Against Pop Culture (Brad East)

See Brad East’s recent piece, Against Pop Culture.

The author’s language is a bit strong, and he probably extends his argument too far at times. For example, I’m not against engaging or doing analysis of pop culture. But notwithstanding those things, I think this is a thoughtful, challenging, and relevant piece. His argument reminds me a bit of James K.A. Smith’s anthropology and work on the “cultural liturgies” that shape our loves.

The below quote captures the gist of his case:

My argument here is not against the liceity of ever streaming a show or otherwise engaging pop culture; it is against the ostensibly positive reasons [emphasis mine] in favor of its being a good thing Christians ought to do, indeed, ought to care about doing, with eagerness and energy. …

Any and all libertarian (in the sense of a philosophy of the will’s freedom) Christian accounts of pop culture, Netflix, social media, etc., fail at just this point, because they view individuals as choosers who operate neutrally with options arrayed before them, one of which in our day happens to be flipping Netflix on (or not) and “deciding” to watch a meaty, substantive Film instead of binging bite-size candy-bar TV. But that is not an accurate depiction of the situation. Netflix—and here again I’m using Netflix as a stand-in for all digital and social media today—is a principality and a power, as is the enormous flat-screen television set, situated like a beloved household god in every living room in every home across the country. It calls for attention. It demands your love. It wants you. And its desire for you elicits desire in you for it.

It is, therefore, a power to be resisted, at least for Christians. Such resistance requires ascesis. And ascesis means discipline, denial, and sometimes extreme measures. It might mean you suffer boredom and lethargy on a given evening. It might mean you have to read a book, or use your hands. It might even mean you won’t catch the quippy allusions in a shallow conversation at work. So be it.


Portions of this piece reflect a decent bit of my own sentiments towards pop-culture.

If you know me, you know I’m not exactly “up to date” and “in the know” on most things pop culture.[1] People often express shock or will give you slight grief if you show your lack of awareness of these things. They will also predictably try to convince you that should really be giving more of your attention to them (as if they somehow matter). In other words, there’s a good deal of social pressure in our society to care and know about these things. No one wants to be weird. But pop culture is so, well, popular, that not knowing about it inevitably makes one weird.

And so, my lack of pop-cultural awareness sometimes becomes something of a joke among my friends. But my friends also know I’m not bothered by this at all. I’m fine being weird on this front. I don’t feel the pressure. I guess I’m immune to it, because I just I don’t care to conform at this point.

But, to be clear, my lack of attention to much of pop culture isn’t just coincidental (i.e., I just don’t care about it or like it — although that’s true); it’s also a bit principled, which hopefully is also why I don’t care (i.e., I don’t want to care about it; I find it a bit unvirtuous [ducks head], unprioritzed, disproportioned, and hence a bit intemperate to care so much about it). So good luck trying pressure me to care about something I kind of feel like is a waste of time at best, and an existential opiate at worst. 😉


[1] At this point, I want to make sure we draw a distinction between being knowledgeable about pop culture and being knowledge of, discerning about, and able to analyze culture. For instance, Andy Crouch doesn’t have a TV in his living room, and John Piper doesn’t own a TV at all, although many hold them up as some of the most astute and observant theological, cultural analysts.

So to be clear, I think cultural engagement is good, and the ability to do cultural analysis is important and valuable. I also acknowledge that pop culture provides a good portion of the subject matter, trends, and (at times) “cultural artifacts” for such engagement and reflection — no denials there. I’m just not convinced I need to know about all the latest songs, movies, TV shows, or celebrity gossip (what happens on the “surface level,” if you will) in order to do that sort of discerning analytical work on the more foundational “deep level.”

Cultural Liturgies & the Church’s Counter-Liturgy (James K.A. Smith) — Discussion Questions

The following is a list of discussion questions composed for a CrossWay Community Church small group, Christ & Culture, for use throughout May 2019.


Week 1 – Examining Cultural (Deformative) Liturgies

ASSIGNMENT: Read chapter 2, “You Might Not Love What You Think” in You Are What You Love (or alternatively listen to James’ video of a talk by Smith on this subject).

