Pop Culture

Question
Do you know any guiding principles in determining when it's appropriate to take in popular culture? For example, I've loved Nirvana ever since they released Nevermind. But Kurt Cobain and company are/were not believers, and their lives, message, and lyrics do/did not glorify God. Is it inappropriate for believers concerned with glorifying God to listen to them for entertainment?
Answer
These kinds of questions are largely wisdom issues. There is a mixture of good and bad in most things in this fallen world where God has decided to let us live, and wisdom helps us know how to respond to each situation. Of course, there are basic guiding principles such as "don't sin" (including "don't violate your conscience") and "don't stumble Christians" (i.e. don't cause them to sin by following your example in something that is not a sin for you but would be for them). But it takes familiarity with God's Word and ways, and with the wisdom of the Bible, to know how to assess/use/respond to the different things we encounter in life. This has a great deal to do with whether or not a certain thing is good or bad for any given person.

Take the example you provided of Nirvana. There are a number of positive qualities in Nirvana, as well as a number of negative qualities. On the positive side, their music strikes an emotional nerve with many people, helping them recognize and perhaps conceptualize many frustrations of life in this world -- frustrations that believers and unbelievers share. Their music also portrays one non-Christian mindset in such a way that believers can learn about unbelieving worldviews and values, and this information can serve as evangelistic tool. As I'm sure you know, Nirvana's music is capable of expressing the despair that many in this world feel, and recognizing this despair can help people see their need for Christ. And of course, the music itself, whether or not you get anything from the lyrics, is very cool. That's not a bad thing; that's common grace. God allowed Nirvana to create music that reaches people despite the fact that Nirvana cluttered up that music with "unedifying" lyrics.

On the negative side, without a Christian worldview as a backdrop, Nirvana's music can be somewhat dangerous (though not much more so than anything else in this world, like the stock market, or television, or chocolate, or driving a car, or whatever). If I weren't a Christian, I can see how their music could potentially feed despair and aggression in me, and even as a Christian I'm still capable of falling into those traps. The values and perceptions of the world that their music presents are something we must filter out and guard against so that we do not allow ourselves to be persuaded by them. Clearly, if we are so influenced that we blow off our own heads with shotguns, then it wasn't wise for us to have been listening to Nirvana. The point is that we need to be shrewd as serpents when we interact with the world in order to appreciate the good it has to offer, to gain evangelistic insight, and to protect ourselves from its evil influence.

Personally, Nirvana isn't my favorite band, though I do like them. But I don't know their lyrics well enough to give you a great concrete example. Are you familiar with Everclear? They're a popular secular band (that hasn't committed suicide yet) with a song called Why I Don't Believe in God. When I listen to that song, my faith isn't challenged. Rather, I sympathize with an unbeliever's struggle to believe in a merciful God when he sees so much hurt all around him, and feels so much hurt himself. And there is truth in that. God's mercy doesn't answer every question; it raises as many as it answers.

And think about how much we learn from bands like Marilyn Manson. "Marilyn" was raised in church. I suspect that how he turned out is as much a commentary on Christian subculture as it is on anything else. Are there things we can learn from his story, and do differently next time? Ignoring or banning him is, in part, sweeping our own dirt under the rug. And even in the case of Marilyn Manson, some of the music itself isn't all that bad. If I didn't know what the band looked like, and didn't understand English, and didn't know the anti-God stance they take in the public square, I'd probably like them. Besides, some of their weirdness isn't evil, it's just weird, like that video for Sweet Dreams... The distorted lens technique and bizarre make-up/contacts aren't evil; they're just weird. I don't think that particular video is really all that different from Dali's surrealistic paintings (which I happen to like).

God hasn't called us to avoid the world, but has put us right in the middle of it to be salt and light. And even Jesus hung out with prostitutes and criminals. Do we imagine that he drew the line when they started singing? Still, we also have to be careful to follow Jesus' example of avoiding sin too. We're not only supposed to be shrewd as serpents -- we're also to be innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16). If you can't maintain your innocence, then Jesus taught another route: "Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell" (Matt. 5:28-29). Applied to Nirvana, the idea is that if it causes you to sin, don't listen to it. But it often takes a great deal of wisdom and honesty to recognize when you've hit your limit, and a great deal of discipline to pull back.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.