I’m curious about your writing for Christ and Pop Culture. Can’t it reflect poorly on Christians to watch/read/listen to something with more than a PG rating? Or have they started Godly conversations with unsaved people a lot?
Before I give a full response, I’m curious about the phrasing of your question: Since it obviously includes questionable content, wouldn’t a PG rating potentially reflect poorly on Christians? For that matter, aren’t there plenty of G-rated films that include content Christians might find objectionable?
@Cameron_McAllister that’s true! I guess how do you justify exposing yourself to content Christians might find objectionable?
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.
Can you explain this more?
In other words, we have different thresholds. Speaking personally, I can watch a movie like Hereditary with a clear conscience; others can’t. Consequently, I try to make it clear that there are ample reasons to avoid the film, but I also try to do the careful work of discerning the good from the bad: In this particular case, the film might traffic in darkness and violence, but its uncompromising picture of evil makes it clear that evil is all too real and that it demands a serious response. I think this is a refreshing challenge to the mindless nihilism on display in most sitcoms (New Girl, Parks & Rec, etc.) and comedies (“Reality” shows also come to mind), which feature immoral behavior that meets with minimal or no consequences. Does that help?
It does help! I’m also curious here though:
We know Parks and Rec and films like Spider-Man exist and isn’t that enough to not choose those (if your conscience is bothered by them)? Like you don’t need to drink beer until drunk in order to choose not to drink. I don’t think that person is more virtuous.
(I’m not trying to argue but want to cover this too.)
It’s a great follow-up question. Let me introduce a quick distinction: There’s a list of practices/behaviors/habits/artifacts that scripture clearly prohibits. One of those behaviors is drunkenness, so we’ve got clear protocol there. Likewise, though idolatry is rampant and frequently subtle, there are very obvious forms of it that Christianity precludes, even if we have noble motives. If I want to reach my Wiccan neighbors, I definitely shouldn’t practice witchcraft to better empathize with them. Examples could easily be multiplied, but you get the point.
But your deeper question seems to be, “Does empathy or reasonable understanding require a high or full degree of identification?” Clearly, full identification with a practice/habit/behavior/artifact/institution is not necessary, but if I want to reach my Wiccan neighbor (who is real, btw), I probably need to do some research into dark territory. You can understand a Wiccan without being a Wiccan, but you probably won’t get too far with zero knowledge of their assumptions. Again, the Apostle Paul demonstrated a stunning proficiency in the surrounding pagan culture. If we proceed with wisdom and discernment, I don’t see why we can’t do the same.
What about movies and narrative art? Do you need to watch them to understand them? (Sidenote: these forms of media require passive, rather than active participation. To continue with the witch theme, reading or watching witches is very different from actually participating in their rituals and ceremonies.) Technically speaking, you can gain a rudimentary understanding of a narrative without “reading” it. It’s roughly the difference between Cliff’s Notes and the actual book, or a movie and its Wikipedia summary. You’ve got the basics, but your understanding is piecemeal. After multiple requests from parents and teenagers, I finally decided to watch the first season of 13 Reasons Why . Would I recommend it to everyone? Absolutely not. Did my actual viewing grant me deeper insights than a mere plot summary? Yes. It was a painful watch, but it helped me help others, which made it a worthwhile use of my time.
And here’s a quick pet peeve from the critic in me: Christians have a habit of simply mining art for information/worldview/philosophy. This habit essentially reduces all works of art to nothing more than propaganda. Movies, for instance, communicate mainly through images, which is why “ideas,” "worldview, and “plot” only scratch the surface of what they’re communicating. Texts use very distinct and carefully crafted language to offer up a vision. This vision is maimed and distorted if it’s reduced to nothing more than a “message” or discreet set of ideas. End rant.