Whenever I write about the worldview of a cultural icon or a cultural artifact, I brace myself. The ensuing comment streams and Facebook conversations almost always devolve into debates over whether such cultural analysis should happen in the first place.
(Examples of this phenomenon are my post that analyzed the underlying philosophy of Taylor Swift’s music video for “Out of the Woods,” or my post interacting with Stephen Colbert’s definition of faithfulness.)
Many Christians think of cultural artifacts (such as a pop song) in categories of “good” or “bad.” Naturally, some readers assume that my choice to comment on a song or interact with its spiritual dimensions serves as an implicit endorsement. Or they think that comparing or contrasting something as banal as a pop culture phenomenon with the good news of Christianity cheapens the gospel.
On the other side are readers who assume that my critique of a song means I think it is “bad” and should therefore be “banned.” If the song is deficient in the worldview it promotes, it is “dangerous.” These readers then assume that the blog post is an overreaction, a futile exercise in “overanalyzing.” They jump to the artist’s defense.
What both sides have in common is that they miss the point of cultural commentary. Examining a cultural artifact is not a statement on the spiritual state of an artist; neither is it a blanket endorsement or condemnation of a product.
Instead, cultural commentaries are an exercise in cultural literacy, what Kevin Vanhoozer describes as “discerning the meaning of cultural texts and trends in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
WHY READ THE CULTURE?
In his book, Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends, Vanhoozer offers several reasons for becoming “culturally literate.”
1. To resist the temptations of the time.
We need to know what songs and messages are forming one’s spirit. “It helps to be able to name the powers and principalities that vie for the control of one’s mind, soul, heart, and strength,” Vanhoozer writes.
2. To follow Scripture more faithfully.
We ought to read culture so that the scripts we perform in everyday life are in line with the Scriptures rather than the dominant narratives of our society. We are more likely to imbibe uncritically whatever it is we sing or whatever movies we watch if we are not trained to see the underlying philosophy, to recognize both what is good in that worldview and what needs to be challenged.
3. To know the setting for your faithful witness.
We should read culture in order to know where we are in the great story of redemption. If the culture is the setting for the next scene, we need to understand that scene well in order to be effective witnesses.
4. To love and understand your neighbor.
This exercise is offered up as an act of love toward God and neighbor. As Vanhoozer writes:
“I cannot love my neighbor unless I understand him and the cultural world he inhabits. Cultural literacy – the ability to understand patterns and products of everyday life – is thus an integral aspect of obeying the law of love.”
You can’t love or reach people you don’t care to understand.
HOW TO READ AND COMMENT ON CULTURE
Now that we’ve outlined some reasons why it is helpful to examine cultural artifacts and trends in our day, we can turn to the question of how to read and comment on culture.
1. Start with a cultural artifact.
Cultural commentary usually begins with an artifact that shines light on the values and beliefs implicit in a culture. You start with some thing or someone who has captured the public eye and the imagination.
2. Ask questions of the artifact.
- Why is this cultural artifact important today?
- What does it tell us about our society?
- What is the message? How is it communicated?
- What impressions or emotions does the artist want to leave us with?
- Why does this artifact resonate with people today?
- Why is the artifact significant right now, as opposed to other times and places?
3. Hold the artifact up to the gospel’s storyline.
Once you have considered the artifact’s significance, you hold it up to the light of the gospel story. Usually, you’ll find you can affirm some things that are true – longings or aspirations that are, in some way, grasping for the joy that is found only in Christ. You’ll also find some things that are false – the “shortcut” to happiness that won’t ultimately deliver because it sidesteps or opposes the gospel.
Almost every cultural phenomenon has aspects that can be affirmed by Scripture, as well as aspects that are idolatrous distortions of the truth. To only focus on what can be affirmed is to dull the prophetic edge of the gospel’s hard truth. To only focus on what should be challenged is to fail to show how the culture’s longings are answered in Jesus.
4. Help people understand their culture in light of the gospel.
From Francis Schaeffer in the 1960’s, to C. S. Lewis in the 1940’s, to G. K. Chesterton in the 1920’s, we stand in a long line of people who have identified the narratives on display in cultural artifacts of their day, and then spoke to those longings by putting them in light of the gospel. John Stott called this “double listening” – listening to God’s Word and to the people in God’s world, so that we can be effective witnesses to the kingdom.
Too many Christians assume that analyzing cultural products is simply a way of saying “safe” or “unsafe,” “bad” or “good,” “acceptable” or “banned.” Not so. When done well, cultural analysis helps you ask the right questions, see the narrative in light of the gospel, and look for what can be affirmed and what should be challenged.
That’s why I plan on doing more cultural commentary in the future, not less.