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.

Dracula: Lessons Learned About The Nature Of Evil

My friend came bringing me a paperback copy of the book “Twilight.” I read the first paragraph and said, “Forget it. Let’s read the greatest vampire novel of all time. Let’s read Dracula.” I wanted to find out for myself first hand if Mr. Stoker really understood evil as I had experienced it. I wanted to know if he could “bring it.” I was not disappointed.

The main protagonist is Jonathon Harker. He is a solicitor and has been retained by Count Dracula. So he sets out for Transylvania to do business with the count. The first thing we notice in the story is that he is warned not to go. An old lady says to him, “Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?” She was in such evident distress that I tried to comfort her, but without effect. Finally she went down on her knees and implored me, not to go; at least to wait a day or two before starting.” Lesson one: evil is distressing. Most of us seem to be a lot like Harker, rushing headlong towards evil ignoring the signposts. What we find waiting for us is distress.

The first thing Harker notices when he meets Count Dracula is his prodigious strength as he helps Harker into his carriage. Harker says “His hand actually seemed like a steel vice that could have crushed mine if he had chosen.” Lesson two: evil is strong. Scripture tells the Christian “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4) God always reigns supreme. Yet in this life, evil people wield great power. The most evil people I have fought against in this life I have been delivered from. Every single one. They held more earthly power. They could “win” against me, but they could not “win” against God in any ultimate sense. He defeated their ability to dominate me.

Harker describes Dracula. “Within stood a tall man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere.” Lesson three: evil is ancient. Our foe has been around a long time. Count Dracula says to Harker, “Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will!” Lesson four: evil is inviting. To invite by definition is to make a polite, formal or friendly request to someone to go somewhere or do something. An invitation to do evil or get involved with an evil person rarely seems foolhardy. Evil often portrays itself as kind, helpful, caring. But any kindness it shows is merely a means to entangle it’s victim deeper. I once wrote a sonnet about the devil and I described him as debonair. He comes with such manners and grace that it seems like you are being invited to the White House rather than to death. Count Dracula continues, “Welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring.”

Lesson five: evil costs. It’s interesting to note here that the count invites Harker in and tells him he is free to come and go. We shall soon chillingly learn this is not the case. Satan is the master at presenting a temptation and making it look so attractive that you are distracted as to what it’s going to cost you. Then we like rather dumb sheep run toward the slaughter. He doesn’t have to come up with new temptations. He just plays the same old records over and over. The Count says to Harker, “You may go anywhere you wish in the castle, except where the doors are locked, where of course you will not want to go.” Lesson Six: evil is capricious. Capricious is derived from the root word “capriccio” originating in the 17th century denoting “a sudden change of mind.” From Italian, it literally means “head with the hair standing on end., hence horror.” Once an evil person has drawn you in, you find to your horror as Harker did that the rules have suddenly changed. Before Harker entered the castle Count Dracula said he could come and go freely. Once Harker is in the castle, he now says he can go “anywhere in the castle, except where the doors are locked.” Stoker brings us along for the ride as Harker comes to realize slowly over time that he is the only person in the castle other than the Count. We also come to the sickening realization along with him that the Count has locked him in and there is no way out. Thus we come to Lesson seven: Evil is a trap. We read with a deep sinking in the pit of our stomachs: “I went out on the stairs, and found a room looking towards the South. The view was magnificent, and from where I stood there was every opportunity of seeing it. The castle is o the very edge of a terrible precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything! As far as the eye can reach is a sea of green tree top, with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm. Here and there are silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forests. But I am not in heart to describe beauty, for when I had seen the view I explored further; doors, doors, doors everywhere, and all locked and bolted. In no place save from the windows in the castle walls is there an available exit. The castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner!” When I read those words I understand them in a very visceral way. I literally want to vomit because I understand so clearly how Harker feels. I know, understand and can empathize with his feelings of helplessness and despair.

