June 17, 2013 by Stacy McDonald
The following article by Selah Helms was originally published in Family Reformation magazine in 2004, but it is just as relevant today (if not more so). Please take a moment to prayerfully read and discuss this topic with your families.
My teenagers’ peers constantly discuss the movie Bruce Almighty, the rock groups Switchfoot and Evanescence, country music, sexy actors, and personal appearance. In these cultural elements, young people seem to live, move, and have their being. In fact, my own teenagers tell me that hardly anyone they know listens to anything but rock and country music. All this occurs among some of the most conservative Christians in the most conservative churches.
Although I am past forty, I remember what my peers and I once talked about. Yes, there were kids who were “into” appearance, culture, and popularity, but I could still find plenty who weren’t. Not so long ago, the youth who attended church together kept each other accountable for memorizing Scripture, sang hymns and visited in nursing homes, witnessed to passersby at community colleges or parks, and handed out tracts.
However, today these activities are passé even in many conservative churches. They are also absent from the desires of many “Christian” teenagers. Over the past ten or twenty years, as the controversy over rock music in the church has largely died down, its prevalence has exploded to the point that few now even question whether any type of music could be harmful to our spiritual well-being.
The reasons why pop culture has so possessed our teenagers could fill volumes, as could the reasons for such differing views on what our Christian liberty permits. Rather than laying down a list of rules that would only invite argument, we’ll look at general principles that will guide us in shepherding our teenagers’ hearts as they interact with a decaying culture. In order to do this, we must step outside our culture and look at it as objectively as possible.
First, we must recognize that our society reeks of relativism when it comes to cultural judgments. Perhaps at no time in history before the Sixties generation did relativism so dominate the cultural conversation as it does today. If a work of art touches me in some way, then it must be pretty. If a piece of music “blesses” me, then it must be good music. If I don’t think I’m being harmed by what I see on screen, then the movie must be acceptable. Notice that in all these evaluations I am the point of reference, rather than an objective standard of truth or beauty.
Setting self as the standard for cultural judgments paves the way for decadence. As Ken Myers says, “As Christians, we insist that there are permanent standards for culture. Culture is the human effort to give structure to life. But human nature does not exist as a law unto itself” (All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes). Sadly, many Christians have abandoned their responsibility to fight cultural relativism and have fallen prey to their subjective views.
The ancients understood this concept better than we do. Aristotle believed that the purpose of education is to teach the student what he should like and what he should dislike. Such an education must teach what is beautiful and virtuous as well as what is ugly and evil in art, literature, and music. An Aristotelian view assumes the existence of standards of goodness and beauty beyond our own judgment:
[I]n rhythms and tunes there are likenesses particularly close to the genuine natures of anger and gentleness, and further of courage and moderation . . . and of the other things pertaining to character. This is clear from the facts: we are altered in soul when we listen to such things. (Aristotle, The Politics)
To paraphrase, good music—even apart from its lyrics—influences a person for good; bad music—even if its lyrics are good—influences him for evil. Plato’s Republic suggests this as well:
Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful.
Plato thus taught that examining the music of a given individual or culture reveals spiritual temperature.
In contrast, most Christians today subscribe to the relativistic idea that music is amoral, with no inherent good or evil in tempo or combination of notes, only in lyrics. Hence the oxymoron: “Christian rap” or “Christian hip-hop.” Our inconsistencies betray us. Since most of us still believe that books can be anti-Christian and that a picture can be pornographic, why can’t we see that music itself is an art form, suggesting attitudes and bringing either good or evil to our souls? Can music that exudes emotions of violence and rebellion link arms with the Christian message?
Peter Kreeft, speaking to a modern college student through a Socratic character, says, “If music is a divine thing, it can become a demonic thing. It seems to me that you do an injustice and irreverence to the greatness of music by not allowing that it can ever be evil” (The Best Things in Life). Many cultures throughout history have believed that music bypasses the brain and speaks directly to the heart, shaping and molding emotions of gratitude or arrogance, gentleness or violence.
We must also realize the addictive nature of pop culture. Our world of instant gratification tells teenagers to have their fun and have it now. When I am hooked on sugar and refined foods, I gradually tend to want more and more of them and less and less of healthy foods. Vegetables and wholesome foods begin to appear bland and boring, and a few sweets lead to a sweet tooth. In contrast, when I abstain from sugar, real foods seem perfectly appealing.
Junk food thus dulls our appetites to the pleasure of quality nourishment. The same happens in cultural exposure. Too much junk culture makes quality art and music seem dull and boring. Classical culture requires something of us: it requires us to grow. We must thus exert ourselves to enjoy it by avoiding cultural junk that destroys our appetites for quality alternatives and by focusing on the superior flavor of the genuinely beautiful, pure, and true.
