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Signs Of Life: Finding The Good, True & Beautiful In Popular Culture by Josh Jackson and Nick Purdy

If the Religious Right were looking for poster-children for the Irreligious Left, they might spotlight Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. Penn, raised agnostic, was convicted of a domestic assault charge against his then-wife Madonna, was arrested for beating a photographer, had two children with actress Robin Wright before the two were married, and recently befriended leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Robbins and Sarandon, two lapsed Catholics, have been living together unmarried for years. Robbins’ directorial/screenwriting debut was Bob Roberts, a biting satire about conservative politicians. Sarandon is a staunch supporter of rights for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals. All three have been vocal opponents of the War in Iraq and the Bush Administration in general.

This same trio, however, has created one of the clearest, most powerful presentations of the Christian gospel in modern cinema. In Robbins’ second film Dead Man Walking, Penn plays a despicable example of humanity at its worst, Matthew Poncelet, a ruthless killer and rapist sentenced to death, and Sarandon plays Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who shows him love and mercy anyway. There is no neat plotline: the two don’t fall in love; we don’t find out that Matthew is really innocent; he doesn’t experience a deathbed conversion. Sister Helen feels deep empathy for the victims’ families who want to see nothing more than Matthew put to death. But this is complicated by her deep belief in the teachings of Jesus that we’re all sinners and that we all can be redeemed. In Sarandon’s character, we see mercy and love and the hope for redemption. Rather than simply making it a didactic tale about the wrongness of capital punishment, it’s a story of grace and an example of how we should live.

We live in a fallen world—ruled at times by commercialism, vulgarity, violence, cynicism, vapidity and celebrity-worship—but goodness, truth and beauty all find their way to the surface, as they do in Dead Man Walking. We find these qualities in music, books, movies, art, TV and video games, regardless of the spiritual condition or worldview of the author. Christians should find, celebrate and encourage this kind of expression.

A SANITIZED CULTURE

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” —Philippians 4:8

This verse has been used as the raison d’etre for a separate Christian media. Much about our culture is false, dishonorable, wrong, impure, grotesque and sleazy. If we’re to fix our thoughts on the pure, shouldn’t we take every care to ensure that the culture we consume be unquestionably “clean”? Isn’t the easiest way to limit ourselves to the good, the true and the beautiful to ensure that the content we read, watch and listen to was created by other Christians? Or even better, that it proclaims obviously Christian themes?

Whether you live in Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Atlanta or Nashville, you can tune into a radio station whose motto reads, “Safe For the Whole Family.” It’s an effective motto in any city where you can spin the dial and hit any number of morning show DJs who dream of becoming the next Howard Stern. The message is simple and powerful, even for those without kids: If you’re a Christian, listen to our station and you can avoid, for a moment, all the coarsest aspects of our culture. They’ve been polished into smooth, pleasant, inoffensive nuggets. Safe is indeed the best descriptor.

This desire for a sanitized, pre-approved version of prevailing cultural trends has led to Christian bookstores, Christian radio stations, Christian festivals and even—bizarrely—Christian breath-mints. These institutions have worked as a sort of V-chip, filtering out the dirty words, the sexual references and any ideas that didn’t conform to a rather bland and simplistic form of Christianity that focuses almost exclusively on thankfulness for God’s saving grace. But they do it at the expense of such Biblical themes as poverty, sacrifice, love for one’s enemies, sin and God’s call for his people to redeem the world around them, to name but a few. As singer/songwriter Derek Webb says, “Anything Jesus is Lord of, our artists should be writing songs about it. We’re only covering about two percent of it.”

Even when art is created by Christians, the sanitizing filter is often at work. It’s rare to find the writings of Flannery O’Connor or Fyodor Dostoyevsky in a Christian bookstore. Stories of murderers, charlatans and the unredeemed don’t make the cleanliness cut, even though they communicate the truths of the gospel more powerfully than most any book on theology.

