he condemns Christians for the ways we misuse God’s word.
“You’re doing it wrong,” he always says. “You’re taking verses out of context. You shouldn’t read it silently there. You should not read it aloud here. You’re not valuing the Bible highly enough. But it’s actually Jesus we worship and we don’t worship a book!”
Never does this imaginary pastor teach about what’s in the Bible. Or how we can read the Bible carefully yet joyfully. Or what the Bible is actually meant to do in the first place.
After a while, you might get the idea this pastor secretly doesn’t like the Bible. Deep down, he probably suspects the whole Bible idea isn’t worth our trouble to read and apply. Maybe he thinks we can always do something better with our time.
Application: this is exactly how many Christian leaders (bless their hearts) handle the issue of human stories, movies, television, and popular culture altogether.
Some Christian leaders couldn’t care less about human popular culture
Often these Christian leaders are glad to talk about popular culture—sporadically.
But they only emphasize the evils, the warnings, and the pitfalls of popular culture.
Ultimately, these Christian leaders create the same impression as our imaginary pastor who only warns about the Bible. Apart from their own good motives, they can come across like they secretly don’t like popular culture. Or they believe it’s not worth the trouble. Or they believe we could always make better use of our time.
Now, do I mean these writers are being legalistic against popular culture—that is, against human stories and songs, which are often spread by digital and technological means?
Not at all. In fact, I don’t even strongly disagree with many of these cautionary materials.
We do need help to focus our hearts and eyes on Jesus Christ, the giver of every good gift, lest we lapse into idolatry and demand the “entertainment” of His gifts without their Giver.
This goes double for Christians who don’t engage biblically with the popular-culture idea, or who are—like John Piper’s listener in this podcast—tempted to idolize entertainment.
Most of these well-meaning Christian leaders often clarify that they’re not against YA fiction, or movies, or TV as a concept.
For example, author/blogger Tim Challies does not disclaim popular culture “censorship” in this article warning about Hollywood, but he does say he plays video games (“Enjoy the entertainment”) and at least some fiction.
They have that covered. We’re not dealing with nasty old legalism against culture.
Instead, we’re dealing with the most well-intended Christian neglect of the topic.
Christian leaders’ neglect of popular culture can fail to challenge us in our real lives
What if you don’t believe popular culture has any purpose past “harmless entertainment”?
Someone, or your own inner voice, will always come along and say to you, “There are more eternally significant things you can do with your time than enjoying novels or TV.” If you’re honest with yourself, you have no real response to that kind of statement.
What if you believe popular culture does have good purposes: that is, to help you connect with other people, or to reflect common grace in the world, or to serve as Art and all that?
Then if you hear any Christian leader talk about popular culture only to say, “It’s harmless, BUT—” then his statements will roll right off you. Why? Because you believe popular culture has more purpose than merely benign “harmlessness.” You also believe Christian leaders who don’t care to address the topic in-depth and constructively haven’t earned the “right” to speak about it negatively. 2
Often I feel like these leaders would rather change the subject to their preferred topics, such as our serious need to obey God (amen) and our need for absolute holiness in Christ (again, amen). But behind these ideas, these well-meaning leaders act like they only need to warn against a Christian’s careless, passive3 “consumption” of “entertainment.” This automatically frames the issue in over-simplified and negative terms, and may fly right over the people who actually do need these cautions.
What if the Christian speaker then only says things like, “You need to love Jesus more than your entertainment”? That may challenge the rank popular culture idolater. But it does nothing to challenge the person who already truly wants to love Jesus first, and secondly enjoys, say, gaming or anime in time-consuming, fandom-forming ways.
For either group, Christians who only warn against popular culture (when they speak of it at all) simply show they don’t take the topic seriously enough.
In fact, in some ways they are treating the topic of popular culture just as carelessly as the unthinking Christian who’s a TV or video-game junkie.
Christian leaders need to teach about biblical recreation, and about popular culture’s (possibly eternal) purpose in God’s plan
Am I fine with Christians passively consuming entertainment?
Not at all.
Entertainment is never “just entertainment.” The apostle Paul says to take every thought captive,4 and this must include thoughts relating to the stories and human creations we enjoy.
But the Christian leader who challenges popular culture “consumption” needs to say more than, “Popular culture is harmless, but you should love Jesus more than entertainment.”
He needs to show how loving Jesus transforms our view of entertainment—or rather, stories, songs, games, and beyond.
He needs to allow for the fact that some Christians are not passive about these popular works; in fact, we can be very proactive and thoughtful about human stories and songs (in biblical ways or otherwise!).
Christian leaders need to stop using words like “consume.” This makes us imagine some unthinking, careless gorging of one’s self, all alone in a dark living room, complete with fake-cheese snacks and a flickering TV screen. Why not instead try words like “engage,” “take captive,” “redeem,” or even “avoid based on personal scruples” about any particular story/song/game?
He may also try the word recreation—a far more biblical framing than “entertainment.”
Why not frame this topic in a biblical worldview, rather than use the world’s language?
Why not discuss popular culture—human stories and songs—in terms of human creativity being a gift from God? The way some pastors talk, popular culture is some alien (even if “harmless”) thing unrelated to God. But if God gives this gift (of popular culture-creation), then He, not us, defines the terms of how the gift is best used—to glorify Him, to guard against idolatry, and to make sure we get the most joy out of using the gift in the ways He has prescribed.
Why not explore how Jesus has built the work-rest rhythm into the universe, starting right in Genesis 1? Why not consider how stories and songs are part of being human, whether they’re shared around a campfire or enacted on your tablet screen? Why not allow the possibility that Scripture seems to allow—that we will create cultural works in eternity?
I would even go so far as to suggest that if the Christian leader cannot allude to the biblical view of recreation, or articulate this view in his body of work somewhere, he probably ought not talk about culture or popular culture at all.
No, I don’t mean that every Christian ought to become as I am, reviewing novels, movies, and anime, and often hanging out with Christian folks who like doing the same.
But Christian leader, pastor, or teacher: if you can’t show that you know what popular culture is for in the first place, using biblical anthropology, I honestly struggle to listen seriously when you only warn against popular culture.
Just like a Christian leader would shut out a fellow preacher who only warned about misusing God’s word, without teaching how the Bible should bring us joy.
Instead, let’s study the topic from Scripture. Let’s keep in mind God’s purpose for his people to recreate. Then let’s challenge ourselves not to treat popular culture carelessly, but to wrestle with it, in holiness, and engage human stories and songs for Jesus’s sake.
- As of Jan. 20, 2018, this article has been edited to remove an unclear reference to an additional article. The original references could have implied critique by association. ↩
- Similarly, Christians who only ever praise popular culture (sometimes as if art or culture are a kind of “sacrament”) are not thinking biblically about the real evils found in the human creators of stories and songs. Case in point: Christians who don’t take seriously the real threats of Harvey Weinstein-style sexual exploitation and even assault behind the nude scenes in prestige television shows. I explore this at length at Christ and Pop Culture. ↩
- The Nov. 6 Ask Pastor John podcast about entertainment refers in passing to the “passive watching of television,” assuming that this activity is passive rather than thoughtful, active, or done in Christian community. ↩
- 2 Corinthians 2:5; see also Romans 12:1-2. ↩