When Pastors Criticize Popular Culture

Pastors must show they know popular culture’s purpose before they criticize particular stories.
on Aug 24, 2017 · 11 comments

Imagine you’re stopped in public by a concerned-looking activist wearing a suit jacket, who frowns and lifts his hand-drawn sign that says: Proud Member of the Popular Culture.

“There’s something wrong with your church,” he tells you. “It’s bad. They have too many useless programs. Also you’re using the wrong Bible translation. Also your pastor sinned last Sunday by preaching something mean-spirited, and you just sat there in the pew, just smiling and nodding—if you were listening at all. You need to stop listening to those sinful, nasty sermons. Get out of that church! Those people are all hypocrites anyway!”

“What?” you sputter. “I’m sorry, who are you? You don’t know me. You don’t know—”

The activist grimaces, then leans in close to share confidential information. It’s hard to hear him. But he seems to be saying, “Deep down, I kinda think we don’t even need churches. Just come out into the world to do ministry. Do what I do. I’m all about the popular culture.”

With that, he’s off for more spiritual activism, leaving you quite confused and offended.

Who was this person? He looked familiar, and as far as you knew, he supports good causes.

But what did he have to do with you or your church?

For illustrative cases, we’re assuming you’re a Christian. You know Jesus likes to put local churches together to show the world his capital-C Church, which shows the world Himself. You know some churches are terrible. Yours is certainly flawed too.

But who is this guy to blast you and your church like that?

You walk away muttering, “What a jerk. I haven’t heard him say anything about supporting the local bodies of believers, who are part of the future-sacred Bride whom Jesus loves and saves. In fact, I’m sure I heard him say that secretly he doesn’t care about churches at all.”

Now you know how Christian fans may feel when pastors critique popular culture.

Just reverse examples. The parallels aren’t exact, but we can start here:

  • Both churches and popular culture (which is part of human culture) are gifts of God.
  • Both churches and culture are corrupt because corrupt people put them together.
  • Both churches and culture can be redeemed, because Jesus gives common grace in the world and special grace to save human beings.
  • And both are often criticized, rightly and wrongly, by people who mess up their critiques. They haven’t tried to make sure you know first that they have studied the biblical purpose of the gift, and appreciate what that purpose is, and based on this can show you how a church or story doesn’t match the original, biblical purpose.

In this case, I’m thinking of a popular pastor/author/blogger, Kevin DeYoung, who has been going after the Game of Thrones TV series because Game of Thrones has porn in it.

Game of ThronesNow, what he says is technically correct. Many Christians are ignoring the lust-inducing moments of Game of Thrones, which by all accurate accounts feature blatant nudity and graphic scenes of sex and even rape. (Even non-Christians condemn the series for these moments.) Moreover, these scenes don’t only endanger Christian viewers, who are called to purity and to shun any lust whatsoever. These scenes also endanger the souls of their own human actors. They often face the bounded choice like, “for this scene, take off your clothes, or else your acting career won’t take off”—and violate their own consciences to do it.

DeYoung doesn’t cover all that. Sure, we can hardly expect any one person to write a book every time he critiques a popular story, especially given the limitations of one blog article.

However, when DeYoung and other solid, loving, well-meaning pastors critique popular culture, it makes sense when some Christians blanch and feel personally attacked.


Because even if you’ve heard about and trusted this pastor, you haven’t seen or heard him say anything constructive about popular culture (to say nothing of this particular story).

The pastor usually hasn’t written a book or even short article, to indicate that he knows or appreciates the purpose of popular culture in God’s plan of creation and redemption.

The pastor hasn’t shown that he can watch this show—or at least take what he’s accurately heard of it—and compare it, not just with the Christian’s call to holiness,1 but with our call to make culture and stories in the first place.

And in fact, the pastor honestly reinforces your suspicion that if he took a lie detector test and was asked, “Do you think we ought to have popular culture at all?”, he would honestly answer, “No. I think it’s all wasted time. So it really makes no sense for me to imply I only critique particular stories, when in fact I could do without any popular story at all.”

A better Game of Thrones critique would show respect for popular culture as, for lack of better term, an “institution.” Popular culture comes from human culture-making, which God Himself told humans to do in Genesis 1:28.2 So as basic as this may seem, a pastor cannot simply assume that he, and his audience, shares a common view of what human culture—with popular culture like Game of Thrones—is meant to do in the first place. We must build that foundation first. Even in little ways. Even in blog articles and comments and conversations.

