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.)
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!” 🙂