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Think about your last trip to the mall. What did you do there? What did you buy? How were people around you spending their time or money?

SCRIPTURE TO CONSIDER:

  • Prov 4:23.
  • Mt 12:33-35.
  • Rom 12:1-2.
  • Eph 4:17-25.
  • 1 John 2:15-17.
  • James 1:27; 4:4. 

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:

  • What is the basic premise Smith is arguing?
  • Why do we do what we do? // How do we change why we do what we do (sanctification)?
  • Augustine famously said, “God, you have made us for yourself. And our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee?” // Do you agree? // If so, how does this shape our understanding of the human experience (human nature)?
  • Are there any critiques, concerns, or cautions you might have with Smith’s material and arguments?
  • We might say, somewhat in contrast to Smith, R.C. Sroul says this:

The key method Paul underscores as the means to the transformed life is by the “renewal of the mind.” This means nothing more and nothing less than education. Serious education. In-depth education. Disciplined education in the things of God. It calls for a mastery of the Word of God. We need to be people whose lives have changed because our minds have changed. … The key to spiritual growth is in-depth Christian education that requires a serious level of sacrifice. … True transformation comes by gaining a new understanding of God, ourselves, and the world.

What’s true in what each is saying? What are the potential pitfalls of each?

  • Smith argues that we need to come to view our culture’s practices as “liturgies.” What does he mean by this? Is this helpful?
  • What our some of the “liturgies” (or “places of liturgy”) of our secular cultural? And in what specific ways do they form their participants?
  • How might you look anew in this way at things like the mall, stadium-sporting events, the university, the cinema/TV/streaming service, political campaigns or media, the smartphone, social media, patriotic holidays and rituals, the business world, etc.? What “gospel” (particular vision of the good) do these “liturgies” form and direct our hearts toward?
  • What does it mean to be counter-culturally Christ-like in the midst of these deformative cultural “liturgies”? In other words, how do we then live?
  • How does the church, the communion of the saints, help us (help each other) to have our hearts increasingly formed in this way into “maturing followers of Jesus by the power of the gospel”?

CLOSING APPLICATION: Studies show that some brands can inspire worship-like devotion (see box on p. 52). When does brand loyalty turn into worship? What brands do you have religious devotion to in your life? How should you reconsider your relation to these things? Continue reading

Navigating Technology — Discussion Questions

The following is a list of discussion questions composed for a CrossWay Community Church small group, Christ & Culture, for use in March of 2019. It is based on chapters 2 and 4 of James K.A. Smith’s book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.


A Theology of Technology

Jim Samra, Mini Theology of Technology  (from Gen 1-11)

Definition (broad) — “Technology includes all tools, machines, utensils, weapons, instruments, housing, clothing, communicating and transporting devices and the skills by which we produce and use them.”

  1. Technology is possible because man is created in the image of God (Adam and Eve — see Gen 1:26-30 — bearing God’s image; having dominion over creation).
  2. Technology often hinders our ability to recognize our need for God and can be used to attempt to render God unnecessary (Cain — killing Abel, ch. 4).
  3. Technology can free us to sin by attempting to shield us from some of the consequences of sin (Lamech — murder — and Tubal-Cain — forger of bronze and iron instruments).
  4. Technology is used by God to rescue us, to help alleviate some of the consequences of the fall, and to help us worship God (Noah, e.g., the ark).
  5. Technology is inherently dangerous because it is the product of purposive human activity, and we need help from God in limiting its use (Tower of Babel).
  • Studying the cross as a form of technology led to my recognizing that technology is dangerous inasmuch as it is constantly tempting us to imagine a better life available to us through technology: to covet and to put our faith in technology rather than God. The cross is associated with the Jewish leaders coveting a world without Jesus (Luke 20:9-19) and their idolatry in embracing Caesar rather than God (John 19:13–16).

Questions for discussion:

  • What do you find helpful here?
  • Is there anything you are not sure you understand, or you think you might disagree with?
  • Which points do you see rooted in scripture? … How so?
  • How do you see these things playing out today in our world with today’s technology?

