Christian Scharen on How to Approach Popular Culture

Today we feature an excerpt from Broken Hallelujahs by Christian Scharen, on how Christians can approach popular culture.


Broken HallelujahsWhat good is it if we love only those who are “good Christians,” as my grandma used to say? When she said that, she acted as if such a judgment was the litmus test for whether we ought to listen to what someone had to say. I want to argue, to the contrary, that even if something in pop culture is so twisted that its portrayal of horror only offers a broken cry, that cry is worth hearing. Why? Because Christ is in that cry, God listens to that cry, and we Christians as the body of Christ ought to hear it too.

The Saw films may not, in the end, be any good. They may not be redemptive in any way. Our family would never take our kids to see them, and I wouldn’t ever want to see them myself (as it turns out, I dislike the horror genre in general). It is worth saying, furthermore, that those who produce the films and those who see them likely don’t understand what they are making or consuming in this theological perspective.

Yet, if the theological framework I have developed thus far holds water, such cultural creations cannot be Godforsaken. More than that, we can’t know whether Saw VII or Kanye West’s album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or any other cultural production is any good unless, following C. S. Lewis’s understanding of Christian discipleship, we have practiced surrender.

Christian Scharen

An obvious shorthand for this invitation to practice surrender is C. S. Lewis’s simple (but not simplistic) juxtaposition of looking “at” something with looking “with” it. Looking “with” something is, he agrees, not the easier of the two ways. We don’t have time enough for surrender to each cultural creation, and so we cannot always know whether what we see when looking “with” it is is any good, for us or for the world as God intends it.

That is why, after all, constricted imagination is such a common approach to pop culture. The constriction leads to a checklist that can be certain, clear, and easy. Accept this, reject that. Yes! Done!

I am sympathetic to the ease of this approach. I too want a way to make judgments about the music, film, games, and other popular arts I engage. Yet, if this book has done anything, I hope it has raised serious theological doubts about such an approach. God gets terribly small when we follow the trail of constricted imagination: God’s here (with me), God’s not there (with you).

No, I say! Just when we think we have got that one straight, Jesus gives us the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, and the sinner comes out looking the better (Luke 18:9-14).


Christian Scharen (PhD, Emory University) is assistant professor of worship and theology and codirector of the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has authored a number of books, including One Step Closer and Faith as a Way of Life.

For more information on Broken Hallelujahs, click here.