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Pop Culture Christianity

Should Christian culture imitate the world's culture?

Family Force 5 and Prince

Family Force 5 and Prince

Who is Influencing Whom?

Who is influencing whom? Traditionally, the Church has influenced the world. But that trend has reversed itself over the past 100 years.

God has sent us out as lights in the midst of darkness

God has sent us out as lights in the midst of darkness and sheep among wolves - not lights disguised as darkness nor sheep in wolves' clothing. When will we accept the fact that God made us a "peculiar" people for a reason? (Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 14:2; 26:18; Psalm 135:4; Titus 2:13; I Peter 2:9 - KJV)

Pop Culture Christianity

by Waitsel Smith

Christian Music - Part 4

In the last 100 years, Pop Culture has eclipsed the Arts in this country. We have become a culture of transient entertainment rather than of lasting values. Even the Church has bought into this mindset, as the Apostle Paul predicted it would in 2 Timothy 4:3: "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires." Civilizations whose primary goal is to be entertained - as is ours and as was the Romans' - eventually collapse. What is the difference between Pop Culture and the Arts? Basically, it is a difference in values. We put the Arts into museums and concert halls, but Pop Culture ends up in the trash. Compare, for example, the comics in the Sunday paper with the paintings hanging in the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Even though the comics bring you momentary pleasure, would you risk your life to save them if your house caught fire? Of course not. Yet, you would try to save a Rembrandt painting if you owned one. Why? Because the painting, unlike the comics, has two qualities that we in our society value most: truth and beauty. Both are entertaining, but only the painting is considered valuable enough to save.

The Arts have been around as long as civilization; but Pop Culture really didn't come into its own until the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries, and it did so as part of the Industrial Revolution. Dance halls, motion pictures palaces, pulp fiction and other forms of "popular" entertainment arose to amuse factory workers that were trapped in the city with nothing to do on their day off. These people needed something to fill their time - not enrich their minds and souls - and popular culture seemed to answer that need. By definition it is transient, disposable and of very little value. Its one purpose is to entertain, not leave a residue of truth or beauty in the person's life.

In the Church, we have become convinced that we need to entertain and WOW our congregations the way the world does - so, we fill our services with Pop Culture rather than liturgy and worship. Take for example the following song. I've talked before about the fourth grade boys I disciple. [Please note: My comments apply to the Church at large, not to my church in particular. I use my church as an example only because it is the one with which I am most familiar.] This past Sunday, we heard the song "D-I-E 4 Y-O-U" by Family Force 5, which was one of the groups I mentioned in my first article on "Christian Music." Here are some of the lyrics:

I'd take a bullet for you
Bleed all my blood out for you
Be taken hostage, under the knife's edge
Pay all the ransom for you

Do the hard time for you
On the front lines for you
Bring on the pain, the ball and chain
Be executed for you

I'll cover for you, take a hit
I'm your alibi
I got your back
I'm living every day just to die

Every day I die for you
Throw me in the fire, I'd walk right through
I made a promise, it's an I-O-U
I'd D-I-E for Y-O-U

I'd D-I-E for Y-O-U
I'd D-I-E for Y-O-U
I'd die for you, die, D-I-E for you
I'd D-I-E, I'd die for you

Now, compare the song "Amazing Grace" by John Newton:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we've been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we've first begun.

Note the difference in focus and tone between these two songs. "D-I-E 4 Y-O-U" is about the singers and what they would do for God; "Amazing Grace" is about God and what He has done for us. "D-I-E 4 Y-O-U" has an attitude of arrogance and self-reliance; "Amazing Grace" has an attitude of humility and dependence. "D-I-E 4 Y-O-U" is loud and obnoxious; "Amazing Grace" is gentle yet rousing. [I know who Family Force 5 is trying to be like: Prince. Not only have they imitated his look and attitude in their publicity shot, but they have even imitated one of his songs: Prince has a song called, "I Would Die 4 U." What ever happened to originality?] Our focus has shifted from God to ourselves: that is the primary difference between these two songs, and between traditional worship and the "pop culture worship" most churches today have adopted.

The thinking behind "pop culture worship" is that if we can entertain the world the way they want to be entertained, then somehow we'll be able to share the Gospel with them and they'll be saved. It doesn't work like that. You don't attract a bear with bear poop - you do it with honey. You don't catch a fish with another fish, normally - you do it with a worm or fly. The lost aren't looking for more of what they already have - just in a different can with a different label reading "Christian." They are looking for what they don't have - Christ, although they don't know that's what they're looking for. So, we're going to trick them into it, by disguising ourselves as them? Is that how Christ did it?

What we in the Church are accomplishing with our "pop culture Christianity," I'm afraid, is not the attracting and conversion of the lost, but rather the unwitting conversion of our own children from being children of the Word to children of the world. One of the boys in my group recently told me he had a birthday party. I knew he liked Huey Lewis and the News, so I asked him, "Did you play Huey for the guys at your party?" "No," he said, "I played the Stones." The Rolling Stones at a fourth grade birthday party! My one consolation is that this particular boy seems especially hungry for God. I am not saying that I believe heavenly creatures cannot or should not enjoy worldly entertainments. But I do believe they will be seriously hindered in their spiritual growth if they make a steady diet of it.