There have been countless attempts at quantifying the cleanliness of media—ratings for movies, TV and games; warning labels on CDs—yet in every case, the labels (while a helpful shorthand for ageappropriateness) miss the point of actual discernment. Those filters will keep out deeply edifying and thoughtful signs of life, while letting in ideas that, while devoid of violence or sex, might be filled with lies.

The very concept of sanitized culture seems like a way to be lazy in our discernment. If we have someone to tell us what’s good and what’s bad, we don’t have to ever be challenged. We don’t have to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us out into the world. We can have things tidily categorized as good or bad and feel self-righteous that we’re on the good side of culture. The phrase “culture war” has become all too apt, but Christians haven’t noticed that we’re the only ones trying to pick a fight. Fearing that we’ll become corrupted by the world around us, we’ve constructed our own safe culture and locked ourselves inside a cozy fortress, content that all the answers live inside the walls.

But keeping ourselves safe isn’t really supposed to be our highest priority. Our role as Christians isn’t to find some quiet, comfortable spot to hide from the rest of creation until God calls us home. We’re called to be salt and light in the world. And salt isn’t very effective—or tasty—by itself. We have to actually engage in the messy, dangerous world around us, and living in the developed world of the 21st century, pop culture is a part of that world. It’s as ubiquitous as the air we breathe.

LEARNING FROM CULTURE

“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” —1 Corinthians 13:12

The sanitized approach to culture assumes that Christians have some sort of monopoly on truth, and—more preposterously—that we indeed understand all truth. If we approach culture with a presumption that we have nothing to learn from it, it’s natural that our efforts will only be able to keep out the bad stuff rather than to search in earnest for the good. Our priority will be to expose ourselves to media that’s “safe for the whole family,” rather than that which challenges us to understand and love our neighbor.

But when we start from a position of freedom, we recognize that every human still carries the image of God and we embrace the reality of His common grace—that God’s truth and goodness is made evident throughout his entire creation, even through people who don’t believe the Apostle’s Creed. A cursory glance at our culture reveals plenty that’s admirable and excellent and worthy of praise, from people with a variety of worldviews. Take a nearly perfect song like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as performed by Jeff Buckley in 1994. Neither individual held to the tenets of Christianity. But listen to the quiet, haunting first strums on electric guitar, then the lines:
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
Well, it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,
The minor fall and the major lift,

I heard there was a secret chord That David played and it pleased the Lord,

The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

Buckley’s voice rises into an immediate climax to be revisited and surpassed time and again during the next six minutes. It’s beautiful and strange and sad in its imagery, but it’s a hymn to the hymns, a celebration of celebration. Listening to it invariably becomes a prayer, and not because of the invocation of Biblical language. It’s full of melancholy and mystery and feels more like God’s presence than a dozen church worship songs.

Of course, oftentimes the goodness, truth and beauty are all mixed up with badness, lies and ugliness. So what then? Fortunately, God has provided us with the gift of discernment—a function of both the mind and the spirit. First, our critical faculties must remain fully engaged. We don’t simply welcome whatever comes across the transom; we develop a kind of cultural radar that enables us to recognize goodness, truth and beauty when we see it. We do this by reading Scripture, studying the humanities—literature, art, history, philosophy, logic—and through this intellectual development, we learn to separate the wheat from the chaff in arts and entertainment. You don’t need a liberal arts degree— but approaching pop culture with an active, critical mind is extremely helpful when it comes to exercising discernment as you choose what to consume and what not to consume.

But second, and more important, discernment is a spiritual discipline. As we soak ourselves in Scripture and prayer, welcoming in the Holy Spirit, our souls usually become increasingly sensitized to sin—and to goodness. This makes sense if we consider God’s word to be “living and active.” We’ve marveled at preachers who have the ability to pull devastating illustrations of Gospel truth out of wildly unexpected and disparate pieces of pop culture. One pastor managed to find the gospel in Das Boot—a film that grotesquely portrayed the filth, terror and claustrophobia on a WWII German U-boat—the children’s story of Raggedy Ann & Andy and The Blair Witch Project, all to great effect in a space of about six months. He had a gift for knowing the nuances of the story of creation/ fall/redemption so well as to be able to find its echoes, however faint or strong, through the cultural creations of our modern society.

