Five Observations on Pop Culture in 2017

We make five observations from pop culture in 2017 and discuss how seeing them through the lens of the gospel means a different experience altogether for Christians.

Topics: Faith | Entertainment | Gender | Politics | Race | Technology

We’re now several weeks into 2018. Vacations have ended. Christmas decorations are down (they should be anyway). New goals are set. It’s nearly February. Between the College Football National Championships, the Golden Globes and continued controversy from the White House, we’ve already got our fair share of compelling headlines.

As we move into the new year, it’s helpful to pause and look back on 2017, specifically all that happened in pop culture. In reflecting on the major moments, both good and bad, we can consider what has actually taken place and how these things have challenged and changed us. We can learn from 2017 as we seek to faithfully engage culture, as we “abhor what is evil and cling to what is good (Rom. 12:9)” and be “in the world but not of the world (John 17:14-19).” Here are five cultural observations from last year:

1. Christians are discovering their political alienation.

Problems have always emerged when the Church and State become entangled, whether through a “Christian” monarchy or Christians becoming more aligned with a political party than the body of Christ. Historically, we saw this with horrific events like the Crusades, where the “other” was forced to choose between conversion or the sword. For the American Church, this problem re-emerged in 2016’s presidential election when both candidates created an endless list of moral conundrums for believers who wanted to be faithfully engaged in politics. Many—not all—conservative Christians were challenged by what they previously thought was an unproblematic partnership with the GOP.

This dilemma continued in 2017, with a new president now in power. Exhibited in particular when Roy Moore, who has several allegations of sexual misconduct lingering, ran for Senator of Alabama with heaps of Christian support, Christians are being faced with the question: Do we have to compromise our convictions and witness to be politically engaged and, even more, back a particular political party?

God is establishing His kingdom regardless of what’s happening here or there, now or later. 

Given the way our current political landscape is amplifying and exposing the challenge of being both Christian and Republican or Democrat, many Christians find themselves politically alienated, as if they have no home in the political space, while some are still holding on to historic ties. It’s a discombobulating place to be, but it’s an opportunity to see things for what what they really are. If we’re willing to break free of misplaced loves and allegiances, we will see the political arena has been and always will be a tough line to toe for the faithful.

While the Bible calls us to obey the laws of the land (Rom. 13:1-2), to seek the welfare of the city (Jer. 29:7), to love our neighbor (Matt. 22:34-40), and to seek justice and righteousness (Jer. 22:3), all of which surely imply some degree of political engagement, we can’t be reminded enough this earth is not our home. We are citizens of God’s kingdom, exiled to a type of Babylon. The health and mission of the Church doesn’t hinge on worldly political power. We know how this story ends. God is establishing His kingdom regardless of what’s happening here or there, now or later. Our King has come, reigning and ruling over all things, and He is coming again to make all things new.

2. Women are speaking out and leading out.

Accusations of sexual misconduct were made against Harvey Weinstein this year, along with a growing list of other men in power. Soon after the allegations were made, actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to start sharing their stories of sexual assault and harassment—or even simply cases of misogyny—on social media with the hashtag #MeToo. This hashtag has now been used millions of times and become a rallying point for multitudes of women. As these women boldly and honestly share stories of objectification and abuse, we’ve seen how prevalent this problem is in contemporary society. We’ve become all the more aware of injustices against women, even though the statistics have been there all along. We’ve broadened a necessary conversation that has been a long time coming.

Given this conversation, it’s easy to see the inconsistencies between the social conscience of our culture at large and the social conscience of our media. On the one hand, society condemns child molestation. On the other hand, one of this year’s most critically acclaimed movies, Call Me by Your Name, romanticizes a homosexual relationship between a graduate student and a professor’s underaged son. This is just one example of the glorification of an inconsistent ethic on what constitutes abuse. Yet it seems our eyes have been opened to the problem, and we’re finally seeing its correlation to media. While a chasm certainly remains, our culture now seems aware of it, slowly closing that gap when it comes to the books we read, the movies and TV we watch, and the podcasts and music we listen to.