Of course, some pastors legitimately don’t have time for this kind of ministry.3

In that case, I’d honestly suggest they need to do this, because human culture is part of their mission to apply the Gospel to every area of life, not just the familiar churchy topics.

But if they’re not comfortable in this work, they’d best outsource it to Christians who can.

Pastors, please don’t step out to critique popular culture, or a popular story, if you can’t also do the heavier lifting and explore the original good purpose of human culture. If you can’t do both, do neither. Leave that to the Christian non-pastors who do this sort of thing. You need them and they need you for the Church’s purpose: using our gifts together to tell and show Jesus’s redemption of people and then of the whole world, including its cultures.

  1. In all this, we should not neglect this divine call. In this case, some of DeYoung’s critics do not show they have studied and appreciate God’s call to holiness. They seem only to want to defend their choice on other grounds.
  2. “The cultural mandate is the command to exercise dominion over the earth, subdue it, and develop its latent potential (Gen. 1:26-28; cf. Gen 2:15). God calls all humans, as those made in his image, to fill the earth with his glory through creating what we commonly call culture.” See “What is the cultural mandate? Who is it given to?” from 9Marks.org.
  3. Often I wonder how busy pastors make time for blogging and book-authoring. That’s crazy dedication, and yet it’s a bonus service that the body of Christ so desperately needs.
E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of Lorehaven.com and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. Julie D says:

    I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that you have to have love a thing (or loved it once) if you are to warn against it. Otherwise it’s like misers warning against overspending. And I see this guideline violated all the time in Christian critiques of scifi/geekdom. Otherwise, you end up warning people against things for the very reasons people are drawn to them.
    A really stupid example: A vegan is saying, “Don’t go to Texas Roadhouse, they serve lots and lots of meat”
    And someone else goes “Duh, that’s why I go there!”

    • Ah yes, one of my favorite Lewis quotes. Here it is: “Many reviews are useless because, while purporting to condemn the book, they only reveal the reviewer’s dislike of the kind to which it belongs. Let bad tragedies be censured by those who love tragedy, and bad detective stories by those who love the detective story. Then we shall learn their real faults. Otherwise we shall find epics blamed for not being novels, farces for not being high comedies… Who wants to hear a particular claret abused by a fanatical teetotaler, or a particular woman by a confirmed misogynist?”

    • I wish I’d used this quote.

      On a less meaningful note, this quote also explains some of the harsher reviews of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

    • Travis Perry says:

      I suppose then when I warn about the dangers of Speculative Fiction (which I do at times, because I think unhealthy messages are not uncommon and we need to confront them) I would then qualify as being able to speak about this topic, according to Lewis. Because I do love Speculative Fiction.

    • Jennifer Busick says:

      That was my first thought — I just read that essay. It’s in a wonderful book of Lewis’s essays, On Science Fiction, that I’m using in a class I’m teaching right now.

  2. Travis Perry says:

    Stephen, I don’t know if the call to redeem culture is something I actually agree with…I mean, sure, we should attempt to do that, but I think the view of the New Testament is that the world is an ally of Satan and that we will never entirely be at home in the world (John 16:33–in the world you will have tribulation, etc). In other words, I do not agree culture is entirely redeemable.

    But even if I did agree that a command to redeem culture exists, I am not sure how that would effect pastors. When they speak out against what they perceive to be sin, who is supposed to do that then, if not pastors? I mean, let’s say I as a pastor am concerned about something illegal, like illegal drug abuse. Do I really have to participate in it to condemn it? Obviously not, right? Nobody would think that about drug abuse–though a pastor who had been a former drug addict would obviously have a lot more authority on the topic than one who had never touched drugs.

    So…I don’t know. Yeah…I see the point of this post to a degree and would agree it is far too easy to attack something you don’t have any interest in yourself. But shouldn’t pastors at least attempt to provide moral guidance even on topics they are not particularly engaged in personally? Isn’t that their job? I mean, at least partially?

    • Previously, I might have agreed with Christians who say, “yes, we need to redeem culture, and that’s part of the Gospel mission in the world.” Now I’m not so sure, and this is not just because of the reasons you gave, but because of a few others.

      First, though Christians disagree on how much power Satan has, this world is still corrupt. Jesus is invading to take back His creation, but that’s not done yet.

      Second, God has not surrendered His original idea of culture-making and things like being fruitful and multiplying over the earth. In fact, I would put both family-having and culture-making (which includes popular culture) in the same category, because God commands them both in the single passage of Genesis 1:26-28. Thus, we should still try to marry, have children, and spread our families. We should also still try to uphold the cultural mandate in our world. But we’re going to be limited because this world is still groaning under the travails of sin and suffering.