An R-rated movie like Fight Club is by no means a “Christian” film, but nonetheless displays deep understandings of the sin that resides within us and does a masterful job of showing the audience the seamy underbelly of consumerism (a sin we Americans tend to ignore). The message of the movie is certainly good. And it proclaims a universal truth—that selfishness is bad.

Watching Fight Club or listening to Jeff Buckley, the reason for wanting to discover signs of life in culture seem self-evident. One of the miracles of the human experience is our capacity for originality. We’re made in the image of our Creator and we’re made to enjoy the wonders of creation. Our creations are also extensions of His and can give us insight into His divine attributes. Sometimes the creation of our fellow fallen humans arguably surpasses that of God’s natural creation: a Monet more interesting than a pond; a Frank Lloyd Wright house more dazzling than a cavern; the statue of David more majestic than a slab of marble; and “Hallelujah” more beautiful than a songbird. Each of these human masterpieces brings glory to the Creator.

DISCOVERING SIGNS OF LIFE

In 2002, along with our partner Tim Regan-Porter, we launched Paste magazine around the idea that there’s goodness, truth and beauty to be found in the arts. Taking our tagline, “signs of life in music, film and culture,” seriously, we began filtering everything through that single idea. Starting out, we could point to some obvious examples of art that was “excellent, lovely and worthy of praise,” much of which was getting overlooked by radio stations and other major outlets.

But rather than just looking for excellent art by Christian artists for a Christian audience, it was natural for us to simply focus on excellent art. We were impressed by a select group of Christian artists who had begun to labor in the mainstream, several of whom we had worked with after founding the magazine’s precursor, PasteMusic.com, in 1998—bands like the Innocence Mission, Over the Rhine, Vigilantes of Love and Pedro the Lion. We were thrilled that more and more Christian artists were simply choosing to create their music without any labels and to put it out in the marketplace of ideas. C.S. Lewis in God In the Dock: Essays on Theology & Ethics provides an instructive idea here—to do a thing Christianly:

I believe that any Christian who is qualified to write a good popular book on any science may do much more by that than by any direct apologetic work…We can make people often attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted…What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way around. Our faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defense of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.

For us, that meant simply putting out a great magazine. Recognizing that art isn’t inert—that it’s affecting on every level—we realized that there was a tremendous responsibility in presuming to be definers of what is good, true or beautiful about a subject that is inherently subjective. We believe there is an absolute Truth; there may even be absolute Goodness and Beauty. But we were in no way qualified to make those pronouncements in the magazine. All we could do is offer a layer of our own discernment for people to reference. We could find what we saw as “Signs of Life” and highlight them with our readers, hoping that the content we celebrate will, as Lewis says, “shake” those who interact with it. We don’t preach the Gospel in our magazine, but we hope to be Gospel leaven in the cultural loaf. In the same way that a subtle, physically tiny ingredient like leaven causes bread to rise, true and beautiful ideas in music, film, books and games cause our cultural conversation to “rise” to a new level. So how does one find and recognize the Signs of Life?

CELEBRATING THE GOOD

For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bear witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) —Romans 2:13-15

Scripture reveals to us what is good, but it also tells us that even without a written code, the requirements of goodness are written on our hearts and borne witness to by our consciences. We instinctively know what is good. Goodness is not uniquely a Christian concept—it’s truly universal, embraced by all people in all times and all cultures. We believe that anything that is good is of God, but goodness emerges in the most unlikely places, and we are free to enjoy the good wherever we find it. Then we, as leaders who wish to influence our culture can take our platforms, the bit of influence we’ve been granted and point to the good, which as it turns out, is pointing to God.

