(Given at George Fox University on January 25, 2016, as part of the LACI lectures)
Thanks for the chance to speak here tonight!
Here’s what I hope to do tonight. I want to explore these ideas about pop culture:
Flee, Embrace, or Sift? Taking Back Agency as a Christian in Pop Culture
We can flee the media around us, giving it power as we fear its corrupting influence. We can swim and breathe in it, thoughtlessly allowing it to define us. Or we can look for how our creative God is bubbling up through all kinds of human creativity, being mindful of the ways music, movies and other media encourage or discourage the pursuit of God’s good life.
You can probably guess from how I phrased this that I’m going to argue for the last. I want to call us to look for God’s creativity everywhere.
But before I get started…this is my family.
Elaine and I have been married 25 years, and that was all getting started right there in that row when we sat next to each other in Bible Survey our freshman year. This year she runs the in-school suspension at Newberg High School, and she’s a perfect blend of someone who can love absolutely anybody and who won’t put up with crap. Aubrey’s an eighth grader, the hilarious one in our family. You might know Hayley, who spent last year in India as an exchange student for her senior year in high school, and is a barista at Chapters while she figures out where to go to school next year. Or you might know Natalie, our oldest, who is in her last semester down at Azusa Pacific University and is one of the most loyal and kind people I know.
Do you ever think about how often random things affect major stuff in your life?
I can make a case that I am standing here tonight, that I am lead pastor at Newberg Friends Church, that I am married to Elaine and that these are my children…I can make a case that all of that has happened because of the movie “The Breakfast Club.” Crazy, right?
Any of you seen “The Breakfast Club?” [ASK] Classic 80’s movie. Well-written but a bit too stereotyped; powerful but a bit too, I don’t know, no high school student could ever really be that eloquent and profound when they give their little speeches in this movie.
These five kids get sent to all-day Saturday detention, and they all represent the classic cliques of the 80’s. That’s Alison, she’s the freak, the outsider. That’s Bender, he’s the criminal, the bad boy. That’s Brian, which if you switch two letters of his name around you get Brain, and he’s of course the geek. Then Andrew, the popular athlete, and Claire, who’s just…popular.
It’s weird, looking at this you’d think there were no people of color in the 80’s! Super strange, because I remember that there were.
Anyway, the movie came out on VHS my senior year in high school.
VHS…that’s these little tape things that connected to the tv before streaming and DVD’s. I was wrestling with the big decision of where to go to college. After growing up going to a Christian elementary school, my family had quit going to church when we moved to Oregon when I was in 8th grade. So I rebelled by starting to go to church again. Loved the people there, especially my youth pastor and the youth intern who spent tons of time with me.
My youth pastor was a George Fox grad, and the intern was actually still a student here, and they were trying to get me to come to Fox. I’d gone to Bruin Preview twice, and it was fine, but I just wasn’t really sure. It hadn’t grabbed me yet. So the intern, the one who was a student here, invited me and a friend to come spend the night in his apartment here and just hang out. I was looking forward to it.
That’s when random starts kicking in. I saw my youth pastor like the day before I was coming down here for the weekend, and sort of out of the blue he goes, “Saw the Breakfast Club last night. Horrible movie! Just horrible! Foul mouthed people, vulgar, absolutely nothing redeeming about that movie.” Ok.
My friend and I get out here on that Friday night with all our stuff to stay the night, and we walk into Lewis 4 actually, and there’s like more than a dozen college students there on a Friday night to watch a movie. George Fox was quite different then-less than 600 people in the whole school, and a bit more…structured.
So this guy gets up in front of the group-found out later he was the student body president-this guy stands in front of the tv and says, “We’re gonna watch the Breakfast Club.”
And it was just kinda funny, like my youth pastor just literally warned me against this and now I’m gonna watch it with these college students at the place my youth pastor really wants me to go.
Here’s the “more structured back then” part-the guy goes, “I know it’s rated R and that goes against the conduct code, but I have specific permission from the Dean to watch it.” So I watch this movie with these college students on a Friday night. We watch the stereotypes and the barriers and how they become friends and you see their pain and you understand each one and the struggles they face. We watch each character break down and share the anxiety, stress, pressure, abuse they face, and how they begin to show empathy for each other.
