Pop Culture: Big Mac for the Mind

hamburgerIn his book “How Now Shall We Live” Chuck Colson challenges that the first step to examining “the worldview behind pop culture” is to find “ a workable definition of pop culture.”  So combining different thoughts Colson  suggests in the chapter we might say that pop culture is: “a new culture, mass produced and standardized, light in substance and meaning,which transcends particular ethnic groups and invades all cultures.”  He states that “the call to redeem popular culture is surely one of the most difficult challenges Christians face today, because pop culture is everywhere, shaping our tastes, our language, and our values.”  Perhaps one of the greatest challenges it poses is the threat to becoming a person of substance.  As he points out in the chapter, most aspects of the Christian life require discipline and concentration.  What pop cultures offers us is easy distraction, mindless entertainment.

In the documentary “Supersize Me”, a man decided to see what the effects on his health and body would be if he ate McDonalds at every meal for months.  The film documents his daily visits to the food chain and the end results.   Aside from the obvious result of just being sick of eating fast food, he gained weight, looked gross, and felt sick and sluggish.  Anyone who watched the film would think twice about eating fast food.  Yet we daily infuse our minds with a diet which is no less healthy.  Colson refers to Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage “the message is the medium.”  What this means is that it is not only that the content of pop culture is of little substance, but so is the form in which it comes.  Pop culture is full of forms which require us to use our intellect very little.  The form is such that it is meant to be entertaining but little else.  One example is the book “Twilight.” It is an enormously popular book and netted 70 million dollars as a movie on its opening weekend.   Not bad for fluff.  A friend of mine suggested we read it.   I picked it up and read the first paragraph and then put it back down.  I said, “Forget this. Let’s read the greatest vampire novel of all time. Let’s read Dracula.”  I wanted to see if Bram Stoker could really depict evil as I have encountered it.  He did not disappoint.  The book was riveting.  Half way through the novel I had already looked up twenty vocabulary words I was not familiar with, and that’s not just because I am stupid.  The book had weight and substance.  It required me to come to it with curiosity.  It made me grapple with evil.  It engaged me in thought.  It was a long book, which required discipline to finish.   In short it was a classic.

If we want to be weighty people, people of substance, we have to look at our diet.  We have to, as Colson challenges, read things that “challenge our mind and deepen our character.”  We must strive to feed our minds and listen with our ears to things of excellence. There is no more excellent thing upon which to feed than the word of God itself. What kind of people would we be if we stopped watching t.v. And used that time to read the word of God? We would be transformed and the effects would be eternal.

Colson, Chuck. How Now Shall We Live. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999.

Searching For Mercy: Lessons from Huckleberry Finn

“Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” Matthew 5:7

One of the things that I appreciate about Twain’s writing is that you can be reading along enjoying the experience similar to laying on a bank watching the clouds float by. Then all of the sudden he twists the plot and you feel as if cold water has just been thrown in your face. He does that at the end of Chaper 23 of Huckleberry Finn. The main character Huck is running away from his abusive father and a local slave Jim is running away from his slave master. Circumstances bring them together and Huck decides to help Jim. Since then they have been rafting down the Mississippi River. At this juncture Huck and Jim are having a conversation about the carpetbaggers that are now tagging along with them. Then Huck goes to sleep and waits for Jim to call him for his watch. Jim unselfishly doesn’t call Huck for his turn. When Huck wakes he finds Jim sitting with his head between his knees,”moaning and mourning to himself.” Huck understands without being told that Jim is mourning for his family. Huck notes to himself that Jim is a good man. He begins talking with Jim about his wife and young children. Jim tells him about the time he treated his “little Lizabeth so ornery.” She was only four years old and had caught scarlet fever. He tells Huck that she eventually gets well. Then he relates to Huck:

“One day she was a stannin’ aroun’, en I says to her, I says, “Shet de do’” She never done it; jis’ stood dah, kiner smilin’ up at me. It make me mad;en I says again, mighty loud, I says “Doan’ you hear me?-shet de do’!” She jis stood de same way, kiner smilin’ up. I was a-bilin’! I says: “I lay I make you mine!” En wid dat I fetch’ her a slap side de head dat sent her a sprawlin’. Den I went into the other room, en’uz gone ’bout ten minutes; en when I come back, dah was dat do’ a stannin’ open yit, end dat chile stannin’ mos’ right in it, a-lookin’ down and mournin’, en de tears runnin’ down. My, but I wuz mad. I was gwyne for the chile, but jis den- it was a do’ dat open innerds- jis den, ‘long come de wind en slam it to, behine de chile, ker-blam!-en my lan that chile never move’! My breff mos’ hop outr me; en I feel so-so-I doan’ know how I feel. I crope out, all a-tremblin’, en crope aroun’ en open de do’ easy en slow, en poke my head in behine de chile, sof’ en till, en all uv a sudden, I says pow! Jis’ as loud as I could yell: She never budge! Oh Huck, I bust out a-cryin’ en grab her up in my arms, en say, ‘Oh ed po’ little thing! De Lord forgive po’ ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to forgive hisself as long’s he live!” Oh she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plumb, deef en dumb-en I’d ben a treat’n her so!” Upon reading those words I cried. Jim describes so movingly in his slang how he discovers for the first time his daughter has been rendered deaf and dumb due to the scarlet fever infection. To his dismay he has punished her for not carrying out an order she could not hear.

If someone should ask me what should most prominently define a Christian I would say: love. However a close second, and intimately tied to it, would be mercy. Any person who is truly resting in Christ’s work alone for his salvation must by default be merciful. Yet when I look for mercy among Christians I am ashamed to say I often find it absent. It struck me how much this passage portrays what really goes on among our interactions with people. We come upon someone and they smile at us. We have no idea the burden they may be carrying. Yet when they do not act as we feel they should or respond as we would hope, we judge them privately. Then instead of seeking understanding we go up and slap then in the face. We slap them with our self-righteousness, we slap them with our condemning attitudes, we slap them them with platitudes, we slap them with advice, we slap them with gossiping behind their back, we slap them so hard we send them sprawling. Then later we find out that her husband left her, he just was diagnosed with cancer, she went bankrupt, she buried her only child, he was just widowed. We are stricken. If only we had known! If only, then we would have been merciful. Mercy is not a difficult skill to master. It does however require humility. It requires us to understand that we are all on equal footing. That but by the grace of God we would be walking that same road. Mercy, as Tozer defines it, “is God’s active compassion.” If God could be so merciful to save us, how could we not extend mercy to our fellow traveler who is in the same pit as we are? Active compassion looks like: listening to understand, being quiet, offering a hug, bringing a meal, sitting with the lonely, crying with the heartbroken, putting an arm around the grieving. It mostly involves presence. The wise in heart know that when encountering the hurting, shutting their mouth is a blessed relief. Job said of his worthless counselors : “Your proverbs are maxims of ashes.” (Job 13:12)

I myself have been sorely in need of mercy these past few years. I have searched for it, but have found it in the rare few. Mostly my pain has been intensified by all the slaps. To be misunderstood is a very lonely place. To be misunderstood and mistreated even more so. God forgive us all for being such poor representatives and for failing to extend to others the mercy they so desperately needed.