Book Review

How Christians bring their own story to pop culture

Daniel Strange on what we read, play, and watch

May 31, 2019

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.   

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24