It seems to get complicated for American Christians when the good and the “bad” are mixed up into one thing—like a movie, album, book, TV show, etc. Barbara Pell, in her article “Should Christians Read Dirty Books?” points out that the sensitivity we have to foul language in art might have more to do with being middle-class than being conscientious. She contrasts some “naturalistic” scenes in a contemporary novel with scenes of “human squalor and hopelessness” witnessed by a friend who is a public health nurse in a “city slum.” So perhaps the question of “good” in pop culture isn’t so simple. Is good simply the avoidance of a laundry list of taboos? We are too often willing to consider good whatever avoids sex, profanity and gory violence. Or at least it’s “not bad.”

But what about unredemptive portrayals of pride, selfishness, materialism, lack of compassion, anger and naked ambition? Material of this kind doesn’t receive the same level of scrutiny as does, say, any form of nudity or certain four-letter words. Perhaps it should. Instead of spending our time avoiding the bad, shouldn’t we seek out the truly good in our culture consumption? Why not seek art that portrays honesty, integrity, wisdom, compassion, selflessness, passion, commitment and…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? And let’s be open to how these portrayals must necessarily work in art. The idea is to show, not to tell.

Often, a powerful expression of what is good requires some contrast in order to make an impact on us. This contrast may come in the form of a song that details the negative consequences of bad decisions—and describing those decisions in some detail is in fact necessary for the piece of art to have any impact. Or it could be any of the countless movies that explore the aftereffects of sin and then the stories of redemption (a concept that is both universally accepted yet distinctly Christian) that can follow. A movie like Mysterious Skin is one that many Christians might avoid at a cursory glance. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a teenage homosexual prostitute. But the film is a potent portrayal of the lasting affects of child sexual abuse. We live in an ugly world, and sometimes we need to face the ugliness head-on.

This isn’t to say “good” entertainment must be heavy or serious. Take light, fun entertainments like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies—they are chaste in the sense that they refrain from the “taboos” (no profanity, gore or sexual content) and in fact promote selflessness, brotherhood, faithfulness, honesty, etc. Certainly nobody would consider these films spiritual or religious or even “Christian,” but in a sense they display many things consistent with a Christian worldview and so they could be considered in some sense “good”.

Or take the recent film Juno—which joins Bella and Knocked Up in a mini-trend of films about the decision to keep, rather than abort, unplanned babies. Juno was written by a former stripper (Diablo Cody) and pays little mind to a specifically Christian worldview—other than having the lead character’s big decision be influenced by a Christian peer gently protesting outside the abortion clinic in question. As critic Jeffrey Overstreet says, “Hopefully Juno will be embraced for its virtues”—which Overstreet noted as a rare portrayal of a “gruff but loving” father and a “loveable fool who knows more about loving a woman faithfully and truly than most grown men ever understand” as well as an avoidance of the “crowd-pleasing crassness and sophomoric indulgence” that mars other movies of this ilk. Embracing virtue—this is perhaps the cornerstone of how we find and celebrate the good in pop culture.

CELEBRATING THE TRUE

There are two kinds of truth—what we’ve called Truth and truth. The first truth, Truth with a capital T, of course refers to doctrinal, scripturebased, Christian truths. Jesus is this Truth (John 14:6). This type of truth statement (such as “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” “no one comes to the Father but through me”) tends to require an acceptance of traditional interpretations of the Christian Bible and so, while true— certainly aren’t universally embraced. Truth with a little t is that type of truth that people from across cultural, social, political and even religious spectrums can embrace. Feed the poor. Clothe the sick. Love your neighbor. Beauty is good. God is love. None of us are perfect.

Pop culture does a terrific job of exploring truth with a little t—from Ira Glass’ This American Life to Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. And this is self-justifying. It’s, to quote dear Martha, a good thing. We are interested in a truly constructive dialogue with the people God puts in our lives—all the more reason to be well-versed in how people wrestle with the good, true and beautiful. George Barna once said: “Don’t tell them what to believe but rather create a discussion with provocative questions that will engage them.” Our best artists do this so well. Steve Turner, the British author, once said, “The preacher can quote the artist, but the artist cannot quote the preacher—this is because their roles are different—the preacher’s job is to say ‘what is’ while the artist is tasked with asking ‘What if?’”

