Thanks for clarifying, Dan. Firstly, the fact that we inhabit a fallen world makes “questionable content” unavoidable. From billboards to magazine racks in grocery stores, we’re inundated with competing visions of salvation and the good life. In Desiring the Kingdom , James K. A. Smith offers an “apocalyptic reading” of a shopping mall by unmasking its ingenious strategies to claim your affections.
Given this complex state of affairs, I adopt John Milton’s argument from “Areopagitica”—his famous speech against censorship: Since we live in a world containing an abundance of good and evil, true virtue consists in choosing good over evil. It’s in this sense that Milton distinguishes virtue from innocence. Whereas the virtuous person chooses good in spite of evil, the innocent one is simply ignorant of the evil in question. Imagine someone blissfully unaware of pornography. We might envy their innocence in the matter, but we wouldn’t call it virtue. Conversely, the person who freely chooses to avoid pornography we would call virtuous.
With regard to pop culture, I think the aim should be to cultivate discernment, rather than fear, suspicion, and ignorance. By no means am I recommending unfettered indulgence. Pop culture is tremendously seductive and we’re being naïve if we think we’re beyond temptation. With that said, I think Paul’s admonition in Romans 13 is very helpful here:
13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.[a] 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.[b]
True, Paul is talking specifically about alcohol and meat sacrificed to idols, but there’s a broader application: 1) Does the artifact/practice/ritual trouble my conscience? 2) Does it trouble someone else’s? In this sense, my work at Christ & Pop Culture occasionally causes me some anxiety because I interact with some challenging works. My own conscience is untroubled, but some of my readers may feel conflicted. For this reason, I try to make it clear that a positive review is not necessarily an endorsement of the views on display in a given film, show, or piece of music. I also try to do the important work of distinguishing the good from the bad, of looking at artifacts that are worth our time.
As an apologist, I’m also interested in what’s captured the popular imagination because I believe that it grants us significant insights into the deeply embedded assumptions of our culture. I take my inspiration from Paul’s references to Pagan poets in Acts 17. In sum, I think “objectionable material” is unavoidable, so I think we need to 1) cultivate virtue and discernment (distinguishing the good from the bad) in our cultural engagement 2) avoid violating our conscience 3) do our very best to avoid violating the consciences of others.