Ken Myers lists the distinctions between pop culture and healthy culture this way:
Popular culture focuses on the new, discourages reflection, [is] pursued casually to “kill” time, gives us what we want, tells us what we already know, celebrates fame, appeals to sentimentality, relies on spectacle, tend[s] to violence and prurience, leaves us where it found us, reflects the desires of the self, tends toward relativism, [is] used.
Healthy culture (traditional, high culture) by contrast, focuses on the timeless, encourages reflection, [is] pursued with deliberation, offers us what we could not have imagined, celebrates ability, appeals to appropriate, proportioned emotions, relies on formal dynamics and the power of symbol, transforms sensibilities, encourages understanding of others, tends toward submission to standards, [is] received.
This list gives us a good measuring rod for evaluating culture as we come to it alongside our teens.
Allan Bloom, professor at the University of Chicago, compares consumption of pop culture to drug addiction:“[Rock music] ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal [arts] education”
(The Closing of the American Mind). According to Bloom, rock music is like a drug that repeatedly induces an artificial emotional high until the burnt-out student finds it difficult to be enthusiastic or excited about life’s genuine pleasures. “Their energy is sapped, and they do not expect their life’s activity to produce anything but a living.” So, overdosed on pop culture, young people become jaded, losing the ability to enjoy life’s simple and wholesome pleasures.
Finally, and most importantly, Christians need to consider the true purpose of Christian liberty. Paul says that many things may be permissible, but not everything is constructive or beneficial (I Corinthians 6:12). Christians who fear legalism go to great lengths to enjoy their liberty, sometimes to the point of crossing boundaries and thereby damaging rather than edifying their spiritual lives.
We must remember the Lord’s injunction: “Only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13b, NKJV). God gives us Christian liberty in order to free us to serve the cause of Christ. If a “liberty” causes us to be more worldly and shallow, less ministry-oriented, less heavenly minded, we have missed the boat.
Here, we find a good standard by which to measure our movies and music: does the work inspire an intense yearning for love, humility, submission, holiness, gentleness and spiritual vitality? Does it make rebellion appear “cool” or repulsive? When we watched The Lord of the Rings as a family, we were challenged to the depths of our emotions to fight evil even when it seemed evil would win and to hold out hope when everything looked hopeless by obediently doing our part in our own life story.
Conversely, when we watched Pirates of the Caribbean, we were struck by the portrayal of a murdering, thieving pirate as a cool, fun guy who would fit perfectly into a teenage social clique. This kind of portrayal subtly wears our spirits down to the point where we minimize wrong and lose our repugnance toward evil.
Myers reminds us:
“[T]he erosion of character, the spoiling of innocent pleasures, and the cheapening of life itself that often accompany modern popular culture can occur so subtly that we believe nothing has happened.”
Therefore, my husband and I have come up with a checklist for evaluating the effects of popular culture on our teens:
1. Does my teenager regard spiritual exercises (reading the Word, going to church) as dull and boring?
2. Does my teen talk more about movies and music than spiritual things? Where is his/her heart?
3. Does my teen disdain wholesome, simple fun as beneath him/her?
4. Does he/she feel that he/she can only be communicated with through certain forms? (E.g., “This is my music. This is what speaks to me.”)
5. Does my teen feel that popularity in a crowd that exalts pop culture is a must- have?
6. Does the music my teen listens to exhibit irreverence or a casual attitude toward Christianity (not to mention sex or violence)?
7. Does my teen disdain high culture in any way?
8. Does my teen constantly push the boundaries, trying to go deeper and deeper into pop culture?
9. Does pop culture significantly shape the way my teen dresses, acts and talks?
10. Does my teenager find rough, coarse, or rebellious people attractive?
If the answer to more than one or two of these is “yes,” the teenager’s heart has been drawn into the world. A fast from cultural junk food, along with lots of family discussion that prayerfully and intelligently evaluates art forms, can help purify his heart. We can minimize subjective judgment when we distance ourselves enough from the culture to evaluate it. The books quoted in this article can greatly enhance family studies.
Pastor John Piper relates that in his youth, the question many teenagers ask, “What is permissible?” paled, in his own mind, in comparison to the question, “How can I not waste my life?” (Don’t Waste Your Life). Teenagers need a cause beyond themselves to ward off the belief that entertainment and popular culture are the chief ends of life.
Our teenagers should—and can be, with the right spiritual direction—consumed with godly cause. Even in this powerfully possessive culture, we can help our teenagers comprehend that their chief end is to glorify and serve God and enjoy Him in wholesome ways.
Selah Helms is a pastor’s wife and homeschooling mother of four. She has co-authored two books (Small Talks on Big Questions, volumes 1 and 2) that teach children the catechism using historical accounts. In a co-op setting, she studies through classic works with several other families.
All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes by Ken Myers (Crossway, 1989).
The Best Things in Life by Peter Kreeft (InterVarsity Press, 1984).
The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom (Simon & Schuster, 1987).
Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper (Crossway, 2003).
The Politics by Aristotle
The Republic by Plato