God didn't call us to be secret agents, infiltrating the world disguised as them. He said, "Come out from among them and be separate." (2 Corinthians 6:17) The word "sanctified," which is used throughout scripture to describe the process by which we become more and more like Christ, means "set apart." We have been set apart, separated from the rest of the world for God's purpose. What is that purpose? To imitate Christ and become more and more like Him. That's how we change into children of Light. Then He sends us back out into the world, not disguised as darkness in order to reach darkness, but as lights in the midst of darkness.

So, what's the answer? The answer is that we need to come up with our own culture, an alternative culture, so that people in the world can see the dramatic difference between the Church and the world. There is a dramatic difference between light and darkness. They do not look or sound anything alike, the way Family Force 5 and Prince look and sound alike. The devil has done a good job talking us out of becoming lights and permeating our culture with the values of Christ. God wants Christians to produce their own culture so that it will reflect the light of His Kingdom - as opposed to the culture of the world, which reflects the kingdom of darkness - just as He wanted the Children of Israel to produce their own culture and not copy the cultures of the nations with which they were surrounded. God wants both us and our culture to reflect Him. And He has given us tools to do that: scripture, nature and the examples of believers in the past. But do we use those tools to learn about music, art and life? No, we go to the world and study how they do things and then imitate them. Thus, we look and sound just like the world.

Here's what God wants: "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things" (Philippians 4:8). If we dwell on these things, we will produce a culture that not only glorifies God, but wins the lost as well. But if we dwell on the things of the world, we will become like the world and do neither.


Waitsel Smith, November 14, 2008

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[Send me yours and I'll include them on this page. Let me know what you think.]

Waitsel... Good thoughts. I definitely agree that we should be influencing the world rather than vice versa... but I have a different interpretation of the song you presented as an example. Are those all the lyrics? I have not heard it, but just reading the lyrics you put there made me think it might be coming from the point of view of Christ or God who would die for us and in fact did. Or it could be a statement about how we should feel and act for our brothers and sisters, willing to die, take a bullet, what have you for them. "No greater love..." I have heard some of their music and no it can be seen as "loud and obnoxious," as you say, but can people/other generations worship that way? I dunno... might be they aren't worshipping but rather just like the music cause it sounds a lot like their worldly counterparts/influences as you contend. I'll admit, there is a striking resemblance to Prince in their photo.

I still think, though, you're not looking in the right place for creativity and God-glorifying music in the Christian realm... I think it's deferent out there. Have you had a chance to listen to Jon Foreman? Derek Webb? Sandra McCraken? All really good, honest, original stuff.

Anyway, thanks for writing, and, like I said, I agree with what you're saying, that Christians and their art should be "set apart" and influencing the world and attracting Christians... great thoughts! Keep at it! - Scott, Atlanta

I've been getting your emails for awhile now and would first like to say that I really enjoy them. I appreciate someone who stands firmly for what they believe and isn't wishy-washy - it's refreshing. While I totally agree with your view of pop culture, I really don't think that all contemporary Christian music fits into that category. While some of it certainly does, I still find some artists that make great music that is God-focused and uplifting. Third Day and Casting Crowns are my favorites, and I think they do a good job of creating fun, relevant and convicting music. Just my 2 cents. Keep writing. God bless. - Joe

You mention Prince in your article. He and I were good friends in boy's school. He spent many of his holidays with me and my family in North Carolina. He is quite a piece of work. His personal life was a wreck and his growing up years were even worse, as he had no direction for making good decisions. All of his friends were children of broken homes and extreme affluence. He was tossed to the curb and left at school during holidays and breaks because neither his mom nor his dad had time for him. Hence, he spent them with me. His dad was the President of 20th Century Fox. One thing in his favor, he had classical music training and he and I sang together quite a bit in choir and had private voice lessons. I haven't heard from him since his mother died. He took on a symbol for his persona and went into hiding. Dick Clark owned him for a while until he begged his way out from under him. Oh well, I don't really know why I told you all this other than to give you perspective on Prince's approach to pop culture. He was a devout Episcopalian and was baptized by sprinkling, I was there. He made a profession of faith, so I guess he will spend eternity with you and me.

Prince is extremely smart and very sensitive. Nothing in his world is as it seems. No one has a real name, real address, or stays in a relationship for long for the right reasons, it is always for hype or furthering an image that isn't real either. You get the feel for the environment he endured and probably still does. We all have secrets and he is no different from you or me, he hurts and gets scared of things. He hasn't proclaimed Jesus on Trinity Broadcasting but his life has a value equal to mine, so we will love each of us for what our soul is valued, not where we find ourselves in society. - Joey, North Carolina

Thanks for all your great comments!

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Text and Chart © 2008 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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