A weird thing happened the other day. As some old friends from college were considering catching a movie together, and emails were flying around in an effort to agree on one, a line in one of those emails made me laugh out loud, and then immediately get really sad.
“We’re trying to avoid Rated-R movies.”
Wait, I thought, who’s trying to avoid Rated-R movies? I’m certainly not. I’m on a mission to see all the Oscar nominated films before the award show and, of course, many of them are Rated-R. And anyway, I haven’t thought about a film’s rating since I was 17, when legally you get to stop thinking about a film’s rating.
Anyway, I didn’t go to see a movie with the guys that night. But I thought of this again as I was reading a post over at RelevantMagazine.com, in which the author, Andrew Byers, confesses to being a “prude.” This, I’m sure you can figure out, is just a Relevant-y way to write yet another article about “cultural engagement.”
Byers’ conclusion is not life altering — it’s not wrong, either — but it doesn’t really offer much. He basically lands on the notion that, when encountering pop culture, Christians should be both wise and innocent, riffing on Jesus’ admonition to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Okay, sure. Use discretion. Got it.
But what is telling about this piece is the example that Byers uses to get to this point. He tells a story of his children’s relationship to “Gangnam Style.” He doesn’t allow them to watch it, but of course they end up knowing the song and dance because all of their friends have seen it. Anyway, after last night, his kids will know it too thanks to an ad for nuts.
I respect Byers desire to protect his children’s innocence and, just a couple months away from having a child of my own, I’m sure I’ll be doing similar handwringing in the not too distant future (how young is too young for Star Wars, by the way?). But Byers example is also very telling of the prevailing evangelical attitude toward pop culture. They too often think of themselves as children, making decisions about what to watch, listen to, or read as if they were impressionable 12-year-olds.
This view led to the cultural missionary model — in which the well-prepared evangelical, who fancies him or herself not easily influenced, “engages” culture like a missionary visiting a remote village. In short, this view forces evangelicals to think of themselves as squeaky clean outsiders, and they waste time, money, energy, and so, so many words on developing strategies to infiltrate culture while remaining pure themselves.
I’ll echo Byers’ point about discretion. It’s foolish to imagine everything is equal when it comes to pop culture. But evangelicals have to stop stunting their intellectual and spiritual maturity by sheltering themselves from bad words, fake blood, and the tantalizing sight of skin.
This is why I reacted so strongly to those friends who were trying to avoid Rated-R movies: in an effort to do so they were also avoiding incredible and worthwhile depictions of the human condition. They were avoiding truth in the best way we know how to tell it — in stories. They were avoiding art.
And for what? Are evangelical adults not capable of telling the difference between fiction and nonfiction, between behavior that is acceptable and that which is not? What are they afraid of? What are they trying to protect against when they shelter themselves?
In the end, evangelicals have become fearful and judgmental outsiders, imagining their whitewashed castles superior to the messy, lived-in world depicted in so many movies, books, television shows, and songs. In short, they’ve become irrelevant.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is editor of Patrol and author of Not Your Mother's Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Follow Fitz on Twitter.
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