UBC Life

← back to list

The Language of Pop Culture

Posted by Steve Laufer on

In 1951 Christian ethics professor H. Richard Niebuhr wrote what is considered to be the classic exploration of how Christians should go about engaging the culture around them in their attempts to live the Christian life and accomplish the work of the church. The book, entitled Christ & Culture, offers five possible paradigms for answering the question, with "Christ against culture" and "Christ of culture" at opposite extremes of rejection and acceptance, respectively, and three median paradigms designated "Christ above culture," "Christ and culture in paradox," and "Christ transforming culture" in between. The book is not an easy read but it is definitely a thought-provoking one. In it Niebuhr writes in a systematic fashion about the many varied ways that Christians and their churches choose to react to American culture in general, which, for my purposes, speaks to how they react to American pop culture more specifically.

For me personally I find the median positions to be more satisfying. While I understand the position of separation from secular culture (in as much as one can do so), my fear is that it removes the church too far from the world it is trying to reach, rendering it unable to fully accomplish its mission. Yet, the "full acceptance of culture" position fails to recognize that the followers of Christ are supposed to be different in some very visible ways from the world around them. In as much as cultures are representations of who we are as communities, they almost always contain qualities that represent the very best in us ("image of God" type characteristics), as well as qualities that represent the very worst in us (that "fallen nature" sort of thing). So my preferred position on culture is to engage it somewhere in the middle, celebrating its high points while limiting its influence in my life at its low points, all the while trying to help move it along in more positive directions.

Ever since I was a kid I have always loved stories. I really love good stories, but I'll tolerate just about any story that keeps my attention. Pop culture in America is predominantly about telling stories, in books, film, television, video games, music, etc. And whether the stories are fiction (i.e. Sherlock Holmes), nonfiction (i.e. Duck Dynasty [maybe]), or somewhere in between (i.e. Spielberg's Lincoln film), they all tell stories about us, about who we are as a people, how we think, why we do the things we do. And in each category, for those who look carefully, those stories overlap with the stories we are living within the Christian life. How do we leave a legacy on our world? How do we differentiate good from evil? How do we maintain healthy relationships? What kinds of things lead to happiness? How did we get here and what are we supposed to be doing?

Recognizing fully that all people of faith will set their own boundaries on their interaction with pop culture (as, per their own convictions, they should), we hope to be a people engaging the stories that our culture is reading, watching, and playing, and then drawing out from them the elements of truth about God and life. In that sense, we are then able to speak the language of pop culture with those who see God and faith differently, and hopefully move together with them along the path of discovering truth.

As food for thought, what are some instances where you have come face to face with spiritual truths in the midst of a pop culture medium? Or, how do you go about setting appropriate boundaries in your interaction with the same?



to leave comment