COMMENTARY | Nick Rynerson
“Pop culture” is often treated like a dirty word in the church—thought to consist of mostly irredeemable entertainment produced to make money off the masses. A common approach is to avoid secular music, films, art, and television, or at least to not admit to consuming it all that much.
But that isn’t often what our real lives look like. Most of us are at least closet pop culture consumers—we indulge in one or two sitcoms, a favorite secular radio station, or a superhero movie every now and then.
And maybe that’s okay.
Popular culture is not the enemy; first and foremost, pop culture is a place for storytellers to, well, tell stories. Moral discretion is important. (And biblical! See 1 Corinthians 8:7-9.) But we miss a wealth of spiritual and theological depth if we chalk up all entertainment created by non-Christians as irredeemable and misguided; we also miss out on the opportunity to identify and empathize from a distinctly Christian perspective (Acts 17:28).
Stories offer us insights into our culture’s longings, revealing God’s truth in the world around us. In his excellent book “The Stories We Tell,” Kentucky pastor Mike Cosper reminds us that a story is never just a story—it’s a window into our culture’s imagination and longings (see Romans 2:12-15).
“Storytelling—be it literature, theater, opera, film, or reality TV—doesn’t aim at our rational mind . . . It aims at the imagination, a much more mysterious and sneaky part of us, ruled by love, desire, and hope,” Cosper writes. “When people, against their better judgment, find themselves hooked on a show, we can trace the line back to find the hook in their imagination.”
Stories, according to Cosper, can reveal much more about a person, people group, or culture than a strictly informative presentation or a list of facts. Stories communicate what people truly desire.
Take, for example, a certain Best Picture nominee from last year. The movie contains some strong language, an ambiguous ending, and other elements that might lead some Christians to believe that it has nothing to offer spiritually (and for some to wisely not engage the film). However, if we look closer, we can clearly see some distinct things the storytellers—the director, writer, characters, etc.—believe about God, life, and themselves.
Without spoiling the film, which centers on the relationship between a talented young jazz drummer and his demanding/abusive instructor, the characters have a very human desire: to be great. The devotion of the characters to the pursuit of greatness, and its sway over their future happiness, is deeply identifiable. Like the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, the characters sacrifice their life for the pursuit of self-glory, predictably leaving themselves and others miserable.
Ever since the Fall, man has been trying to claw his way back to perfection. Everybody longs for his or her flaws to be taken away, and many of us think that if we just work hard enough, we will reach the promised land of perfection.
As Christians, we know this is vanity (Romans 3:23), but the characters in the film sacrifice their lives and their sanity to meet every iota of their own personal law. This pursuit is hardwired into us and until we find personal and entire perfection in Christ, we will always fall short.
That’s serious, biblical truth, communicated (probably unknowingly) in a 2-hour movie produced with a secular audience in mind. The next time a movie, song, or TV show comes on that you are tempted to write off as irredeemable, consider if it might have something to teach us about God, the creator of all things.
In Acts 17:22-27, Paul not only quotes Greek poetry, but also alludes to the radical truth that we’re put where we were (i.e., in our cultural context) to speak eternal truth into subjective cultural contexts. In his book, Cosper uses this example to illustrate a distinctly Christian way of story-listening.
“As Christians living in the midst of these stories, we have an opportunity to both learn and bear witness. Stories teach us a lot about ourselves and our neighbors, and they provide windows into how our world is wrestling with the effects of the fall.
“They also present opportunities to respond with the truth.”
Nick Rynerson is a staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture and works for Crossway in Wheaton.