The movie ends and the lights come up, and these college students sit in that living room and they talk for an hour and a half: what does this tell us about high school students? Where can you identify with their pain? How can we help others deal with being rejected and made an outcast? What does this tell us about what Jesus wants to do in the lives of high school students?
It blew me away. These people could have been doing anything on that Friday night, and here they were dissecting a movie and trying to figure out how it helped them make more of a difference in the world, how it helped them serve Jesus better. I decided right then and there that I was going to George Fox. I was even smart enough to figure out there was no way everybody at the school was like that, that this totally was the cream of the crop. But I wanted to be in a place where there were people like that.
Random. Breakfast Club makes me go to George Fox, where I meet Elaine, where I start going to Newberg Friends Church…and here I am 30 years later with all the major parts of my life dependent on that choice because of this movie.
I’m sure you’re wondering why I haven’t shown a clip of the movie yet, since this is on pop culture.
Well, my youth pastor was right about one thing: they do love the F word in this movie, and I couldn’t really find an appropriate serious clip to share. So I’ll just give you a little taste of the dance montage…
I know what you’re thinking… “Wow, I can’t believe that music and dancing have not changed AT ALL since the 80’s!”
Let’s step back and use my experience with The Breakfast Club to look at the framework I’m proposing tonight.
I’ll exaggerate this a bit and put people in boxes, when of course that’s not really fair. But let’s just use this experience to illustrate these concepts.
What do we do with pop culture, with movies and music and video games and social networks? One response is to flee. That’s what was illustrated by my youth pastor. “Absolutely nothing redeeming about that movie.” There’s nothing of value there, and so the choice should be to flee, to avoid, to not watch.
High school me shows the other response, embrace. That might be too strong a word, maybe what we need here is absorb or swim in or something. I wasn’t a terribly thoughtful high school student. I listened to all the music, I went to the movies my friends were seeing, I just swam in all of it, and it swam in me.
Back then, the “flee” people used to love to find ways to do a “gotcha” to us embrace and swimming people. I was at this one church youth event, they brought in this big Christian speaker. At the time there was this massively popular song called “Jenny don’t lose my number”. This big speaker gets up in front of all of us, and he starts the whole talk just by saying: “867”
And all of us scream out the rest of Jenny’s number from the song “5309!!!!”
“AH HAAAAAAA!!!!” he yells out us. “SEE!?! You do listen to the lyrics. You do know the words. Don’t give me this crap about how you just listen for the beat and the music, that stuff is getting in there, corrupting you!”
Relax, dude, it’s just a fake phone number. Fake Jenny and I are not gonna hook up and watch Netflix and chill.
He then proceeded to try and get us to burn all of our cassette tapes of secular music…oh, cassette tapes? They’re like the grandparents of the mp3’s on your phone, even before CD’s.
Anyway, while I don’t think the response needs to be to jump to the “flee” camp, he did have a point.
When you are embracing or swimming in media, you are absorbing it. It is getting in there and kicking around, shaping our perceptions and thoughts. It’s a valid point.
Then finally there are the Fox students gathered in Lewis 4 when I visited long ago. They were “sifting.” They were choosing what they were watching carefully. They were willing to take something in, and then take the time in community to sift it out, find truth, find conviction, find justice, find Jesus.
Make sense, at least as broad categories? Now of course it’s all fluid. Sometimes I flee stuff, sometimes I’m just mindlessly embracing, sometimes I’m sifting. Not only that, but I could be in any category with intentionality, or I could be in it out of habit, without thinking about it. Sometimes I go find lists of good movies on Netflix and intentionally pick ones I can sift through; other times I’m flipping channels and I just find myself watching something.
Sometimes something comes along and I just instinctively flee from it, like a knee jerk response. When snapchat first came out, I was just like NO. What’s the point? The only reason you would send something you don’t want to be permanent is because you know you shouldn’t be sending it. And of course it’s been proven that snapchat DOES get used for all sorts of unhealthy stuff. But I am now on snapchat, and I make sure that I’m thinking about what I’m using it for and why, making sure that anything I snap I would also be willing to post on the wide open internet.
So these aren’t rigid. They are fluid.
But I want to examine them each separately a little more carefully, and while that may sound like I’m making them more rigid, remember I know we all flux back and forth. I want to try and pull out some of the underlying biblical and philosophical assumptions that underlie each position.
