Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Music, Media, and Movies: The Quest for the Minds of America - Part I of IV

NOTE: The following are teaching notes from the first in a series of four Wednesday night studies at St. Stephen's Church in Louisville.

Music, Media & Movies: The Quest for the Minds of America
St. Stephen’s Church, Louisville KY

Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Part I. War of the World(view)s: The Cultural Battle for the American Mind

Mark 12:28-31 lays out the greatest commandment:

28One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
29"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' 31The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

The Great Commandment is going to be our key text for the next four weeks. We are going to seek to love the Lord our God with our full heart, and soul, and mind, and strength. Our focus is going to be particularly upon loving God with all our minds – to grow in our intellectual love for God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The average American apparently watches nearly 1700 hours of television and movies over the course of a calendar year – that’s nearly five hours per day. We also spend time on the internet, listening to movies, reading magazines, books, and journals. In short, we are all massive consumers of popular culture. In itself, this is neither good nor bad. Popular culture is neither inherently evil nor intrinsically good—like most things in life, it can be used for either good or bad.

Tonight, and for the next four weeks, we are going to look together at the battle which is waged in popular culture, a battle with deadly serious consequences. I will submit to you that there is a war of worldviews going on in pop culture, and the territory the battle is being fought over is the hearts and minds of you and me.

Ephesians 6:10-18 reads:

10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

The Apostle Paul encourages the church in Ephesus to be prepared for what – for the “devil’s schemes.” We are to “be strong” in God, to stand “in his mighty power.” God has not left us defenceless, but has provided us with the “full armor” that we need to stand against everything Satan can throw our way. What does the armor consist of? (1) The belt of truth. (2) The breastplate of righteousness. (3) The gospel of peace on our feet. (4) The shield of faith, which extinguishes “all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” (5) The helmet of salvation. (6) The sword of the Spirit, i.e., the word of God. And finally, (7) Prayer in the Spirit on all occasions.

So why do we need the armor of God? Because we will be attacked by the evil one; Satan will try to drive us away from God.

1 Peter 5:6-11 reads:

5Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,
"God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble." 6Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
8Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
10And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

As Christians, we all know that there is a battle being waged for our soul. We are caught up in the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil—between the Triune God who created and loves us, and Satan and his fallen angels who seek to destroy us. 1 Peter 5 and Ephesians 6 simply remind us that there is a battle going on, and we are to be prepared for it.

In 1941, Nazi Germany was at war with the rest of Europe (and Canada). Germany had invaded and defeated the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Poland. She had signed a peace treaty with Communist Russia, establishing a secure eastern front. Towards the summer of 1941, however, rumors began circulating that Hitler was planning on violating his peace treaty with Stalin’s Russia. Stalin did not believe the reports. Eventually, German bombers and tanks poured across the border in huge numbers, and drove the unprepared and unsuspecting Russian armies back hundreds of miles. The Communists were, for over a year, defeated and driven back continually, all because they had not been prepared for the attack that they ought to have known was coming.

I submit to you that the same thing is happening in North America today, and has been happening in America for the past 50-75 years. A battle has been going on for the minds and souls of America, and Christians have been steadily losing, partly because they have often not even realized that there was a battle going on! The battle that I am talking about occurs in the realm of popular culture—movies, television, music, books, magazines, the internet—and seeks to gain ground within our minds.

Over the coming four weeks, we are going to peer into the battle for our minds which is being waged in popular culture. Rather than laying out a barrage of arguments or examples or clips this evening to try to prove to you that there is a battle going on, we are going to come at it gradually, building from week to week. If you’re already convinced that there is a cultural battle going on, then I invite you along for the ride—share your thoughts on what’s going on in and around us. If you’re somewhat skeptical at the outset, I invite you to raise your questions, your doubts, about the reality of the battle in popular culture. By challenging and questioning one another, in Christian love and respect, we will all be sharpened and nurtured in our faith. My desire is for each of us to learn to love the Lord our God more and more—with our heart, soul, mind, and strength together.

As we consider popular culture and our involvement in it, I want to suggest that we need to be more than just passive recipients of culture. I am not going to suggest that we avoid pop culture, and boycott television, magazines, the internet, or movies. Rather, I will suggest that we need to be critically engaged participants in popular culture. Let’s break down that phrase a little bit.

(1) Popular culture – we have already identified as media which are produced for mass popular consumption. Movies, television, magazines, books, internet sites, Facebook, music, radio, etc.

(2) Engaged Participants – a participant is more than just a passive consumer. Let me give you a sports example, from my favorite sport of hockey. When I go to a hockey game, there are at least three ways that I can be there. First, I can be a player – on the ice, taking a regular shift, taking shots on net, dishing out thundering hits. In pop culture terms, a player is someone who is making culture – a musician, writer, producer, actor, etc. Like hockey, not many of us can be players in pop culture. Second, at the other end of the spectrum, I can be at the hockey game as a spectator, simply sitting and watching the game, eating my popcorn and hot dog, drinking my pop, sitting on my hands. You know the type of fan, right? The fellow who doesn’t stand for the big play at the football game; who doesn’t get up to cheer a touchdown? That’s a spectator. In popular culture terms, a spectator is someone who unthinkingly and unreflectively ingests whatever comes over the media wavelengths. We could, in a sense, think of the spectator as the couch potato. Not a perfect analogy, but it will do. Third, instead of being a player or a spectator, I can go to the hockey game as a participant. I’m not on the ice playing the game, but nor am I merely sitting back watching it. Instead, I am actively engaged in the game – watching plays develop, pondering what I would do differently if I was the coach or a player. I can actively holler my support for my team, wear my team jersey. In popular culture, a participant interacts with media – shouting at the TV, worrying over what’s going to happen to their favorite character, longing to see the hero do the right thing, etc.

