Uncritical Cultural Awareness Becomes Spiritual Pollution

I admit that my last post was pretty scathingly satirical.  For those who didn’t read it or maybe misunderstood that I was being serious (though I don’t see how), I basically ridiculed the phenomenon of women in our culture, some of them gung-ho for feminism or some of them Christians, dancing and rapping joyously to songs that demean and objectify them.  If they’re ok with that, I sarcastically reasoned, then surely they are okay with being told to stay in the kitchen, make sandwiches, and wash the dishes as long as it is packaged with a catchy beat or tune.  Obviously, most women in our culture would bristle at such lyrics if someone wrote them, but the pertinent question would then be:  Why are you okay with rappers or other artists describing you as merely an object for sexual pleasure?  I’ve actually asked several girls this and nobody has given me much of an answer, either looking sheepish or annoyed that I brought it up.

I understand that most people do not think that hard about the lyrics of the songs they listen to, and many of them don’t even know what the lyrics are.  They like the beat and they enjoy dancing or bobbing their heads to it, and that’s it.  In fact, during one Sunday School lesson, I handed out lyrics from some popular pop or rap songs and had the students parse them (I edited the lyrics if they were too bad), and while it was a fun exercise, it also showed how most people simply do not think about doing that to songs.  I would argue that that’s not a wise approach to engaging music.  Studies on music have shown that music has a unique effect on our minds, triggering certain emotions, thoughts, and memories.  This is why, sometimes, we can’t think of lyrics to a song, but when the song comes on, we instantly remember the lyrics and can sing along.  You may not be consciously thinking of the lyrics, but they’re embedding themselves in your brain.

Many Christians argue that we should be culturally aware so that we can better reach the world for the Gospel.  After all, they ask, how can we expect to meet people where they are if we don’t know anything about the culture?  I generally agree.  There is scriptural precedent for cultural awareness and participation; for example, Paul was knowledgeable of Greek philosophy and was thus able to converse with philosophers and point them to God, showing them that they already had some vague awareness that God existed (famous sermon at Mars Hill in Acts 17).  Also, in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Paul shows he is willing to accommodate many cultural and religious practices of Judaism in order to win people for the Gospel.  Scripture does not prescribe hiding in a bubble away from everything else.

That being said, Scripture also warns against being corrupted by the world and makes it very clear that the ways of the world are opposed to the ways of God:

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.- 1 John 2:15-17

“World” in John’s works can sometimes mean everyone on the planet (like in John 3:16), but it can also mean the sinful patterns or structures of the world.  Here, it clearly means the patterns of the world because the passage contrasts them with the ways of God.  What does the world glorify?  The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.  Essentially, the world glorifies materialism, sexual licentiousness, greed, self-gratification, the deity of self, etc.  And the world boasts about all such things.  These things do not come from God, and in fact, loving such things shows that we are not loving God as we should (the NIV here does a good job making this an objective genitive, “love for God,” but that’s for seminary nerds).  These things are not only sinful, they are temporary and useless, but those who follow God will live forever.

Paul himself clearly does not give an unqualified pass to do anything we darn please without thought:

 17 So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn Christ in this way, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. – Eph 4:17-24

If we are saved, then we should put aside the deeds of darkness, and we can’t walk as unbelievers do. Doing so is going back to corrupting influences that WILL have an effect on us.

To be fair, this is not just about Christians listening to certain songs and dancing at night clubs.  It’s about everything:  Movies, TV shows, video games, sports culture, business culture, secular philosophy, etc.  How can Christians responsibly participate in the culture, be culturally aware, and enjoy certain things in the culture without being ensnared by sin?  I think it takes a couple of intentional acts:

1.  Have an active filter.  The key word is “active.”  You are intentionally and critically thinking about what you are watching, listening to, or reading, and you are clearly differentiating what is sinful and what is not and what is real and what is not.  For most people, it’s easy to filter out that shooting zombies in a video game is not real and they don’t all of a sudden have an urge to shoot a real person.  Not all filtering is that easy, however, and we should be critically examining what the culture puts forth.  What should our filters be made of?  Our knowledge of the Word of God, prayer, and input from other believers.

2.  Have a very honest assessment of the effectiveness of your own filter, and get others to hold you accountable as well.  Let’s be honest here, we all tend to think that we’re stronger than we are.  It takes a great deal of humility and maturity to know what we can and can’t handle.  For some people, seeing certain movies or TV shows will make their sex drive go nuts, so for them, they need to be honest with themselves and avoid those things.  For some others, they can’t control themselves around alcohol and/or at a club, so they should avoid those situations as well.  Others can’t play video games without getting sucked into gaming culture and wasting away hours and hours of the day, so they probably should avoid that.  However, everyone should know that there are limits.  Even if you think you have the best filter ever and have the entire Bible memorized, know that any filter will get clogged up and fail if you just put junk into it all the time.

Am I telling Christians that, universally, they should never listen to a certain rap song or watch certain rated R movies?  No; I’m saying that Christians should aim to be culturally aware within scriptural bounds, within their own capabilities, and with full awareness and critical thought of what they’re taking in.  If you’re not doing that, you’re not being culturally aware for the spreading of the Gospel.  You’re simply being very unaware of how the culture is influencing and ultimately corrupting you, and that is nothing to brag about in the name of spiritual freedom because that just shows immaturity.  Unthinking participation eventually leads to spiritual pollution.


One thought on “Uncritical Cultural Awareness Becomes Spiritual Pollution

  1. Pingback: Macklemore’s “Same Love”: It’s Not the Same to God | leesomniac

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