Harker begins to get to know the Count through their discussions. He is trying to learn what he is like. Count Dracula says in describing himself. “I have been so long master that I would be master still – or at least that none other should be master of me. lesson eight: Evil wants control. Satan’s original sin was pride. He wanted to be like God. In other words, he wanted to be in control. Tozer in his book, “Knowledge of the Holy”, makes clear that the root of all idolatry is placing oneself in the position of where God should be. “Sin”, he says, “has many manifestations, but it’s essence is one. A moral being, created to worship before the throne of God, sits on the throne of his own selfhood and from that elevated position declares “I am. That is sin in it’s concentrated essence; yet because it is natural it appears to be good.” An evil person has placed himself on the throne, but that isn’t enough for him. Evil wants to be in control not only of self, but also of others. C.S. Lewis says in The Screwtape Letters: “…the ruthless, unsmiling, concentration upon self is the mark of hell.”

Harker also learns of Dracula’s strange aversion to mirrors. He says to Harker, “Take care how you cut yourself. It is more dangerous than you think in this country.” Lesson nine: evil is dangerous and destructive. This one is pretty self-explanatory. When we engage in evil or get entrapped by an evil person we will experience harm or injury. Then seizing the shaving glass, he went on: “And this wretched thing that has done the mischief. It is a foul bauble of man’s vanity. Away with it!” and opening the heavy window with one wench of his terrible hand, he flung out the glass which was shattered into a thousand pieces on the stones of the courtyard far below.” Lesson ten: Evil cannot bear to see it’s true self. It is probably more accurate to say that evil not only cannot bear to see itself, it literally cannot see itself even if it wanted to. It is pointless to discuss evil with and evil person. Just ask Lot. Evil is not reasonable. It is not interested in change. In the book of James, the author compares the Word of God to a mirror. James says the man who reads God’s word but does not apply it, is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and then walks away forgetting what he looks like. Evil men react as violently to the Word of God as Dracula did to the mirror. They don’t want to hear it. It cuts them to the core, exposing who they really are. Deep down they know the truth, but the suppress it. When Count Dracula sees the cross Jonathon is wearing around his neck it says, “his eyes blazed with a sort of demoniac fury and he suddenly made a grab at my throat. I drew away, and his hand touched the string of beads which held the crucifix. It made an instant change in him, for the fury passed so quickly that I could hardly believe that it was ever there.” Lesson eleven: Evil hates love. Nothing looks more stupid to evil than love. It looks insipid, foolish, ridiculous. And nothing exemplifies love more than the cross. Christ dying on the cross for the sins of evil men is a love beyond measure, so evil hates that more than anything else. The Apostle Paul puts it like this, “The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Harker writes in his journal, “When I found that I was a prisoner a sort of wild feeling came over me. I rushed up and down the stairs, trying every door and peering out of every window I could find; but after a little while the conviction of my helplessness overpowered all other feelings. When I look back after a few hours I think I must have been mad for the time, for I behaved much as a rat does in a trap. When, however, the conviction had come to me that I was helpless I sat down quietly-as quietly as I have ever done anything in my life-and began to think over what was best to be done.” If you are not feeling profound empathy for Harker here you should be. Lesson twelve: evil destroys hope. In the book “Bold Love” Dan Allendar says this about evil: “Evil strips people of their hope. Evil not only betrays, but also attempts to entrap the innocent in bondage. Bondage is a form of slavery that dulls the senses and steals from the soul a vision of what could be…evil kills hope by deadening the soul through bondage and terror.” We see this so clearly in Jonathon’s actions. At first he analyzes all his possible options. When he realizes there are none he sits down like a beaten dog in silence. He is feeling the weight and the oppression of his situation. He is experiencing helplessness and despair. He begins to do what all captives do: he tries to figure out how to make the best of living in confinement while hoping against hope there is still some way out. Harker notes in his journal: “He knows well that I am imprisoned; and he has done it himself, and has doubtless his own motives for it, he would only deceive me if I trusted him with the facts. So far as I can see, my only plan will be to keep my knowledge and my fears to myself, and my eyes open.” Lesson thirteen: evil deceives. No one in their right mind would get involved in a relationship with an evil person. No one in their right mind would fall for a temptation that would cost them their life. Yet it happens to nearly everyone of us. We all have been deceived by evil. We all have felt its sting. Some of us have literally been entrapped by it. We certainly all have been harmed by it. The most bitter experiences of my life have involved entanglement with evil people. I am not saying that I do not have evil in my heart or that I have never done evil actions, I have. What differentiates a Christian from an evil person is not that we do not have evil in our hearts and they do. What differentiates us is that the Christian purposely refrains from doing evil, and when he does do evil, he repents of his actions.