(3) Critically – an engaged participant is an active consumer of popular culture. To be critically engaged goes one step further, and involves an intellectual and spiritual discernment of popular culture. It involves asking critical questions of what we’re watching or reading or listening to.

Tonight, my desire is simply to set forth one thought for us to ponder together. My suggestion to you tonight is that we can become critically engaged participants in the pop culture War of Worldviews by asking ourselves 4 questions as we watch, listen to, or read pop culture media. Tonight we’re going to look at these 4 questions together, and then over the coming weeks we will apply these questions to various pop culture forms, and particular issues in popular culture.

Question #1 – How does this affect me? my walk with God?

What emotions do I sense going through me as I watch this show or listen to this music? How does it affect my relationship with God? Does it inspire me to love God more? Does it tempt me to sin?

In 1 Corinthians 6:12-14, the Apostle Paul is responding to questions the Corinthian church had been asking him, about whether they ought to be involved in certain practices. Paul replies: Everything is permissible for me, but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. Food for the stomach, and the stomach for food, but God will destroy them both. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.

I love jazz music – old classics like Louie Armstrong and John Coltrane, and some 80s and 90s guys like Winton Marsalis. There is something about jazz and blues that makes me more thoughtful and pensive – I find myself reflecting on life, the universe and everything when I listen to Louie Armstrong. The music connects with my soul. On the other hand, when I was a atheistic teenager in the late 80s and early 90s, I enjoyed listening to bands like Nirvana; Kurt Cobaine was a role model. Yet I found listening to Nirvana inherently depressing; it made me feel like life was a waste, worthless. Two different musicians, Louie Armstrong, Kurt Cobaine, who awakened very different moods within me.

Question #2 – What standards of behavior are being promoted or normalized?

What does this music, movie, book, or show present as being ‘normal’ or ‘admirable’ or ‘good’ or ‘worthwhile’ behavior? How do the movie’s standards of behavior and thought hold up in the light of Scripture?
A quick example. I have really enjoyed the Ocean’s movies – Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, Ocean’s Thirteen. Now, think through the qualities or activities that are glamorized or portrayed as admirable in those movies. Greed. Gambling. Deception. Robbery. The ‘good guys’ of the movie are, in the light of Scripture, not really good guys at all!

In 2 Kings 17, the northern kingdom of Israel is militarily defeated by the Assyrian Empire and carted off into exile, never to return. Why? Why does God allow His children to be exiled? Beginning in verse 7, we read:
7 All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt from under the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They worshiped other gods 8 and followed the practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before them, as well as the practices that the kings of Israel had introduced. 9 The Israelites secretly did things against the LORD their God that were not right. From watchtower to fortified city they built themselves high places in all their towns. 10 They set up sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree. 11 At every high place they burned incense, as the nations whom the LORD had driven out before them had done. They did wicked things that provoked the LORD to anger. 12 They worshiped idols, though the LORD had said, "You shall not do this." 13 The LORD warned Israel and Judah through all his prophets and seers: "Turn from your evil ways. Observe my commands and decrees, in accordance with the entire Law that I commanded your fathers to obey and that I delivered to you through my servants the prophets."
14 But they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their fathers, who did not trust in the LORD their God. 15 They rejected his decrees and the covenant he had made with their fathers and the warnings he had given them. They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless. They imitated the nations around them although the LORD had ordered them, "Do not do as they do," and they did the things the LORD had forbidden them to do.
16 They forsook all the commands of the LORD their God and made for themselves two idols cast in the shape of calves, and an Asherah pole. They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshiped Baal. 17 They sacrificed their sons and daughters in [c] the fire. They practiced divination and sorcery and sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, provoking him to anger.
18 So the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them from his presence. Only the tribe of Judah was left, 19 and even Judah did not keep the commands of the LORD their God. They followed the practices Israel had introduced. 20 Therefore the LORD rejected all the people of Israel; he afflicted them and gave them into the hands of plunderers, until he thrust them from his presence.

What was the sin of Israel? Well, there wasn’t just one thing, there was a multitude of sins. However, they all had something in common—the nation of Israel had allowed herself to embrace and follow the example of her pagan neighbors. Israel built ‘high places’ in honor of the gods and idols of other nations. They ‘rejected God’s decrees’; in verse 15, we see God say explicitly that “They imitated the nations around them although the Lord had ordered them, ‘Do not do as they do.’”

