After years of evangelical teaching on “engaging popular culture,” Christian families are facing renewed calls to withdraw from secular entertainment.
Today’s warnings sound more urgent than older cautions about pop culture. After all, newer young-adult fantasy novels don’t just market violence; they also include characters with trans identities. Streaming shows like The Last of Us aren’t just rife with curse words; they’re also endorsing same-sex entanglements.
How should wise Christians respond to today’s calls to reject—rather than winsomely engage—secular entertainment? What does pop-culture engagement look like in a “negative world,” which no longer praises or tolerates public expressions of biblical faith but actually treats Christianity as a dangerous threat to the newer religion of tolerance and sexual autonomy?
How Christians Learned to Embrace Pop-Culture Engagement
When I was a child, I began studying how to “engage popular culture” by reading a 1986 book meant for Christian parents. Its cover featured a toy box dispatched by the Devil, and its author tried to contrast appropriate childhood play with (what he saw as) consumerism and occult imagery in He-Man and The Smurfs.
I found this book a decade late, in the ’90s. It wasn’t long before evangelical writers were reacting against this combative mode of pop-culture engagement, proposing a more conversational approach. Think pieces proliferated. Bloggers wrote movie reviews. Websites like Christ and Pop Culture and Think Christian launched. Books proliferated with titles like Finding God in . . . or The Gospel According to . . ., displaying an eagerness to discern the virtues and theological themes of The Simpsons, Star Wars, or Superman.
Most of these resources reject legalistic impulses. They favor a common-grace approach, accepting that God created humans in his own image and bestows gifts even on the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45). This truth means our Creator’s image will always be reflected, however dimly, in popular culture made by God’s image-bearers.
Such resources still edify me. Many help articulate, say, why Star Trek: Picard season 3 so beautifully grew its Next Generation heroes or why we feel vicarious grief at the sacrificial deaths of Superman and Iron Man. They explain why we cringe at shallow Christian social-drama movies. They help us train kids to think critically.
Still, like anything, this evangelical movement of pop-culture engagement includes some blind spots—and it may be aging poorly in today’s rapidly changing world.
New Hazards in Pop Culture
Last spring, leaked audio revealed a Disney creative executive boasting of a “not-at-all-secret gay agenda.” That news—while perhaps unsurprising to conservatives—mobilized parents in ways that probably helped doom two 2022 Disney movies: Lightyear and Strange World. Beyond the Mouse House, many makers of kids’ content now seem locked in a sexual-revolutionary arms race to develop the first divergent-identity characters, such as the first “drag queen” on Blue’s Clues, the first cross-dressing Baby Muppet, or the first “nonbinary” Transformer.
Because of this, some millennial parents are shifting away from the “legalism is bad!” mindset and coming to see that maybe their parents in the ’80s weren’t crazy to put strict limits around their media consumption. Other concerned adults are going on the offense, whether through YouTube creators who mock the “woke” messages of geek-franchise movies or companies like The Daily Wire that have announced their own direct competition to Disney. Other conservative groups publish their own resources, promising to counter the mainstream fare with alternative stories that celebrate Judeo-Christian morality and classical virtue.
We Live in a ‘Negative World’
In today’s world, the “gospel according to secular pop culture” genre feels increasingly naive, even foolish. With respect, I suggest that such resources—for all their strengths—fail to acknowledge the growing observation that Christians now live in a “negative world.” As writer Aaron Renn describes this, we’ve seen three general stages of culture secularization, from the “positive world” (ending around 1994) to the “neutral world” (1994 to 2014), and finally the “negative world” (up to the present). There’s ongoing debate about this framing among Christians, but I see value in Renn’s construction. Renn writes of the negative world,
Society has come to have a negative view of Christianity. Being known as a Christian is a social negative, particularly in the elite domains of society. Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good and the new public moral order. Subscribing to Christian moral views or violating the secular moral order brings negative consequences.
Perhaps some of the older evangelical pop-culture engagement worked in Renn’s neutral world. But even then, these resources had limits.
Some advocates of “engaging pop culture” focused more on pragmatic evangelism than personal holiness. Their emphasis on winsome public witness sometimes minimized our need to proclaim the biblical gospel and the full counsel of God—complete with its “hard sayings” (John 6:60). This implied our non-Christian neighbors would consider Jesus Christ if only we signaled our shared enjoyment of superheroes or prestige streaming shows.
Some advocates of ‘engaging pop culture’ focused more on pragmatic evangelism than personal holiness.
A few of these authors also seemed to find secular culture much friendlier than the nasty place their Christian ancestors had warned them about. This led them to resentful postures toward “evangelical culture” (with all its embarrassing “purity” and cheesy low aesthetic standards) and positivity about “popular culture.” In their haste to affirm common grace, they neglected Scripture’s warnings about cultural idolatries. Yet for every reminder about Paul’s “altar to the unknown god” missional method (Acts 17:23), we must also recall that evil humans exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man” and creatures (Rom. 1:23).
Common grace may help us see popular culture’s goodness. But only Christ’s saving grace can help us gain eternal life—and then hope for culture’s future redemption.
Rebooting Pop-Culture Engagement for a Negative World
In spite of my critiques, I don’t think Christians should reject every old idea about pop-culture engagement. I think we should wisely update these approaches to cultural engagement for today’s negative world, taking care to discern when we should resist elements of pop culture as fundamentally idolatrous and when to receive them as common-grace gifts (to use Brad East’s terms in his helpful recent article). For different age groups, practical applications might look like the following.
For Younger Children
In a world where Disney cartoons don’t just repeat “believe in yourself” but overtly undermine biblical sexual ethics, we can’t just praise the fun quips, “safe” lack of curse words, and feel-good vibes. Let’s get real, and let’s get ahead of the not-so-secret agendas.
Start the training early, using age-appropriate comparisons: “Some people believe so-and-so about men and women. But here’s how the Bible says God created us.”
Yes, you might even avoid certain streaming services or books for younger children. This isn’t legalism or “book banning.” Rather, you’re acting as a responsible shepherd, like a pastor called to protect his flock from false teaching.
For Older Children
Start adding weight to their lifting. They’re nearing the stage of needing to navigate this world on their own, and you must prepare them to survive with their faith intact. Even if the negative world gets worse, a total-withdrawal strategy can exasperate your children, provoking their curiosity about The Secular World along with vulnerability to its temptations. Many of us have experienced this ourselves, so let’s learn from our own examples and not repeat the same cycle.
Carefully permit your children to explore more popular culture. Praise any common grace, including creative excellence, but challenge idolatries: “Why does the hero think this will make her happy? According to the rules of this fictional world, can that even work? In our real world, does that idea glorify Jesus or the flesh?”
For Adults (Including Ourselves)
We must also ask challenging questions and guard ourselves against pop culture’s temptations and insidious agendas. This includes the usual suspects like that TV show hoping to sell you a sexual revolution. But also take note that some pundits warning about pop culture may have their own agendas.
Praise any common grace, including creative excellence, but challenge idolatries.
That “anti-woke” YouTuber may not love Jesus as much as he loves bashing a mutual enemy in order to sell you his Christ-less “traditional” idols guaranteed to beat the leftist gods. These pundits are just as much popular culture as the stuff on Paramount Plus. Test all of this equally, wielding biblical wisdom as your standard.
Whatever you eat or drink—whatever you hear on your podcast player or scroll past on your smartphone—do it all for God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31). Our mission isn’t to practice mere “winsomeness” in our age nor merely to cope with the culture, however bad it gets. Our purpose is to glorify Jesus forever, no matter how negative our world.
The Gospel Coalition