Produced by and starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, Big Little Lies was one of the most acclaimed TV series of 2017, and it took the issue of domestic violence and sexual abuse seriously through a captivating drama/mystery about five brave women. A number of other big movies and TV shows in 2017 championed women as heroes and leaders. Along with Logan, Wonder Woman stood out as the most accomplished superhero movie of the year. In fact, Wonder Woman, Beauty and the Beast, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which all have female leads, were the top three box offices winners last year. In season two of Stranger Things, Millie Bobby Brown reprised her role as Eleven, the only person with the power to overcome the darkness of the Upside Down. There were a number of great movies directed by female directors, including Detroit by Kathryn Bigelow and Lady Bird by Greta Gerwig, showcasing a space for women to have equal opportunity as filmmakers in Hollywood. The latter, which is bringing home many awards, featured a memorable lead performance by Saoirse Ronan. It should also be noted that one of the biggest albums of the year came from Taylor Swift, who has established herself as a mogul in the music industry.

There is certainly a political angle to this conversation, and the motivations and ideologies driving many to take a stand remain different than those of the Church. As those who affirm the imago dei, upholding that all humans are equal in value, dignity and worth, and believe that women should be flourishing in leadership inside and outside the church walls, we have an opportunity to learn and grow. How have we been a part of the problem? In what ways have we not been a safe place for women? Where have we stifled and silenced women instead of empowering them? Women, how can you help the Church? In what ways is God calling you to stand firm in Him, sharing your voice and story? Where can you challenge and encourage us to grow?

3. Technology is shaping our identities and interactions.

In his book Strange Days, Mark Sayers comments on the chaos and confusion of our cultural moment. Sayers argues that our identities have historically been rooted in places that have established norms and values, but it’s no longer the case now. Because of technology, specifically the ability to be more transient and a digital space where we create and project who we want to be through social media, our search for “who we are” and the sin attached to that process becomes all the more complex and fluid.

Though sin and brokenness are the ultimate culprits, technology appears to be playing a bigger role in our identity crisis than we realize. In his new book Awaiting the King, James K. A. Smith argues a society is the sum of its practices. In other words, we are who we are as a culture because of our rhythms and habits. We know the way we understand identity is also influenced by a worldview, namely a postmodern way of thinking that denies metanarratives and the validity of an objective morality, but it seems that our technological habits—and shall I say addictions—have just as much to do with it.

Technology is a gift from God and can and should be leveraged for good in this world and for the making of disciples, but it’s necessary to set up rules and boundaries, or instead of owning our phones and devices, they will own us.

Technology is not only shaping our identities but also our interactions, our communication. Vince Dang hit on part of this idea in his article How to Disagree With Compassion. In a world where we spend countless hours a day on devices—phones, tablets, computers—we’re forgetting how to talk to one another. We’ve all got opinions about things happening in the world, yet as we voice them as digital sound bites, talking and not listening—we’re missing one another as the image-bearing humans we are.

As this communication, or lack thereof, becomes the norm, inundating our daily lives, there are consequences. Not only is it perpetuating more hostility and division between differing factions and institutions, but it’s also seeping into the most intimate parts of our lives, namely romantic relationships. In early December, the New Yorker posted a short story called “Cat Person” that addresses this problem. A subversive commentary on the numerous sex scandals and allegations that began to emerge last year and the social pressures often forced upon women, this scandalous, often sexually graphic tale looks at the challenges and complexities of communication in the digital age. This plays out in the story of a college student’s hookup and short-lived relationship with a man 10 years older, primarily taking place over text message.

Interestingly, while the New Yorker is putting its finger on the ways technology is shaping us, many Christians still struggle to see and do something about it. When it comes to our technology habits and consumption, we often look no different than the rest of culture. Technology is a gift from God and can and should be leveraged for good in this world and for the making of disciples, but it’s necessary to set up rules and boundaries, or instead of owning our phones and devices, they will own us.

4. Our world’s racial divide is on full display.

Since the tragic events of Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, there has been an uptick of awareness, angst and animosity around the topic of race in our country—for good reason—and in 2017, it seemed like these were at an all-time high. Between the current state of politics, the events in Charlottesville and the take-a-knee protests, our nation’s racial divide has become front and center—and that’s good news.

This past summer, the world watched as thousands of white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates and many other hate groups lined the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, to seemingly protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park. These individuals carried torches, waved rebel flags, and wore swastikas and KKK hoods, vividly reminding us that racial discrimination and injustice are alive still. Sadly, the event escalated to violence, which led to the murder of a young woman who was protesting the protesters.

