Recently, an HBO series with a large cultural following came to an end. Barely a month prior, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s film saga reached a conclusion with the highly anticipated “Avengers: Endgame.” Both the television series and film produced a number of responses from Christians. From those who objected to watching the HBO series because of its content, to those who said they were willing to watch it for its storytelling, Christians looked for ways to understand and engage with both of these massive cultural markers.
Regardless of the stance you take, the same questions arise every time popular culture produces something that seems almost inescapable in terms of popularity. Should Christians watch certain shows or not? Are some series too violent? What does the story of “Captain Marvel” reveal about our current focus on gender roles? How does “Black Panther” deal with questions of race that are timeless and relevant? What do superhero movies reveal about our need for a savior?
Offering a story of our own
For the Christian, we can choose from three options. We can either go unquestioningly with the flow of culture and consume what we are given. At the other end is the option to do as some Christians of the past and completely disengage from culture, insisting instead on our own subculture and institutions. Both of these options are problematic. The answer offered by Daniel Strange in Plugged In is a third way between these extremes. Rather than ignore or receive uncritically, Strange desires to offer us a method for understanding the cultural stories we encounter and also offering a story of our own—a story of the person of Christ and his plan for the cosmos (17).
Although culture can mean any number of things from shared language, interests, or even clothing, at its root, “culture is the stories we tell that express meaning about the world” (23). As Strange points out, there are two components to this definition that are important: story and meaning. For the Christian, this definition should seem familiar because the gospel is ultimately the same thing: a story about the person of Jesus Christ and his importance (meaning) for the world.
However, the gospel is not a story that acts in contrast to culture. It actually flows through the culture and is adapted to each context. This is why different things are appropriate in different contexts. It is not the truth of the gospel, but rather the context of the gospel that has changed.
How to engage cultural stories
Strange offers the reader with a simple pattern for engaging the cultural stories around us with the story of the gospel in each of these shifting contexts. Christians should seek to enter the world of their culture and participate, understand the stories being told, show how those stories are incomplete, and then offer the story of the gospel.
Strange is clear that this is a method or pattern, not a one-size-fits-all formula (121). There will be times when individuals will (and should) for the sake of their own spiritual health abstain from particular manifestations of culture. As Paul says to the church at Corinth, each should act in accordance to their conscience, but ensure that they are not causing another to stumble (1 Cor. 8). Christians also must not confuse the liberty of the conscience with license to act as they please. Thus, the conscience should always be guided by the community of the church. By setting up the guardrails of a community all united in glorifying God, the church acts as a deterrent from a conscience that has been numbed while also ideally preventing us from becoming to legalistic and placing our personal rules on others.
The strength of Plugged In is the way that it does not create an oppositional narrative between Christianity and culture. The cultural stories that we create are not necessarily antithetical to the story of the gospel. Often, they are revealing to us the way that we are constantly attempting to recreate that story. This is why we seek out superhero movies, because we know that something is wrong and that we are unable to set it right—we need a savior. The story of Jurassic Park is the story of our desire to create and take dominion over creation, as well as the limits of that power, a concept found in Genesis 1-3. And many shows reveal the importance of family and the power of a name/identity, themes that the Apostle Paul refers to often (Eph. 2:1-11; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 4:1-7).
Further, Strange reminds the reader that often we are too selective in what we view as problematic. Christians are rightly wary of any hint of sexual immorality on their screens. This is a good thing. However, nudity and sexual images, while often more explicit, are not the only things of concern (83). Christians should not just avoid sexual images, they should think critically about the stories that are being portrayed. There is as much danger in a constant message of cynicism as there is in a violent war scene. For some, the danger may be small, but for all of us, our worldview is being shaped by these stories. In some cases, that shaping is good, such as the stories of sacrifice found in movies and books about the experience of war. In others, the worldview shaping is confirming a distrust of institutions and fosters a sense of anger inconsistent with the Christian worldview. In either case, the Christian should consider how they are being shaped by the media that they consume.
Plugged In is a great resource for anyone thinking about how they can better engage their culture. This book does not offer a formula for evaluating “can I watch this?” It does offer questions for how Christians should approach the issue. So you will not come away with a definite rule for whether certain shows are acceptable viewing or when to look away during the next summer blockbuster. You will however have an awareness of the stories that are shaping you and how to bring the metastory of the gospel to each situation. As a people with a story to tell, Strange reminds us that we cannot just consume media, but must look for ways to transform it with the power of the gospel.