Feed your Spirit, Starve Pop Culture

I believe in cultural engagement. Four years ago I established the Center for Faith and Culture (CFC) with the intention of helping Christians understand and communicate gospel in the context of culture, with an emphasis on popular culture (movies, books and music).

In that time I’ve run into a lot of younger generation Christians who have caught a vision for cultural engagement. I’m excited to see them learning to listen for story, identifying beliefs, engaging in conversations triggered by a recent movie or lyrics of a song. I’m thrilled at young artists taking their craft seriously, understanding that the craftsmanship of their work is important in earning the right to be heard. However, I am also seeing a red flag in our immersion in culture and it has to do with our failure to nurture a corresponding immersion in our life with Christ.

Brian Godawa articulated a useful and cautionary metaphor for how most Christians relate to popular culture. He said we are either cultural anorexics or cultural gluttons. I think this is true. The cultural anorexic is cut off from culture and cannot seize the opportunities it represents. The cultural glutton is consumed by culture and is vulnerable to its threats. I’m concerned about people in either of these extremes because neither represents the path for the Culturally Savvy (CSC), who is fully devoted to Jesus and understands how to exploit the opportunities and avoid the threats posed by popular culture.

Maybe the most important lesson I’ve been learning as a CSC is to feed my spirit and starve popular culture. What do I mean by that? Let me illustrate from my activities this weekend. Friday I reviewed the film “Lost in Translation.” This brilliant movie tells the story of two Americans who meet in Japan, where each is a foreigner and is obviously disconnected from their surroundings by language and culture. The story reveals how a similar disconnect often occurs even with people in our own culture and even with those with whom we are closest. Few movies capture the agonizing aloneness we can feel as humans who long for companionship and community and find isolation instead. In this particular story these two Americans are drawn to each other despite the span of years and life experience separating them. Refreshingly, their connection is more at a ¢â‚¬Ëœsoul’ level than a sexual one, and in that sense there is a warmth and decency to their developing friendship.

As I left the theatre I ran into two friends who asked about the movie and I described it as an existential, “life is meaningless” story, with what many Americans would describe as a “hopeful overlay” in the relationship of the two strangers.

One of my friends asked, “which current movie would you recommend as joyful?” I found myself responding that I do not look to popular culture for joy, but rather to my relationship with Christ and family and the household of faith. “What about Second Hand Lions?” her friend chimed in?

Again I reported that it is the Holy Spirit who offers peace, joy and love. In that sense, popular culture’s warmest story is a weak substitute for the wholeness offered by our faith. “Lost In Translation” portrays our human dilemma accurately, stunningly and in great detail, but offers a weak solution. In that sense it is draining to watch and every minute I spend watching, even at points of resonance, is a minute I am NOT able to spend nurturing my relationship with Christ.

Saturday night the kids were gone, Kathy and I enjoyed dinner out and then rented a movie, choosing one we couldn’t watch with the kids. We chose the Kevin Spacey anti-death penalty flick, “The Life of David Gale.” This is a depressing story with some very disturbing visual depictions from the dark side. I went to bed haunted by those images.

Having just returned from Asia, I’ve been struggling to catch up on my sleep and get back in this time zone. So Sunday AM I was tired and Kathy, not wanting to disturb my sleep, left to teach Sunday School. I could have skipped church, but the minute I awoke I felt an urgent need to be with God’s people. In large part this was because I had spent four hours absorbing dark stories (Lost In Translation and the Life of David Gale) and needed on offsetting nurturing of my soul and spirit.

We CSC’s cannot afford our cultural inputs to displace the springs of living water and bread of life available through Christ and in community with His people. I’ve been encouraging students to consider committing themselves to calculating how much time they spend watching TV, movies and listening to music, and then spending equal or more time nurturing their spirits through devotional inputs (the word, prayer, reading), communal experiences with other Christians (worship, prayer, Bible study) or active service to others.

My point is not to impose a new legalism, but to acknowledge that our effectiveness in culture is directly tied to the richness and sufficiency of our personal spiritual resources. Jesus spent a lot of time with pagans in the marketplace and at the parties, but his day began early before daybreak, praying and communing with His Father.

Our full devotion to Christ must be fed and our encounters with popular culture starved by comparison. I find cultural immersion without a surpassing spiritual engagement naƒ¯ve, dangerous and unfortunately the norm for some people focusing on cultural engagement. The remedy? When in doubt, “feed your spirit and starve popular culture.”

Posted in Staublog, Thoughts in October 6, 2003 by | No Comments »

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