Consider the values and ethics and worldviews that are presented in the shows you watch and the music you listen to. Now, please note that I am not saying that if a movie portrays non-Christian values or philosophies, that you cannot watch it. Rather, you need to be critically engaged with the movie, understanding how the movie presents values which go against the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in order to not be influenced by them.

Question #3 – What worldview or philosophy is being promoted or normalized?

2 Corinthians 10:3-5 reads:
3For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

A worldview is a set of fundamental beliefs that each person has about the world and the way it works. A worldview answers at least six fundamental questions.
(1) What is the nature of ultimate reality? [i.e., is there a God?]
(2) What is the nature of man? [i.e., are we inherently good, or fallen and sinful?]
(3) What happens to us when we die?
(4) What is the nature of right and wrong? [i.e., is there such a thing as objective morality? Are some things really right and others really wrong? How can we know? What is right? What is wrong?]
(5) What is the basis of knowledge; i.e., how can we know anything? [i.e., can we have reliable knowledge of anything? What is the more reliable means to true knowledge?]
(6) What is the nature and meaning of time and history? [i.e., is time linear or cyclical? Is history purposeful (teleological), or random and meaningless?]

God’s Word encourages believers to derive their worldview from Scripture. Asking this question of popular culture is thus a way of discerning the worldview at work in the movies we’re watching and the music we’re listening to. As a teen, I loved Pink Floyd – I still appreciate their music for its intellectual and thoughtful presentation of life. However, the picture of life given in much of their music (especially their classic album, The Wall) presents life as ultimately violent, meaningless, and brief.

Now, what happens if we listen to such music, watch such videos, as an unengaged spectator? We listen to Pink Floyd without critically assessing what we’re listening to? Eventually, the thought forms and philosophy of the music filters into our own worldview and affects the way that we see life, the universe, and everything. Indeed, that very thing happened with me when I was a teenager – the music I listened to affected the way I looked at the world.

The Apostle Paul warns of this in Colossians 2:6-8.
6So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, 7rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
8See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

We are indeed vulnerable to being taken captive by other worldviews. The danger is even more acute, I would argue, when we aren’t aware of the battle that is being waged! If we remain passive consumers of pop culture, entering into the cultural battle entirely unprepared, we are liable to be sucked into worldly ways of thinking and acting. But as Romans 12:1-2 reminds us, that is precisely what we are not to do.
1Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Scripture consistently exhorts us to be influenced, affected, and changed by the things of God. As Christians, the desire is to have our minds renewed by the Spirit of God, rather than by the spirit of the world. Does that mean that Christians should not listen to Pink Floyd? Or other forms of pop culture that present a view of life contrary to Christianity? That’s something we’re going to ponder over the coming weeks together.

Question #4. How (if at all) does this portray God’s truth? God’s Kingdom?

The Ocean’s movies were popular in part because they reflected some of God’s truth. Yes, the rampant greed, deception, and thievery are contrary to the kingdom of God. Yet there were kernels of God’s truth in there as well. Can you think of some?

The biggest one, I would argue, is the truth that those who build their worldly kingdom (wealth, power, status, etc.) by taking advantage of other human beings will get what’s coming to them. The Old Testament prophets railed against the social injustice which the people of God perpetrated upon one another. One of my favorite prophets is Amos. In Amos 2:6-7, we read:
6 This is what the LORD says:
"For three sins of Israel,
even for four, I will not turn back {my wrath}.
They sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
7 They trample on the heads of the poor
as upon the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.
Father and son use the same girl
and so profane my holy name.

The nobility of the nation of Israel was wealthy, and was increasing its wealth at the expense of the poor. Throughout Scripture, God speaks out against oppressing the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner; He condemns those who hoard their wealth here on earth, and accumulate by stealing from others and taking advantage of the little guy. Well, the big bad casino owners in Ocean’s certainly qualify as the big bad bullies ripping off the little guys, taking advantage of folks in order to accumulate their wealth. And so there is a part of us that rightfully likes to see them ‘get what’s coming to them’. In a sense, we want justice to be enacted against them, and so we cheer on the likeable yet thoroughly sinful and pagan thieves in Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13 who rip off the major rip-offs. There is enough of God’s truth in Ocean’s to attract us—the question is whether we will allow ourselves to be influenced by the other aspects of the movies!

For a completely different perspective, consider the movie Amazing Grace that came out a couple of years ago. The movie highlighted the righteous struggle against the slave trade waged by British evangelicals like William Wilberforce. Wilberforce sought to serve the God who had redeemed him by giving his adult life in the battle to ban slavery throughout the British Empire—a battle which was eventually won. Amazing Grace was a wonderful depiction of God’s truth and God’s kingdom—all men are created equal by God, regardless of race, culture, or status. No man should be enslaved or oppressed by another. This is God’s truth, powerfully demonstrated in Amazing Grace. God’s Kingdom is about bringing God’s truth to bear in our midst—again, a reality shown in the movie.

Philippians 4:8-9 encourages us to fill our minds with such things.
8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

So these are four questions that I want us to ponder together. How does this affect me, and my walk with God? What behaviors does it promote or present as normal? What philosophy or worldview does it promote or present as normal? How (if at all) does this reflect God’s truth or God’s Kingdom?

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