There’s actually quite a lot of biblical support for fleeing from pop culture.
2 Timothy 2:22: “Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”
Romans 13:12: “The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
1 John 4:5-6: “They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us.”
Underlying the response of fleeing from pop culture is this duality, this picture of the world as evil and God as good. The 1 John passage I just read spells it out so clearly: There’s either the world and speaking from and listening to that viewpoint, or there is God and those who speak from God’s prompting and listen to God’s voice.
The healthy part of fleeing is an honest recognition that there are unhealthy and evil things in the world that lead us to make choices that harm us and harm others. We should flee those, reject those, say no to those. We set those things aside, and we put on Christ. That’s a healthy, important message. Please don’t leave here and think that I said fleeing is always wrong, because I don’t believe that.
But there is an unhealthy part of fleeing, and it’s when we push too far the idea of World=Evil and Christian=Good. When we start to think of Secular all over here as completely evil, and Church over here as completely good. When we see it that way, we end up working to create a Christian subculture. Only Christian radio, only Christian music, stay away from any outsider because they are a bad influence.
This isn’t just a modern phenomenon.
Think of the monastery movement throughout the early church and the middle ages. At first it was the decadence of the Roman Empire that must be left behind, and a separate community established that had no contact from the world. Then it was to be separate from the complete barbarism that threatened to annihilate the civilized world.
St. Benedict was the most influential person to establish order in these alternative universes called monasteries. The Rule of Benedict was a code for living life that was the rule book for many monasteries, even ones still in existence today. The idea was that everything in the world was out to destroy the Christian way of life, and the only way to preserve it, the only way for God’s way to survive was to make sure that there were these places that were completely removed from and separate from the world where the message could be kept pure. These monasteries were the insurance that the pure way of God would survive.
This is a sort of philosophy that is still present, called by some the Benedict option. I’m calling it flee, but there are a lot of similarities. I think it has a philosophical flaw and a theological flaw.
One of the things you wrestle with in seminary is learning a little bit of philosophy and how it influenced Christian theology over the centuries.
And the reality is that Greek Philosophy, Plato in particular, influenced how the Christian message was developed. It still does today, although you may not realize it by the name. Platonic thought divides the world into dualities. For Plato, the goal was to move past and through the physical, material structure of our world and find the form, the model, the perfect idea that shapes it. Any circle you actually draw is not a perfect circle, but it represents what exists only as a form, as an idea: a perfect circle is the form we pursue but never actually experience in real, flesh and blood, material world.
This had and has a strong influence on how Christians think of the world and read the bible. We can sometimes see the world as if anything fleshly, worldly, physical is corrupt, is leading us to evil…while what is good and right is the spiritual, the holy, the other, the separate. God is Spirit and holy, people are flesh and evil. It’s Plato’s duality. My guess is every single one of us has had a thought like this at some point in our lives.
But here’s what’s interesting: the church has actually condemned pieces of this as heresy. Some early Christians took this so seriously that they said, “Jesus couldn’t have ACTUALLY been real flesh and blood. He was God, God is Spirit, there is no way a holy God could have existed in unholy flesh.” This shows this Plato idea, and you can see how it’s sort of there underlying the Benedict option: nothing physical or worldly or material can have good in it, we must pursue only spiritual.
But of course the early church rejected this as heresy. All the major creeds, all orthodox Christian belief is that Jesus is fully God AND fully human. One of the reasons this is a big deal is because it affects how we see the world. Can there be any good in physical and worldly stuff, in human society and culture? Jesus himself is one big YES to that question, as the incarnation shows God redeeming and inhabiting flesh and blood, human culture, redeeming creation itself. The incarnation is the theological flaw to the Benedict option.
I think there are times to flee; but I think we must reject any thoughts that nothing good can come from the world/physical things/even pop culture. The incarnation was like God’s beachhead to show that even in this dark world, the goodness of God is bubbling up!
I’m giving the least amount of time to the embrace option, the swimming-in option.
That’s because it’s both probably where we spend the majority of our time, and it probably the least defensible option from a Christian perspective.
I’d say most of us spend most of our time not really thinking about what we are watching and listening to and reading and consuming. We just do it. It’s the noise all around us, the air we breathe. I do it quite a bit, too.
