After the street trolley slowed to a stop, I stepped onto Canal Street and toward a skyscraping Marriott Hotel. At 10 a.m. New Orleans’s French Quarter was sun-soaked and humming, with people streaming along sidewalks and palm trees sending thin shadows across the cement. I followed my friends inside the hotel and up to the second floor, where I was handed a nametag, a map, and a thick schedule for the annual, five day Popular Culture Association (PCA) conference.
Flipping through the schedule, my eyes caught on TV show titles like Breaking Bad, Arrow, Parks and Recreation, and House of Cards. I browsed the subject areas and read titles from “Comedy and Humor” to “Cemeteries and Gravemarkers,” from “Circuses and Circus Culture” to “Communication and Digital Culture.” This was a conference where a person could look at popular culture from any angle, using any rhetorical lens. If a person wanted to research the use of a strong, multidimensional female villain in Sons of Anarchy, she was welcome. If someone wanted to talk about the way Wreck it Ralph related to Buddhist self-actualization, he could go for it. If someone wanted to examine the significance of specific words in Nicki Minaj rap songs or the way that fan culture shapes ongoing TV shows, the floor was open.
Thousands of people made up hundreds of panels to listen, question, and discuss the research of their fellow academics and pop culture enthusiasts. All types of people were represented: Catholic professors, agnostics with foreign accents, atheist women with spiked green hair, Muslim men in suits, and me, an Adventist from a small college in Lincoln, Nebraska.
The question could be asked, should I have been there?
In John 17: 14-19, Jesus is recorded as praying, “I do not ask that you take them [my disciples] out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” In Christ Triumphant, Ellen White wrote, “We cannot, my brethren and sisters, float along with the current of the world. The work for us to do is to come out and be separate.”
There are many Adventists who would say that this “separation,” prayed for by Jesus and echoed by Ellen White, is clear in its meaning, that it means Adventists should not engage in most (if not all) of the television shows, movies, books, or music produced and made popular in today’s media. It means that Adventists should opt out of gatherings, like the PCA conference, that require one to spend time absorbing any part of “secular” popular culture because Adventists should be spending their time advancing the kingdom of God through Bible study and evangelism. I’ve heard countless people quote Ellen White’s expression, “by beholding we are to become changed” (God’s Amazing Grace 301) as a definitive argument, as in, “don’t watch [insert “bad, secular” movie or TV show here] because by beholding it, you will be changed for the worse.”
I think that it’s both valid and wise to use discretion when exposing oneself to popular culture and media. As an Adventist with a Netflix account, I know that I can easily stream movies that contain graphic violence, explicit sexuality, and unchallenged stereotypes. I don’t do myself any favors by mindless watchingly them, just as I don’t do my body any favors by mindlessly downing spoonfuls of sugar.
But I also don’t benefit by mindlessly assuming that engaging in popular culture is automatically harmful. Mindlessly assuming (or consuming) anything is dangerous, and that goes for both the “secular” and the “sacred.”
Assuming that a sermon is God-sent truth just because it was preached by an Adventist pastor is foolish. Assuming that every rock and roll song is a tribute to the devil is foolish. I can’t assume everything that the “men of God” do in every Bible story is something I should do (otherwise I’m going to be marrying multiple wives and stoning rebellious children), and I can’t assume that everything Lady Gaga wears is something that I should wear (otherwise I’ll be wearing meat dresses and Kermit the Frog coats).
Literacy is important, whether you’re reading 1 Timothy, Travelling Mercies by Anne Lamott, or the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, and it’s much more than simply sounding out the phonics.
The Media Literacy Project defines media literacy as “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media.” Literacy is what that PCA conference was all about. It required every person present to analyze and evaluate the messages sent by popular culture, and to contribute their own voice to that message. It required me to engage with and connect to the people and ideas around me.
So, while it might be easier to live a life of separation, to label all pop culture as worthless, to throw every DVD in the garbage, to surround yourself with only people that think, act, eat, believe, watch and read the same things you do, I do not believe that is what Jesus or Ellen White were talking about. That kind of separation comes with the weighty consequences of alienation, ignorance, and arrogance. It might be easier, but it’s not healthy because God created us for inclusion and community.
The sociological definition of a church is not one that is separate from society, but one that actively contributes to it. I believe that God wants us to think critically about what we see and hear, that He equippes us with the ability to be “in the world,” engaging in popular culture, thinking critically about it and creating it, while not being “of the world,” not applauding abuse or spreading stereotypes.
It’s up to every Adventist to decide what they will watch, read, listen to, and discuss, and who they will do that with. As for me, I’ll be flying to Seattle next April to join the PCA conversation all over again, and I would love to see you there.