As a new school year begins, Christians keep wrestling with popular culture: the stories, songs, games, and more that fill our world and influence our children.
Parents often ask, “How much is too much?” about their children’s smartphones or game-playing time. Pastors, who may have once cautioned about popular culture, now wonder if they should emphasize the good in top-ranked stories and songs.
From our private concerns to the public #CancelNetflix campaign, we tend to proclaim what popular culture shouldn’t do. But we miss an even more pivotal question: what is the purpose of popular culture in the real world?
If we miss this purpose, we may drift into unhelpful responses, based on trends or experiences or our wish to fix the mistakes of other Christians. Even worse, we may risk trying to live in some impossible world instead of the real world where Christ calls us to worship him, raise families, and spread his gospel.
Three Flawed Responses to Popular Culture
1. Hands-off parenting
This response errs on the side of neglecting popular culture. Parents may treat their children’s popular-culture pursuits as no big deal. Some may justify this with phrases like, “It’s just entertainment.” Or we may suppose we’re safe if we limit our children to the content of creators who offer “family friendly” media. Either way, parents may outsource their discernment to others. We mistakenly treat popular culture as some benign influence that we can easily manage, rather than a serious reflection of both grace and sin.
2. Endless childproofing
This response errs on the side of caution about popular culture. Parents act as if these stories and songs represent mainly sinful or even satanic risks to their children. So, they may restrict popular culture to protect their children, similar to how they might lock up toxic chemicals or sharp objects. They forego plans, however, to help children grow from “innocence” to maturity, which requires knowing popular culture’s nature and rightful purpose in the real world.
3. Only praising the good
This newer approach (attempted by some Christians) prefers to identify reflections of redemption or justice in popular cultural works, without giving as much attention to the idolatries these stories just as readily reflect. This approach veers toward evangelistic pragmatism, using popular culture as a mere tool for spiritual-sounding ends. Those who try it may ignore children’s (or their own!) vulnerability to popular culture’s idols.
Meant to Help Us Glorify God
Instead, let’s define popular culture’s nature and purpose according to the Bible.
An old and biblical concept helps explain the purpose of popular culture in God’s universe. Theologians call this the cultural mandate. It’s first referenced in Genesis 1:28, when God commands Adam and Eve to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue the planet. This is a “royal” calling. Our Creator appoints his image-bearers to steward his world on his behalf to bring glory to his name. Surprisingly, God tells people to form families in the same verse as he commands us to make culture! If we believe in marriage and families, we must also believe in culture-making.
God’s mandate starts with tasks like tilling the earth and planting trees. This is literal cultivation. We are sub-creators who make stuff using God’s stuff—not only agriculture, science, and tools, but cultural works like stories and songs.
Popular culture is a subset of culture. Once upon a time, popular culture consisted of festival songs, oral histories, and parables like those Jesus told. Today, people use technology—such as radio, TV, internet, and the like—to distribute newer forms of stories and songs (and more) to mass audiences. These gifts are not “neutral,” or some kind of distracting invaders in this world. God meant them as his gifts to enjoy, for the purpose of worshiping him and spreading his glory.
Five Questions to Train Kids
But we can’t stop at saying, “Popular culture is God’s gift to help us glorify him.” Ever since God gave the cultural mandate, people have rebelled against this calling. Thorns and thistles resist our labor to harvest food from the earth. Likewise, corruption pricks and stabs at our attempts to share excellent stories and songs.
Jesus, however, has come to redeem rebel humans. He begins in our hearts, then works his transformation outward to our gift-enjoyments and our world. He makes originally good gifts holy again, “by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4–5).
As Christian parents engage popular culture with kids, we must know this gospel purpose. We also need to flesh out this worldview with specific questions. Here are five examples.
1. What is the story? Parents must ensure that we know what happened in a cultural work. (This takes creativity for things like songs and memes.)
2. What is the moral and imaginary world? We must know what to expect of the story’s genre, as well as its imaginary landscapes and pictures of good versus evil.
3. What is good, true, and beautiful in this world? Find common grace: examples of virtues, yes, but also the creators’ moments of God-reflecting creativity.
4. What is false and idolatrous in this world? This goes beyond just counting the cuss words. Explore what things the story claims are good but that can’t truly satisfy our hearts.
5. How is Jesus the true answer to this story’s hopes? Finally, let’s point to Jesus by name. Idols won’t fulfill our good longings. Only Christ in his gospel can do this.
Giver of Gifts
Discussions like these may start informally with young children, then become more structured as children age. Lord willing, by the teen years, this approach will be second nature. By habit we’ll perceive the biblical purpose and limits of popular culture.
We can better teach our children to pursue this lifetime journey of redeeming these corrupted gifts for our chief end: to glorify Jesus, as we build relationships and share his gospel in a world that desperately needs to know the Giver.