How to Evaluate Pop Culture in a Sex-Saturated World
Christian wisdom for interacting with arts and culture
For as long as I can remember, a certain tension has defined my life and vocation. It’s the tension of being a faithful, biblically committed Christian and also being a fan, critic, and curator of arts and culture. How can I maintain my Christian witness and keep my soul nourished with truth, even as I engage with a pop culture landscape that’s often full of untruths and spiritually toxic material? Is it possible to be enriched by what’s beneficial in pop culture (the good, true, and beautiful) without being tainted by what’s morally and spiritually corrosive?
One of the biggest flashpoints of this tension concerns the divergent views on sex and gender taken by biblical Christianity and worldly entertainment. In contemporary Western culture, no other issue more potently displays the wide gulf between biblical faith and worldly values. For Christian consumers of pop culture, it is vital we think wisely about how to interact with and evaluate media that advances perspectives on sex and gender at odds with biblical truth.
Here are four helpful tips.
1. Be Aware That It’s Everywhere
The first way Christians can be wise on this topic is by simply being aware that unbiblical and damaging views on sex and gender are the norm in contemporary pop culture. And it’s not just the “worst offenders” we should worry about.
HBO shows like “Euphoria” and Disney kids’ movies like “Lightyear” seem worlds apart on the “threat level” scale, but their visions of sex and gender both follow from the same distorted logic. The HBO shows may have extreme explicit content that make them obviously off limits for discerning Christian viewers, but explicit depiction of sex is only one aspect of the problem. The underlying philosophical assumptions are less visible but no less damaging.
These assumptions inform pop culture narratives everywhere—from G-rated cartoons to cereal commercials, NFL broadcasts to video games, celebrity social media posts to Pride month lattes at coffee shops. Regrettably, sometimes these worldly assumptions about sex and gender even infiltrate Christian music and “faith-based” entertainment.
So, as Christians navigate the vast terrain of pop culture, we should do so with sober awareness of the ubiquity and depth of confusion.
2. Be Wise in When You Abstain vs. Engage
One understandable response to the pervasive perversion of sex and gender in contemporary pop culture would be to simply retreat from it all. This might be wise for some Christians. However, it might be impractical or missionally harmful for others. My personal approach is to exercise discernment and wisdom more than wholesale rejection.
There is plenty in pop culture that is so sexually depraved and insidious in its advocacy of gender confusion that avoidance is definitely the best approach. Wise Christians should not hesitate to abstain from pop culture of this sort—even when it’s “critically acclaimed” or popular with masses of our friends, colleagues, or critics we respect. Sometimes our best witness is our willingness to say “no.”
But in other cases, it’s fitting to engage with pop culture. Contemporary media has huge formative power. Whether we like it or not, the way Hollywood portrays sex and gender is shaping an entire generation’s views. We need wise Christians to be able to critically engage with these narratives and songs in a way that models biblical discernment and truth-telling.
3. Be Able to Reject What’s Bad and Praise What’s Good
Younger Christians need to see older generations exemplify the ability to enjoy and appreciate what’s beautiful, good, and true in pop culture, while clearly identifying and rejecting what’s not. This is a lost art among Christians and in our culture at large.
We live in an all-or-nothing, black-and-white, us-or-them age. We tend to look at any given thing—a book, a movie, a politician, a social media post—through an “either-or” lens, wholly condemning or wholly condoning it. But much in pop culture is more complicated than that, requiring us to separate the good from the bad and the true from the false.
Take it from a film critic: Almost every work of pop culture has both commendable elements and unhelpful (and often downright egregious) elements. Very little that we watch or listen to should receive our unqualified praise or total condemnation. This means we must do the hard work of critical evaluation and discernment—looking at each thing in pop culture through the lens of biblical truth, praising what we can and rejecting what we must.
4. Be Steadfast in Embracing Scripture’s Vision
Ultimately, the best preparation for Christians seeking to wisely navigate the fraught terrain of contemporary pop culture is to be biblically literate. Immerse yourself in biblical theology on all things, including sex and gender. We need to know what God’s vision is so that we have the eyes to spot the distortions of sex and gender in pop culture.
And not only do we need to know it, but we need to love it, because the arts work on the affective level and have a knack for shaping our loves. When our loves are powerfully shaped in a certain direction, sometimes logic and truth take a backseat. We’ve seen this happen over the last 30 or so years, especially in popular TV shows which have made LGBT characters approachable and lovable for mainstream audiences (e.g., “Ellen,” “Will & Grace,” “Glee,” “Modern Family”).
If Christian audiences know but don’t love God’s vision for sex and gender, then we’ll be vulnerable to having our affections shaped in a “love is love” direction. The sympathetic LGBTQ+ stories we see on screen or the “authentic” lyrics we hear from queer musical artists have great power to make a worldly sex ethic compelling. If we’re not more compelled by God’s sex ethic—which gets scant little screen time in contemporary pop culture—then we’ll be easily swayed by the world’s vision.
This last point has been the most crucial for me. As a pop culture critic who not only watches more films and TV shows than the average Christian, but who has lived and worked in the geographical orbit of Hollywood for almost two decades, my ability to resist the secular onslaught regarding sex and gender has depended on the fact that I know and love God’s Word.
I am utterly compelled by God’s vision for sex and gender and thoroughly convinced that it is truer, more beautiful, and better for the world than what Hollywood pitches. Therefore, when I watch a film or show that advances a skewed vision of sex or depicts some aspect of gender confusion, I am not captivated by it; I grieve it. I pray for the lost souls these pop culture narratives reflect and are shaping. And I leave with more passion than ever to spread the gospel that is better than the false sexual gospels of our age.