Continue reading

Race & Racialization — Discussion Questions

The following is a list of discussion questions composed for a CrossWay Community Church small group, Christ & Culture, for use throughout February 2019.


Defining terms (my best attempt):

  • Race– A grouping of persons which is (1) socially classified and perceived by certain select physical characteristics, (2) conceived of as an entity distinct from other groups of the same sort, and (3) viewed as an identity which is inherited and passed down generationally (note: a uniquely U.S. conception of race).
  • Racism– Prejudice, partiality, or mistreatment of another individual or group of people based on their race.
  • Racialization– The condition of a society in which significant disparities exist along racial lines wherein race matters profoundly with respect to life experiences such as relationships, opportunities, advantages/disadvantages, and outcomes.

Resource: “Is Black Lives Matter the New Civil Rights Movement?” by Mika Edmondson 

Discussion questions:

  • Bible & theology:
    • What does the Bible have to say about race? Does it? Racism? How does it apply to racism?
    • What might the Bible have to say about how we evaluate the concept and proposal of the existence of systemic racism (raised below)?
    • How does Christ and the gospel in particular provide a solution to racism and racialization?
  • Ideological & social-cultural analysis:
    • What is racism? Racialization? What’s the difference?
    • Does racism exist today?
    • Is our society racialized?
    • Does systemic (or structural) racism exist? What is it?
    • Is “white privilege” real? If so, what does it mean?
    • What is “reverse racism”? Is it a reality?
    • Is there a danger of emphasizing race or racism too little or too much?
    • What’s wrong with racial segregation? Is there a problem with it?
  • Intersections: How does race relate to the following subjects in our current dialogue, and how do we evaluate these connections / intersections?
    • Criminal justice?
    • Police brutality?
    • Housing?
    • Economics?
    • Education?
    • Political representation?
    • Immigration?
    • Incarceration?
  • Evaluating expressions of activism:
    • How do we evaluate current movements attempting to curtail or shed light on what they perceive to be racial injustice?
    • What do we make of contemporary activist movements such as #BlackLivesMatter? What’s good in them? What’s less than desirable, or faulty? (Or, likewise, seeming counter-movements such as #BlueLivesMatter?)
  • Ecclesiology & missiology:
    • What is the church’s role in fighting racialized- (or race-related) injustice?
    • What is the church’s role, or what should the church be doing, to help address racialization or race-related disparities and/or injustice?
    • Is there something wrong, or unhealthy, with an ethnically homogeneous church? If so, what can / should we do about it?
    • What does it look like to model racial unity in the church?
    • How does the church’s response to race and racial tensions relate to its witness?
  • Contextualization & application:
    • What issues does our particular setting/context (i.e., Milwaukee) pose with regards to issues related to race and racialization?
    • What can we do to be agents of change / difference-makers / “Christian neighbor-lovers” with respect to race-related issues — in our immediate context, or more broadly?
    • How can I resist and/or help change systems or realities that privilege me and disadvantage or discriminate against others?
    • How can I better listen to and understand those with different experiences than me on account of race?
    • Do I harbor any known or unknown racial prejudice or bias?

Jon Hanes on a Christian Approach to Environmental Concerns Such as Climate Change

I lead a small group at my church, CrossWay Community Church (Milwaukee), called “Christ & Culture,” where we examine various social and cultural issues of our day and try to consider how we might engage these things Christianly and Biblically.

Last night we had the privilege of hosting my dear friend, Jon Hanes, who delivered a talk on a Christian approach to environmental concerns with particular attention on the example of climate change.

Jon Hanes is an adjunct geography professor at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (UWM) and a deacon at Lake Drive Baptist Church on the northside of Milwaukee, where I was a member with him for approximately eight years.

Many folks who were not able to attend asked me to record his talk, which I’ve provided below. We had some additional discussion and helpful conversation after the close of this recording. But the audio below reflects the “lecture” portion of his talk.


Dr. Jon Hanes
January 16th 2019


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by Jon in this audio are his own and are not representative of his employer or church.


Books Jon mentioned in his talk: