The Poison Pill Of Culture

The way culture works is opposed to the way God works, the way Jesus works, and might fairly be considered a poison pill.
on Jul 22, 2019 · 9 comments

Considering Travis Perry’s article last week (“Licking the Chocolate Off Poison Pills: A Comment on Cultural Engagement”), I suppose the obvious first question to ask is this: is culture really a poison pill? I mean, God quite purposefully left Christians in the world (John 17:18). He did also say that said culture would hate Christians (John 17:14) and that we are not to be of the world (John 17:16).

Of course, I’m interpreting “world” as “culture.” I’ve heard some scholars refer to it as the system of the world. Kind of like, the way the world operates.

Clearly, from what Jesus said in John, the way the world works is opposed to the way God works, the way Jesus works, and might fairly be considered a poison pill. So today the world preaches (yes, preaches) that we are all good and have this unlimited potential in us, that all we need to do is look within to find it. God says something quite different: we all have a sin nature and need to look to the cross; that when we are weak, then we are strong.

The world also says the one who carries out revenge is the hero, whereas God says, the one who forgives and loves the enemy is the hero.

Another current “truth” the world is currently preaching is that there is no truth. Nothing set in stone. All relative, flexible, contingent. God, on the other hand, specifies that His word is truth, even that Jesus is truth. And that truth is fixed in Heaven. So, truth according to God is not pliable. Not malleable, not subject to our indigestion brought on by a bit of cheese or the feelings we have today that we didn’t have yesterday.

There are so many others: attitudes about sexual promiscuity, pride, greed, lying, gossip, sexual identity, other gods beside the One True God, etc.

So, if there is so much poison in the world, how can a Christian engage culture and not be killed by it? Is the only way to survive to divorce ourselves from anything that could potentially harm us? Or our kids? Our families?

That approach doesn’t seem to explain why Jesus left us in the world instead of taking us out. It almost seems to say, God was wrong about leaving us here because it’s just too dangerous, so we’ll do what He didn’t: we’ll take ourselves out of the world as much as possible.

Not only is it contradictory to what God intended, including the commission He gave believers (Matt 28:19-20), but it doesn’t work. The real problem we are faced with is the sin in our own hearts. That’s why Jesus chastised the Pharisees for cleaning the outside of the cup without cleaning the inside. His answer was not to build a shield around the cup to keep away people with dirty hands or even with evil intentions. His solution was to first clean the inside of the cup.

Key word: first. Matthew 23:26 makes the clear statement that the way to clean the outside is to clean the inside first.

As I see things, the way to engage culture is with clean hands and a pure heart. These we find in God’s word, by cultivating a relationship with Him. Not by keeping a list of songs we won’t sing or TV programs we won’t watch, computer games we won’t play, books we won’t read, etc. In other words, we don’t get clean hands and we don’t carry out the charge Jesus gave us to go into all the world to make disciples, by engaging only part of culture.

What may seem contradictory is that I believe Travis is right: culture that “pushes the envelop,” that walks the edge of propriety, actually normalizes that behavior. I’ve seen this first hand with the issue of homosexuality (I guess because I’ve lived long enough to see our culture do a flip-flop on this subject). My mom, who graduated from college the same year my brother graduated from high school, way back in the 1960s, had a psych textbook that listed homosexuality as deviant behavior (among other inappropriate behaviors). I watched as our culture introduced homosexual jokes into society, then funny but likeable homosexual characters, and ultimately homosexual scenes on TV. All the while our government has passed law after law that gradually aimed, not only at permitting homosexual behavior but at supporting and encouraging its acceptance and practice. Now, here in California, legislators are trying to push through a law prohibiting professional counselors from engaging people who want help with same sex attraction by using strategies designed to help them choose heterosexuality instead.

What does that mean for writers and readers? Do we keep away from cultures poison pills, or do we sue the pharmacies? Or do we clean our own cups instead?

I believe Travis was actually saying is that there isn’t a one-way-to-engage-culture rule, unless it’s this: “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” (Travis Perry).

Refuse to engage in areas that are problems for us! Because it’s my problem, doesn’t mean no one else should therefore engage. Because it is not your problem, doesn’t mean I’m supposed to engage.

But what about the normalization process? I guess I’d add another layer of discernment or awareness: what things might be problems for the culture, for society at large? For instance, was the violence in Schindler’s List an encouragement of mass murder? I don’t see how. Was the promiscuity on display in Mash an undermining of monogamous marriage? I think it was. Was Harry Potter normalizing witchery? Not in the least.

So we can make choices, which must be informed choices. Nevertheless, the real first step is that “cleaning the inside of the cup” Jesus spoke of. In a discussion that includes “friendship with the world,” the epistle of James says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:8) Note, he didn’t say, Stand up to the world. Go to war against the world. Yes, resist Satan (James 4:7), but the focus is clearly on each Christian being in relation with God and in obedience to Him.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.
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  1. Yeah. There’s an absolute truth/reality/ etc in the way the universe exists and how God made things. It’s our INTERPRETATION of it that’s subjective. That’s why the ‘follow your heart’ idea in some Disney movies is nonsense. Yes, instinct and emotion can help in making decisions, and using our conscience is important. But, in a lot of cases, Disney didn’t really do a good job of showing how to use those things correctly. Instead, it sort of came off as ‘go wherever your emotions lead you, and it’ll be the right thing!’

    The hard thing about culture is that it isn’t all one simple thing. There are probably hundreds of cultures and subcultures in the United States alone. And everyone engages with their cultures differently. So, I dunno, I guess that’s just more points toward your last paragraph.