When Rihanna and Eminem collaborated on “Love the Way You Lie” a couple of years ago, that song just sucked me in. I listened to it several times as it came across the radio or hearing it wherever. And then I woke up and realized: this is holding up a completely abusive relationship as normal, and saying it’s just unavoidable. It’s saying that abuse is worth it for the passion you get when it’s good. Made me sick to my stomach.
So while I often slip into just embracing what I’m watching or listening to, I wish I didn’t. I wish I was more intentional and thoughtful, because that is what the bible teaches in so many places.
2 Corinthians 10:5: “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
Proverbs 14:8 “The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways.”
If you take one thing from what I say tonight, make it this one: don’t be thoughtless, don’t ignore what you are putting before your eyes and ears, what you are consuming from social media and news. Examine it. Think about it. Evaluate it. Sift it.
So that pulls me to the last one.
How do we sift? How do we take back control, take back agency and be intentional and thoughtful about what inputs we are receiving in our lives?
This, in my opinion, is how we should strive to live. I’m part of the Friends church, the Quaker church, and we have this foundational belief that I just love. Do you know what a sacrament is? A sacrament is defined as a means of grace. It is a way in which God’s grace gets to us. It is the “how” of God giving God’s self to us.
Catholics have seven sacraments, Protestants mostly have two, baptism and communion. In those acts, God’s grace actually comes into our lives. It’s a holy moment, a healing experience of the living God. Some people say that Quakers have zero sacraments, because we don’t regularly practice baptism with water or communion with the elements. But the truth is, we believe that ALL of life is sacramental.
We believe there are not two, not seven sacraments…we believe there are literally thousands of ways that God is actually coming into our lives in a tangible, holy way. God so wants to be known…God pursues us so faithfully that the presence of God, we believe, is literally bubbling up everywhere. And our task is to pay attention, to look for God, to respond in obedience to God.
The idea behind it is this: Jesus came near. Jesus joined this earth. God’s very self realized that we humans were unable to really get it, really understand God’s love and God’s ways, so God had to become part of it. Listen to Philippians 2, one of the most beautiful parts of the bible to me:
Have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death-even death on a cross!
It’s like before Jesus was nailed to the cross, he nailed himself to human flesh.
Went all in. Didn’t flee our sin and injustice and temptation and our selfish, abusive evil, but actually nailed himself to us. Jesus did it to redeem it all, to infiltrate us…us as individuals and us as a society…infiltrate us from the inside out. He took all the punishment we could give him, even to actually dying on our behalf. Nailing himself to our flesh AND the cross redeemed us. Philippians 2 goes on:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
That actual body came to life. When Thomas and the disciples heard Jesus invite Thomas to stick his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side, it wasn’t just for Thomas. It was for us. We see first that God’s love and power won. Death and sin are conquered. But we also see that resurrection is not just new replacing old, not just holy erasing evil, not just “was bad” now “all good”.
Nope. The holiness and the resurrection power of God is right there in a broken, wounded, gashed up body. God’s victory in our world does not look pristine and separate. God’s victory and love and power shine through broken wounded bodies, shine through broken cracks in jars of clay.
But God wasn’t done even there! Then Jesus says, “I have to go back to heaven, so that I can send something better-the Holy Spirit.” God’s very presence that can be with all of us all the time inhabiting our pain and brokenness and shining out with resurrection power. God’s very presence, the Holy Spirit, given to us now “as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”
But God isn’t done even there!
God has so embraced this world, so incarnated God’s self to it, that there is nowhere on the planet, no person on the planet, where God is absent. I’m not claiming pantheism or universalism here; I still think we have to choose to say yes to Christ’s presence in our lives.
But I am claiming that God is at work everywhere, and God is at work in everyone before any Christian ever even gets to them with the good news. This is how radically beautiful God’s love for us is, how far God’s redemption is trying to go. As 2 Peter 3:9 says, God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” So God’s Spirit is at work through creation and through people and through culture to draw all people to God. I believe it with all of my heart, and that is why I believe even pop culture is a place where God can be found.
Because God is so sneaky creative like that!
So let’s look for God!
Let’s look for God’s truth! I’m going to close with just two examples, two ways I hope to show you that it’s possible and profitable to sift the stuff that’s out there and see the face of God.
And you all can thank Mareesa Fawver. If it weren’t for her help, you’d be getting pop culture from the 80’s for these examples. I want to invite you to listen to part of this remix of a familiar song, done by Chance the Rapper.
