“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”
“Popular culture” is often used as a shorthand reference to the faddish and fleeting. It flouts human wisdom to imagine that the eternal Divine, orchestrator of the heavens, who calls a universe into being with a word, cares about what is on the radio right now. God designed the intricacies of cellular biology from scratch, worked out a mathematical ratio to epitomize beauty and harmony, and built it into the most unexpected places in creation. We keep remarketing American Idol over and over and over again.
Doesn’t pop culture epitomize the world that is passing away and therefore constitute a colossal waste of time? Following Ken Myers, Andy Crouch defines culture as “what we make of the world. Culture is, first of all, the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it’s given to us and make something else.” What we make of the world that God created has obvious theological import.
Complete retreat from the world is not an option for the Church as a whole. Our churches represent places in which we may “withdraw from the situation, and attack the situation,” but never places in which we ignore the situation. Even while advocating a radical distinction between the Church and the world Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon remind us that “the church is not out of the world. There is no other place for the church to be than here.” That said, at various times we may find the steps prepared for us leading away from the consumption of certain cultural goods. New believers often feel led to trash their old music collections and start over more circumspectly. When I can’t volunteer to serve a meal to kids on the street because that’s the night my show is on, I realize something’s amiss. If I blew so much money on concerts last month that I can’t pay my rent and my tithe this month, I recognize this as a call to cut back. Regularly taking time away from our societal responsibilities so we can reconsider and reprioritize them in relative quiet reflects a healthy commitment to responsibility, not an abdication of it. Taking a month off from a particular radio station may help correct an over-identification with the rebellious and despondent spirits of the age. I daresay the occasional fast from social media would prove valuable to many of us. We embark on these fasts and retreats, however, not because we despair for our humanity and our world, but rather because of our ultimate hope in what God will accomplish in us in our humanity and in our world. A fast serves to devote time and space to listening and waiting on God, not as a judgment on food.
Too often Christians have tried to sever themselves from their humanity and human families or cultures for fear of defilement, forgetting that Christ became human to save us from sin and its effects. Jesus taught that sin does not enter through the pores or the mouth. Rubbing up against it does not contaminate us. It’s not a thing we ingest. In pop culture terms, the calls are coming from inside the house. This is why the Church’s experiments at creating separate cultures to compete with those around us have traditionally landed somewhere between rampant abuse and second-rate kitsch. The alternative, however, is not to dissolve indistinguishably into our various cultures, but to become mindful makers within them. Andy Crouch contends that “The only way to change culture is to create more of it.”
[I]f we seek to change culture, we will have to create something new, something that will persuade our neighbors to set aside some existing set of cultural goods for our new proposal. And note well that there are a number of other possible strategies, none of which, by themselves, will have any effect on culture at all.
These strategies include condemning, critiquing, copying and consuming culture. All of these responses are appropriate at times, but they tend to shape us more than the cultures prevailing around us. Only after Christians adopt our rightful postures as cultural creators and cultivators do these other strategies become valid gestures that we can make with freedom and integrity.
Obviously we cannot live in such a way as to remain indistinguishable from the world around us, but our conduct and community should communicate that distinction, not the style of music we listen to or our zip codes. Christ did not wage war on the world to conquer it. He loved, wooed, and transformed it. There is such a thing as loving people too much to leave them where they’re at, but one does not move one’s beloved through damning criticism. If we truly believe Jesus came to make our joy complete, we will find more constructive means of relaying that message of love and joy than indiscriminately trampling the things that make our friends and neighbors happy. Churches must learn to critique the cultures in which they operate without judgment and without relying on false distinctions of us versus them. We all live in cultural contexts and the more deeply we understand them, the better we can envision our proper place as Christians within them.
One way I’ve seen this dynamic play out in our church over the years is in the offertory. Fourteen years ago, my husband and I joined a 10-year-old Gen X church plant that met blocks from the Space Needle and lived by the motto of “real, relevant… and a little bit radical.” We met in a movie theater with reclining seats, cup holders, and no outside light. The smell of popcorn signaled the benediction. We sought to provide an authentic worship experience in a safely neutral worship environment for people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t picture themselves setting foot in a church. We hired professional musicians for the worship band and every Sunday they covered a non-Christian rock song for the offertory that tethered the sermon to relevancy. We reckoned that all truth is God’s truth and we would take it where we found it, even and especially from non-traditional sources. The corollary to this premise was that if no one was singing about it, it wasn’t a pressing enough question to preach on. Sometimes the message of the song and the message of the pastor represented a study in contrasts, underscoring the difference between the wisdom from above and wisdom from below, but it kept us in conversation with the world even in our windowless sanctuary. You listen to a song differently when you hear it in church (lyrics were printed in the bulletin, for easier study) and the process of doing this weekly warped us for life. Over the years we discovered another curious and welcome effect. You’d be shopping or working out or commuting when a song you first or last heard at church would come over the speakers and suddenly it’s like you’re in a worship service.
The offertory format survived the merger with a more traditional church on a different hill. At some point in the process of crafting a “transitional” service for the newly formed church, verbiage crept into the bulletin about how we played these secular songs to listen to “the world’s” take on or longings surrounding today’s theme. The actual phrasing has been lost to time, but it had strong overtones of us and them, with the implication that this portion of our church service had more to do with them than with us. Were we playing this music for people not in the room? I doubt it was the intention, but there was a subtle sense of introducing fallen music into our worship so that it could be preached at and corrected. And yet at the same time we were trending toward somewhat “safer” musical choices, occasionally by Christian artists, that were generally and often perfectly orthodox, which made even less sense. We tweaked the stock explanation a couple of times before changing the format again. At present one of our in-house hipsters contributes a paragraph outlining the band’s relevant biographical details along with doing most of the heavy mental lifting of interpreting and putting the song in context for us. Again, this shifts the focus slightly. The songs tend to correspond more positively with the message so they often serve as a rich set-up for the preaching. Lines from the song may become a refrain in the sermon. For many in our inter-generational congregation it has become a mini-lesson in pop culture rather than an exercise in interpreting the music we would think of as our own. The significance of this signature piece of our Sunday gatherings continues to evolve these many years on, reflecting shifts in our corporate identity, theology and mission.
What practices do you or does your church engage in regularly to keep the conversation going with the culture at large? Have you ever felt or been accused of being “tainted” by them?
 Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), 91.
 Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 23.
 Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 212-213
 Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 43.
 Crouch, 67.
 Crouch, 67.
 Crouch, 68-73.
 Crouch, 98.