When the NFL season arrived, the conversation moved forward as a number of players continued what now free agent Colin Kaepernick started the season prior. These protests originated as a way to silently stand against police brutality and racial inequality in our country, and we’ve now seen a number of athletes from other sports take part. The response to the national anthem protest has been a mixed bag; some struggle not with the “message” but the “mode,” believing it’s disrespectful to our flag and country to take a knee. President Trump called for the NFL to fire these players, and a subset of fans has taken a break from the NFL due to the protests.

All these events point to national division regarding racial lines, often bleeding over into political lines, as well. It’s been heartbreaking to see, and two of the best movies from 2017—Get Out and Detroit—wouldn’t let us look away as they explored racism in America past and present. Yet it’s something we need to see, and whether we like how everything unfolded, it’s forced us to come to terms with the sin of racism in all areas: personally, corporately and systemically. It’s painful to see the racial wound that’s there still, but because we’re now more aware of it, we need to not look away. The conversation needs to take place.

As it relates to this conversation, the question for Christians remains: Will we do anything about it? As I argued in an article last year, it’s one thing to denounce racial discrimination and injustice, to believe what the Bible says, but it’s another thing to pursue justice and diversity in our homes, communities and churches, to live what the Bible says. Given this cultural climate and the challenges that face us when it comes to race, the Church has a real opportunity to lead the way and be the people of God.

5. We might be secularized, but we still long for transcendence.

There is a narrative we’re all tempted to believe: that our world is growing increasingly secular and “post-Christian.” In some ways, there is truth to this narrative. There’s a growing hum of hostility toward Christians in our culture, and we’ve seen that play out in a number of ways, from threats concerned with religious liberty as it relates to sexuality and equality to stats that would say many young Americans are leaving the Church. With a trend of Christians being labeled bigots and intolerant, we’d be blind to not recognize this shift in our culture and others. Europe is, in many ways, far ahead of us. It’s been their reality for a long time, and it’s just now becoming our new reality.

According to philosopher Charles Taylor, we may live in a disenchanted world, but it seems everyone is longing for enchantment.

The problem with seeing culture solely through these binary lenses, though, is pop culture itself, as the artifacts and products paint a different picture. While politics and the rage of social media imply a secularized world, our media tells a different story. It’s been said that movies and TV shows are a reflection of culture at large, specifically the way we see God, ourselves and the world. If that’s true, then it’s clear our world isn’t made up of a bunch of angry atheists who deny any concept of God but, instead, men and women who are asking questions, looking for more, hoping for more and who are obsessed with transcendence. According to philosopher Charles Taylor, we may live in a disenchanted world, but it seems everyone is longing for enchantment.

We can trace this longing across different parts of pop culture. Among other popular shows such as Twin Peaks, Black Mirror and Stranger Things, The Leftovers concluded with its third season in 2017. This show, which centers around a group of people trying to make sense of their lives after 2% of the population is raptured or “departed,” deals with religion and spirituality more than any other TV show since Lost. The Leftovers proved to be obsessed with the supernatural and how we make sense of loss and suffering. Then, across the big screen, there were blockbusters like Blade Runner 2049, Alien: Covenant, Coco, The Shape of Water and Star Wars: The Last Jedi and arthouse films like mother! and A Ghost Story, not to mention dozens and dozens of superhero stories, that asked big questions and hoped for big answers. Even one of the most popular novels of 2017, Pachinko, was inspired by the biblical story of Joseph, according to author Min Jin Lee.

These are just a few examples, but my point is despite apparent shifts toward secularism and away from organized religion, our culture appears as hungry as ever for hope and transcendence. While we’re quick to place people into categories between belief and unbelief, and though we find ourselves discouraged by our situation, we don’t have to look far to see men and women searching and exploring the supernatural. We know humans were made in God’s image with eternity written on all our hearts. And so we also know we’re all longing for meaning, purpose and ultimately a relationship with the triune God of the universe.   

Another Year in Pop Culture

2017 has come and gone, from our politics and technology problems to social issues involving women and people of color to increasing secularization, and now we move into a new year of pop culture. As Christians, it’s important that we don’t just let this year pass us by. In reflecting on the previous year—all that happened and all the ways we think culture has affected or not affected us—it is important that we enter 2018 more prepared than ever.

God has called us to be faithful citizens of the city of God while living in the city of man. We were given the creation mandate, as shown in Genesis 1:28, to be people who create and cultivate culture. This is why it’s so important to evaluate all the ways we do this in light of God’s story, through gospel lenses. Where we’re not, we’re living out of another story, discipled by the culture instead of the other way around.