    • Exactly, Autumn. What one culture thinks is wrong, another one may think is OK or even right. Only when we’re in proper relationship with God can we see what the world system is. Reminds me of Don Richardson’s Peace Child. Do you know that true story?


      • Maybe I’ve heard the story, but the title doesn’t sound familiar to me and I’ve never read it. What’s it about?

        • Don and his wife were missionaries to a tribe—in South America, I think, or maybe Indonesia (I’ll have to look that up). When they’d learned the language and began sharing about Jesus, this group of head-hunters cheered Judas because in their culture, betrayal was a virtue. Just the opposite value from what western culture holds. But, the Richardsons soon discovered that there was a value higher than betrayal: a peace child. If an enemy tribe wanted peace with a neighboring enemy, the chief would give his son to the other tribe’s chief, to raise as his own. That insured they would never attack that village because his son now lived there. From that cultural value, Don taught that God had sent His Peace Child to make peace with the world.


  2. Sarah Daffy says:

    Hi, Rebecca! Just had a quick question. When is the 2019 Spec Faith Summer Writing Challenge? Thanks!

  3. Travis Perry says:

    Rebecca, thanks for your post continuing what I had to say.

    Though I think you started right off by asking a question I never asked and framing the issue in a way I never actually intended or in fact implied. You said: “I suppose the obvious first question to ask is this: is culture really a poison pill?”

    I never said culture broadly is a poison pill–I said certain elements of culture can be poison pills but not all are. (E.g. I said not every 80s song is like Jessie’s Girl, said that we should go through a sorting process–meaning some things are not poisonous, etc.)

    Yes, you quite correctly identified that I directly said that what is or is not poison is at least to a degree per individual–what may be poison to you may not be poison to me, and vice versa.

    Yes, I also quite agree that Christians need a strong personal relationship with God in order to truly deal with those issues that can be problems for us. And also, as I stated and you agreed, as individuals each one of us is responsible for our own issues–no one else should be in the role of playing our conscience, even if other people can give us helpful reminders or warnings. No one other than the Holy Spirit, that is.

    I also appreciate you mentioning how exposure to Schindler’s List is not a exhortation to mass murder…but I never in fact would have implied it was. Showing mass murder in a way that is painful or tragic does not encourage mass murder or desensitize anyone to it. Normalization does not go out of its way to demonstrate something is awful, not usually anyway.

    Thinking that I was referring to all and any portrayal of sin as desensitizing would actually be a mischaracterization of my point. A pretty extreme mischaracterization, so thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify.

    Note also that desensitization towards sin I only meant to be an example of how something in culture might be a “poison pill,” a launching point to get into the topic. I have no objections to Kristin Janz saying that she finds herself more tempted to look down on the lost world with contempt than adopt the things they do. Yes, I can understand that is her type of poison–but I already stated that not everyone necessarily has the same poisons.

    Desensitization (a.k.a. normalization) was not the only thing I cared about–it was only one (strong) example to illustrate that certain elements of culture can be damaging to us. Though as you noted yourself, desensitization has been a major tool used in arts and culture to transform our society’s views of many things, including homosexuality.

    But, as you also noted, I clearly and repeatedly said it’s up to *us* (and yes, the Holy Spirit) to find our own triggers and avoid them if we need to avoid them. If I had meant to say all exposure to sin is desensitizing and therefore we should avoid all examples, where would that be allowing for any individual choice or conscience?

    So clearly, that is NOT what I meant.

    Again, thanks for your comments and the opportunity you gave me to clarify a few things.

  4. Travis Perry says:

    Rebecca, just one more thing. You said:

    “Is the only way to survive to divorce ourselves from anything that could potentially harm us? Or our kids? Our families?

    That approach doesn’t seem to explain why Jesus left us in the world instead of taking us out. It almost seems to say, God was wrong about leaving us here because it’s just too dangerous, so we’ll do what He didn’t: we’ll take ourselves out of the world as much as possible.”

    With respect, you have no right to tell another person acting on his or her conscience what is realistic for them to do or not do in the world. You of course are entitled to your opinion and to speak it–but individual Christians guided by the Holy Spirit have to decide what is and is not too much for each individual. If someone says, “I would be better off never watching television, ever” (as just one example of many possible types of cultural disengagement) it is not up to us to condemn that person for that choice.

    The spirit we wish to cultivate is to encourage individuals to be sensitive to their own triggers in relation to culture and thus neither to condemn those who engage in what I (or you, or someone else) can’t engage in nor to condemn those who abstain from what I (or you, or someone else) enjoys.

    • I totally agree, Travis. I don’t think what you’re saying is the same thing as what I’m talking about when I say “divorcing ourselves” from dangerous things, but I wasn’t clear. I do think we should have standards for our lives and our conduct, in some measure as a protection. I don’t (generally) watch R-rated movies. But that’s not a hard and fast “rule” because there are some R-rated movies that can inform in a necessary way (like Shindler’s List).

      Back when I was in college, before I had thought through my movie-going standards, I saw some pretty bad films. Some I’m glad I saw because they revealed culture in an informative way, and not in a way that approved of the wickedness. Exposed it, yes. Did not give any satisfactory answer to the problems, but exposed the evil. Others seemed to revel in the evil, and, in fact, normalize it.

      In part I had in mind people who warned others away from Harry Potter because it was about “witchcraft.” Well, actually it wasn’t. It was about a pretend magic world, but without a willingness to engage the culture, a Christian would not see ways to use that story to connect with others for the sake of the gospel.

      Interestingly, I just heard a message today on Truth for Life with Alistair Begg, about this same topic. Well worth listening to, I think. (He includes a great example). Here’s the description of the 24 minute message: “How should Christians think through issues of social justice? Should we be involved in cultural and political matters?”


What do you think?