In 1996, years before we started Paste, we were having forward-looking discussions designed to solidify our approach to mainstream media that is true to our beliefs. Our fellow co-founder Tim Regan-Porter said, “An essential part of honest and faithful living is sharing what we believe to be the truth. That ‘truth’ includes both the real thing and pieces we’ve manufactured or picked up from various and sundry other places. As Christians, we must acknowledge our fundamental inability to earn our salvation, before we can really receive the wondrous gift of grace. In the same way, the pre-requisite for an open, honest discussion, for dialog, community and mutual respect is acknowledgment that we don’t have truth all figured out and wrapped up. Of course we should have the courage of our convictions, but we have to realize that we see through the glass rather dimly. Christians bring to the table a ball of truth that at its core is as solid as can be. It’s rock solid at the core, baby. But on the outside, it’s not too tightly wound. It has threads hanging everywhere and it’s sadly misshapen—downright warped. How can a finite expression of the infinite be otherwise? And if we start tossing that ball around thinking it’s the final version, replete with Commissioner Bud Selig’s signature, it ain’t going very far at all. And we deserve whatever ridicule comes.” Finding and celebrating the true requires humility.

CELEBRATING THE BEAUTIFUL

This is perhaps the simplest and least controversial concept of the three with respect to consuming popular culture. Like goodness and truth, beauty is a gift from God. The Bible teaches the idea of wonder and praises beauty—and we spend our lives awed and moved by beauty. It’s worth our time and attention.

One of the best things about working at Paste is the constant exposure to wonderful, surprising, imaginative creations. We constantly encounter that which is “lovely, excellent and worthy of praise.” Goodness and truth are a treat to find in art, but beauty is more than sufficient, and it’s everywhere, in every medium and every genre. The evidence of our legacy as creators, the reflection of God’s image in us all, is apparent in the strum of a guitar, the stroke of a brush and the arc of story.

Beauty is also very personal. We tag our reviews section, “Encounters with Art,” because, just as we don’t assume to have a unique handle on truth, we know that what we find beautiful, others may find bland and vice versa. But we do our best to shine our spotlight on what we consider to be “signs of life.” Our purpose at Paste is to help spread the joy that comes from discovering art that simply moves us with its beauty, whether it’s a gentle ballad or an abrasive punk tune. Kurt Cobain captured youthful angst in his lyrics, but it was his mastery of melody that made him a rock star—and makes us want to go back to those songs years later.

People often try to distinguish between art and entertainment, but there’s beauty in the whip-smart banter in an Aaron Sorkin TV show, the strong lines of a comic book or the hook of a club song. We don’t have to feel guilty for the pleasure they bring unless we’re ignoring other responsibilities for their sakes.

Because of this, art and beauty need not be subservient to message. There’s no need to artificially imbue every work with a Gospel presentation. It’s not simply a tool to wield for ulterior purposes. Beauty, whether natural or man-made, exists to be enjoyed. It enriches us and gives us hope, and that’s enough.

RE-ENGAGING CULTURE

Some will see this as an attempt to use Scripture to justify a watereddown modern Christianity that would be unrecognizable to those first identified as Christians at Antioch and potentially abhorrent to Christ himself. All along this journey, we’ve tried to imagine what God thinks of what we’re doing and all along, we’ve searched our consciences. This is where we feel called to be.

It’s clear to us that nothing shapes our current cultural landscape as significantly as popular media. It’s also clear to us that for too long, the disengagement of Christians from creating and participating in our popular culture has been to the detriment of our civil discourse and to both the Church and the world at large. A misguided theology that believes nothing worthwhile can come from outside the Church has resulted in a bunker mentality that has limited the influence of the ideas we Christians hold dear.

We believe that by seeking out, celebrating and sharing works of popular culture that we have the bigger opportunity to “push back the darkness” and ultimately reveal more light. We believe that we can learn from culture, partake of the artistry of our neighbors and find joy in creativity. It’s ludicrous to lament the state of music, film or even television when the signs of life are all over the place and with the slightest bit of effort, easy to find.