Harker now tries to learn more and more about the Count in some desperate attempt to find a weak spot. He notes, “I have had a long talk with the Count….In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all. This he afterwards explained by saying that to a boyar the pride of his house and name is his own pride, that their glory is his glory, that their fate is his fate.” Lesson Fourteen: evil is proud and arrogant. Probably every sin ever committed originates from pride as it’s source because it is pride that makes us desire to place ourselves above God. If the evil person has a weakness, it is always pride. Harker now realizes the irony of all situations of captivity: his safety depends upon his captor. He says in his journal: “God preserve my sanity, for to this I am reduced. Safety and the assurance of safety are things of the past. Whilst I live on here there is but one thing to hope for, that I may not go mad, if, indeed, I be not mad already. If I be sane, then surely it s maddening to think that of all the foul things that lurk in this hateful place the Count is the least dreadful to me; that to him alone I can look for safety, even though this be only whilst I can serve his purpose. Great God! Merciful God!” Lesson Fifteen: evil is pragmatic. Evil people do not view others as “people” but as objects. They are objects to be used in the furtherance of their kingdom of self. Once the person’s usefulness to the evil person is done, that are discarded or worse. Jonathan knows his life is only as good as his usefulness to the Count.

At a certain point Jonathon realizes a few others are present in the castle. He looks and sees three beautiful women. He describes them: “All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.” Lesson Sixteen: evil is seductive. To seduce means “to lead away.” An evil person is so ugly inside that it doesn’t seem fair that outwardly they should look so beautiful. Yet it is often true. Since beauty is sometimes overwhelmingly disarming and irresistible, we find ourselves drawn toward evil. Here Jonathon declares his desire to be kissed by these women who are in fact vampires. Sometimes to be seduced by evil is to be seduced to our death.

The Count intervenes before the women can kiss Jonathon. “As my eyes opened I saw his strong hand grasp the slender neck of the fair woman and with giant’s power draw it back, the blue eyes transformed with fury, the white teeth chomping with rage, and the fair cheeks blazing with passion. But the Count! Never did I imagine such wrath and fury, even to the demons of the pit. His eyes were positively blazing. The red light in them was lurid, as if the flames of hell-fire blazed behind them.” Lesson Seventeen: evil is angry. If I could pick one trait that would exemplify every great villain in every great story it would be that they are angry. The Bible indicates that unless we deal with our anger quickly it festers and gives the devil a “foothold.” A foothold is a position from which further advance can be made. Evil people have allowed this foothold and are often consumed hatred and filled with rage. It is easy to sin and engage in evil, if first we have allowed ourselves to remain angry. The scripture tells us “In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds search your heart and be silent.” It is interesting that it advocates being silent. So much of the destructiveness of anger comes about through our words.

Count Dracula speaks to the women: “How dare you touch him, any of you? How dare you cast eyes on him when I had forbidden it? Back I tell you! This man belongs to me!” Lesson eighteen: evil is possessive. To be possessive is to show a desire to own or dominate. C. S. Lewis describes this desire well at the beginning of The Screwtape Letters: “Even in human life we have seen the passion to dominate, almost to digest one’s fellow; to make his whole intellectual and emotional life merely an extension of one’s own – to hate one’s hatreds and resent one’s greivances and indulge one’s egotism through him as well as through oneself. His own little store of passion must of curse be suppressed to make room for ours. If he resists this suppression he is being very selfish.” The women mock the Count for being able to love. Dracula says “Yes, I too can love; you yourselves can tell it from the past. Is it not so? I promise you that when I am done with him you shall kiss him at your will.” Lesson Nineteen: evil is parasitic. The Count thinks he can love, but all he can really do is suck the life blood from others. Now he promises the female vampires that they can use Harker after he is done. Continuing to speak of the way humans try to dominate others C.S. Lewis says this, “On earth this desire is often called “love.” In hell I feign that they recognize it as hunger. But there the hunger is more ravenous, and a fuller satisfaction is possible. There, I suggest, the stronger spirit – there are perhaps no bodies to impede the operation- can really and irrevocably suck the weaker into itself and permanently gorge its own being on the weaker’s outraged individuality. It is ( I feign) for this that devils desire human souls and the souls of one another.” This perfectly describes the life of the vampire. They have to gorge on others to survive. Human predators are no different.

Harker keeps watching Count Dracula to learn more about him. One day he sees the Count emerging from a window. “My very feelings change to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and being to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings….What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man? I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me; I am in fear – in awful fear – and there is no escape for me; I am encompassed about with terrors that I dare not think of.” Lesson twenty: evil causes fear, anxiety, dread. When Harker thought things couldn’t get worse one day he watches the Count emerge wearing Harker’s clothes. He writes in his journal: “I drew back and watched carefully, and saw the whole man emerge. It was a new shock to me to find that he had on the suit of clothes which I had worn whilst travelling here, and sung over his shoulder the terrible bad which I had seen the women take away. There could be no doubt as to his quest, and in my garb too! This, then, is his new scheme of evil: that he will allow others to see me, and they think, so that he may both leave evidence that I have been seen in the towns or villages posting my own letters (which the Count dictated to him and forced him to write.), and that any wickedness which he may do shall by the local people be attributed to me. It makes me rage to think that this can go on, and whilst I am shut up here, a veritable prisoner, but without that protection of the law which is even a criminal’s right and consolation” Lesson twenty-one: evil frames others for its deed. I know exactly what this feels like and can commiserate with Harker’s rage. I have watched in helplessness as an evil person manipulated others to make me look as though I had done something wrong. Then those “others” came and accused me falsely. It was maddening. You feel murderously enraged because you are helpless to defend yourself because the evil person has made it look so convincing. It’s like the bully who taunts another kid. If the kid hits back or defends himself, he often is the one who gets in trouble, while the bully walks. Sometimes not being able to take vengeance is a very tough command to follow.

At one point Harker asks the Count if he can leave. The Count leads him to the massive front door which is unlocked! Harker opens the door. He describes it: “As the door began to open, the howling of the wolves without grew louder and angrier; their red jaws, with champing teeth, and their blunt clawed feet as they leaped, came in through the opening door. I knew then that to struggle at the moment against the Count was useless. With such allies as these at his command, I could do nothing.” Lesson twenty-two: evil has allies at its command. Evil people are masterful at persuading others to do their bidding. Allender and Longman in Bold Love, describe it like this: “An evil person regularly and masterfully portrays his motives and behaviors as innocent. Others just do not understand. He is deceitfully gifted in making the victim of his abuse feel like the perpetrator of harm. When the victim protests and exposes the abuse, he will accuse the victim of being too sensitive, emotional, troubled, or unreasonable. He portrays himself as the real victim, cruelly misunderstood and falsely accused.”

Harker explores the castle further and one day finds the Count laying in his coffin. Harker writes: “He lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion….There was a mocking smile on his face which seemed to drive me mad……..A terrible desire came upon me to rid the world of such a monster.” Lesson twenty-three: evil is a mocker. In this way evil mimics Satan who is our ultimate accuser. Allender and Longman write: “Contemptuous mockery is the language of accusation. It is the bony finger that uses shame to cut through our defense to the fragile, lonely parts of our heart. Few experiences are as difficult to endure as being the object of someone’s cackling contempt. Mockery is the weapon that evil uses powerfully to strip its victim of a sense of self and life.” Psalm one tells us not to “sit in the seat of mocker.” Mockery is the mark of an evil man.

Harker closes: “I was again a prisoner, and the net of doom was closing round me more closely…..What shall I do? What can I do? How can I escape from this dreadful thing of night and gloom and fear? I must find a way from this dreadful place. And then away for home! Away to the quickest and nearest train! Away from this cursed spot, from this cursed land, where the devil and his children still walk with earthly feet! At least God’s mercy is better than that of these monsters, and the precipice is steep and high. At its foot a man may sleep – as a man. Good-bye, all! Mina! Does Harker escape the castle? How? I shall leave you to read the book and discover. Certainly we do not mine all there is to know of evil from these chapters, but Stoker describes for us an exceedingly malevolent figure whose characteristics define many of the marks of evil.

Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. First Touchstone Edition. 1996.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Dutton: Penguin Group. 2009.

Tozer, A.W. The Knowledge of the Holy. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1961.

Allender, Dan B., and Tremper Longman. Bold Love. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1992.