That’s the theme from? [ASK] Yes, the kids show Arthur, which I’m guessing many of you grew up watching. There’s actually an important, God-centered truth in that song. Part that I didn’t include here is “When you’re walking down the street/everybody that you meet/has an original point of view”. And that’s not scary. That’s not bad. That’s good!
It makes it a wonderful day, when all of those original points of view-yours included-can learn to work and play and get along with each other. It’s pretty much dead on what Paul teaches, that we are all unique parts of the body of Christ, and we have to figure out how to get along without kicking out the parts that aren’t like us and we don’t like.
Now, why not just read 1 Corinthians 12 and get that same truth there? What value does pop culture add? I think this song is a great example of that. Chance the Rapper taps into your nostalgic, joyful feelings of growing up and watching the Arthur show. It ties the truth with emotion and with memory in a profound way.
And then he goes one step further, by adding his own flavor and truth in the last verse of the remix.
I’m gonna get by when the going get rough
I’m gonna love life ‘til I’m done growing up.
And when I go down I’mma go down swinging
My eyes still smiling and my heart still singing.
This is my theme song right now!
It’s a reminder to give it my all, to be willing to stand for what I believe, but to do it with love and joy and peace toward all as I do it. This kind of art has a way of conveying God’s truth in important ways, and I love giving God credit for truth like this when it pops up in, of all things, a rapper’s remix of a kids’ tv show song!
Now, the last one I want to look at is from Kendrick Lamar.
I know, you’re going, “Whoa he’s playing Kendrick but he couldn’t show the Breakfast Club because of the language? Just how hard core WERE the 80’s?”
I’m creatively editing.
Mareesa brought this one to me, and I want to use it because on face value it’s really difficult to see how anything of God shows up here. This song, “Sing About Me”, is intense. Kendrick Lamar, I’ve discovered because of Mareesa, is a brilliant wordsmith, a drop dead incredible story teller. Here he’s telling two stories, one of a guy’s brother who was shot on the street, and Kendrick came out and held him in his arms while he bled to death. The other is of a girl/woman from the foster care system who sells herself for sex on the street.
I actually wish I could use the verse about her story, but no amount of creative editing could make that possible. So listen and watch the lyrics for part of the story about the brother. The voice is from the brother of the guy who was shot, as if he were talking to Kendrick Lamar.
Obviously there’s no message of hope here.
This is brutal, painful, horrific. Not only ONE person shot and killed, bleeding in Kendrick’s arms, but his brother shot before Kendrick’s album drops and the story can be told to the world. What value is there in this?
I would suggest there is value in shining a light on the dark reality of Compton, the experiences of those in pain in the “orphanage” that the ghetto is. Throughout the Old Testament, God tells Israel, “Remember, remember your days in captivity in Egypt. Tell your children. Remember.”
I would suggest there is value in forcing us to look open-eyed at the horror in our world, rather than deny it exists. Because Jesus promised he would live with, be with, the poor and widowed and orphaned. Listen now to the third verse, where Kendrick gives some of his own explanation for why this has value.
This is what got to me, what I think serves as the perfect conclusion for why there is value in sifting pop culture to discover the work of God in the unlikely places.
Kendrick Lamar’s desire to tell the stories of these broken people, the friends he calls his brother and his sister; these horrible situations, he says, “pulled me in a direction to speak of something that’s realer than the TV screen.”
He’s doing his own sifting. In the verse about the woman, it’s so beautifully layered. You see the evil done to her as well as the unhealthy choices she made. He’s showing us the complexity of his world, the little glimpses of humanity, community and life that come through horror.
And he realizes that his compulsion to rap their stories has saved his own life. Who knows “what’d happen if I ain’t continued rappin’ or steady being distracted by money drugs and four-fives”? In telling their stories, he’s made a life for himself that got him out of those temptations. And he closes with what I think could straight up work as a description of what Jesus does in the world:
Look at the weak and cry
pray one day you’ll be strong
Fighting for your rights even when you’re wrong.
I hear the Spirit of God calling out here, and it moves me. May we be intentional. May we look anywhere and everywhere for God’s Spirit bubbling up in the most unlikely of places. May Jesus’ prayer for us in John 17 come true: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you would protect them from the evil one.” Thank you.