      Third, it’s Jesus who will redeem His creation and thus human culture-making. But that’s future, with only some hints of it in the present. So I believe creation and culture will be redeemed–but not by us. We can only hint at what His future redemption will be like, as we’re proclaiming and living out the Gospel.

      As for what this means for pastors, I don’t mean to say that I think they need to watch a particular show, or even (technically) to participate in fandoms or even popular culture altogether. But: they must know the biblical purpose of what they’re talking about, in this case, the biblical purpose of human culture-making (which includes popular culture). And they must do something to demonstrate that they’ve actually given this some thought. E.g., Christian leaders need to try to show our work, without just giving the same answers people have already heard without support (and leaving an opening for people to assume pastors secretly dislike anything that isn’t a sermon or other churchy thing anyway).

      But after that–and in response to Audie‘s comment as well–I think pastors ought to condemn Game of Thrones. Because it does have porn in it. And for most of the population, porn causes people to sin (and it did already cause the producers and actors and editors and artists to sin).

  3. Audie says:

    I’m not sure I understand what this article is meant to say. Let me try to explain why.

    There is a certain argumentative tactic that is far too often used. I’m not sure if it has a name or label, but a good example of it would be, “You’re a man, you can’t have an opinion about abortion or what a woman can do with her body, because those issues don’t affect you!”

    In reading this article, it simply seems like a similar argument is being made, and I hope I’m misunderstanding whatever the point may be. But the point seems to be that, even if Mr. DeYoung is right in what he has said bout GoT, he is somehow disqualified from saying it because he has not checked off certain previously unknown qualifications. He has not, for example, given us his view of pop culture as a whole, he has not shown whatever we might consider proper respect for pop culture to be, or whatever other unvoiced boxes we think someone must check off in order to be qualified in our minds to have a valid opinion.

    But how is this a valid argument against DeYoung, or anyone else?

    I have not watched an episode of GoT, and have little desire to, though I did read the first book in the series a few years ago. But I do remember the time some friends I had a few years ago showed me the first episode of TruBlood. I found it something I had no desire to see even that one time, let alone again, or to continue the series, and one reason was because it had at least one fairly graphic sex scene in it.

    If GoT is as bad or worse than TruBlood, then I am grateful that someone like DeYoung is warning against it. The truth of what he says is not decreased or increased if he likes or doesn’t like fantasy literature, dragons, or anything else only marginally important to the topic of GoT.

    • In short I agree with DeYoung’s conclusions. By all accurate accounts, “Game of Thrones” has porn in it. So almost no one should be watching that stuff.

      So DeYoung is right. So are other Christian leaders who condemn this series.

      Where I disagree is that they have not shown their work. It’s not that they have not proved they are fantasy geeks, or proved they’ve seen “Game of Thrones” or read the books. It’s that they’ve not shown any interest in exploring what popular culture is meant to do in the first place. They just assume we all know (or assume that we’ll share some of their assumptions that it’s all a waste of time and eternally insignificant anyway).

      Then, no wonder people start getting irritated and defensive (even about their wrong choices). Then people start saying things like “nudity is okay if it drives the story” or “but it’s Art and All That,” and the pastor/Christian leader does not even try to follow people onto that ground. Thus the rebuttal stands, and repeating the same (truthful) claim that God calls us to holiness doesn’t go anywhere. Here, the Christian leader, if he broaches the topic at all, must do his homework. He must show that he understands the purpose of culture, which includes art and stories, and can therefore say “no, the story jolly well does not require nudity,” or “this over here is the purpose of art and culture in God’s scheme of things, not man’s, and now that we’ve summarized this, how do other assumptions compare?”

      • Sorry man, I don’t agree that it’s necessary to show that. As much as I wish every pastor DID understand the point of art, and worked to lift artists up in their work, I just don’t believe it’s necessary, nor do I believe it’s how God’s called us to behave.

        I don’t believe everyone who is called to tear down the wrongful use of art is also called to promote art. What matters is that they’re tearing down what actually needs to be torn down.

        Sometimes you hire a demo crew to tear the house down, then another team to build it back up.

    • Galadriel says:

      Stephen says this much better than I–no, I don’t have to be a drunkard to warn about alcoholism, but my warnings won’t be as strong or accurate as someone who has struggled with it.

What do you think?