I am all about my children learning new languages. They study French in school. And if they could add an Asian language to their repertoire, even better. So thanks to pop culture (more specifically, “K-pop”), my kids have gotten a head start. They already know at least two Korean colloquialisms: “Oppan” and “Gangnam.”
No, they have not seen the “Gangnam Style” YouTube video. But they know the horse-trotting, lassoing and reign-snapping-style dance move, and they know the beat and the chorus (including the “oooh sexy lady” bit). They know all this because so many of their friends are among the 1.2 billion who have watched the video online.
I know—it’s relatively clean compared to most music videos. I know—the signature dance move is more silly than promiscuous. I know—the whole thing is all just for kicks.
But it’s not the “Gangnam Style” dance moves that really bother me. I’m just not keen on my 8-year-old son wondering if it really is OK for a man to stare at the posterior of a lady doing her yoga routine (assuming it’s yoga). I don’t want my 10-year old daughter to think that those short-shorts are hip. And I don’t want them to see that guy doing pelvic thrusts in an elevator over PSY’s head.
Maybe you’re thinking, “C’mon, don’t be such a prude.” And you wouldn’t be the first.
We culture-savvy Christians recoil at the labels assigned to us by society. My wife and I have been noticing of late that few labels are more feared than those of “sheltered,” “out-of-touch,” or “prudish.”
As a minister and a theological student (I have been both, off and on, for the past 15 years), the guys I used to work with in lumberyards and on construction crews would apologize after cussing in my presence. They would sometimes ask, after retelling some wild sexual escapade, “Oh, I’m sorry—does that offend you?” Their narratives of the night were full of filth (and probably a lot of fiction), but the pressure was on to say, “Oh, of course I’m not offended. Not at all.” The last thing I wanted was for them to think I was an inexperienced, sheltered, pious prude.
The Church has been so antagonistic to cultural winds that Christians of younger generations are quick to dissociate from our more fundamentalist forbearers. We are embarrassed that one of our denominations once tried to boycott Disney flicks. We are ashamed of all the judgmentalism directed toward anyone who fancies a tattoo. In an act of spiritual bravado, many of us Gen-Xers took the precious cassettes of our favorite rock bands and destroyed them as a religious rite in the name of Jesus. Today, many of us regret that moment of intense anti-cultural piety.
We do not want to be viewed anymore as anti-culture, anti-fun, anti-entertainment. We do not want to be labeled as holier-than-thou goody-goodies who can’t stomach seeing a little flesh at the cinema, who can’t handle a little language or innuendo on TV.
In this pendulum swing from being prudes to being libertines, though, is it possible that innocence is becoming a vice? Are we now regarding purity as a liability when it comes to reaching our culture? Is our willingness to be exposed to sexualized media a virtue?
Did Jesus say in Matthew 5:8, “Out-of-touch are the pure in heart,” or did He call them “blessed”?
“Be wise as serpents, and as culture-savvy as the average viewer”? Or is it, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”? (Matthew 10:16).
Pop culture is fun. A lot of it is harmless. My tween daughter regularly listens to her favorite boy-band sensation in the UK on our iPod (One Direction—oh yeah), and even my 2-year old daughter knows some of the dance moves to Beyoncé’s “All the Single Ladies” (the hand motions, not so much the hip-swaying). My boys and I have lightsaber duels, and we all love catching the latest kid-friendly flicks.
But one day my daughter was terribly disturbed when a knight placed a blade at the throat of another character in one of the Shrek sequels. We had to turn the movie off, and I was annoyed at how ridiculous she was being. “Sweetheart, c’mon—it’s only a silly movie.” Don’t be such a fuddy-duddy.
Then it hit me. After years of absorbing pop cultural entertainment, seeing a sword at a person’s throat didn’t really bother me. Maybe my daughter saw that scene more accurately than I did. Not unlike the citizens of the Capitol in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, maybe I have been desensitized to harsh realities that are so casually caricatured in popular media.
My point is not that we should only watch movies starring Kirk Cameron. I’m not suggesting that “Gangnam Style” is the latest trickery unleashed by the devil to misguide the masses. I have no interest in promoting the trends of legalism, moralism and cultural irrelevance that the Church just can’t seem to shake.
My point, rather, is that innocence is precious and that preserving it is not a vice. It is OK for us to be offended by the offensive. We are not to be moralistic, but we are called to be moral. Scripture beckons us to purity (Matthew 5:8), to wholesome speech (Ephesians 4:29), to honoring the sanctity of the marriage bed (Hebrews 13:4), to discerning good and evil (Romans 12:2). Somehow, we need to learn how to be culture-savvy and yet innocent as doves.
Maybe that’s why Jesus paired the call to innocence with a call to wisdom.
When it comes to appropriating culture, the lines can be fuzzy. Paul acknowledged that some Christians in Rome and Corinth could handle certain cultural elements that other Christians needed to avoid. Some of my friends watch “Gangnam Style” with their kids and they are cool with it. For us to judge one another would be wrong.
Not all the lines are blurry, though. And it is OK to choose innocence, even if our decision to turn our eyes from the screen or to close our ears to obscenities potentially upsets the other viewers and auditors. I guess we could ask them, “Oh, I’m sorry—does that offend you?”
Of course, that question would probably be unhelpful. But our culture does not just need our participation—it also needs our loving protest. When Jesus called His disciples to innocence in Matthew 10, the occasion was His sending them out into culture. Innocence is not a virtue we practice by extracting ourselves from society. It is a virtue practiced while embedded within it—for our culture’s own good.