Christian Separatist? Cultural Moron?

I very briefly panicked when I realized that I had not the slightest idea who “Snooki” was.

I was having dinner with friends when talk of the MTV reality show “Jersey Shore” came up. I’ve never seen it, so I didn’t know any of the characters. I learned that one of the eight people on the show, Snooki, is apparently wildly popular, and was called “part of our American culture” in the context of our discussion. You can even purchase Halloween costumes – complete with large wigs – so you can dress up like this East Coast (self-designated) bar fly…and yet I had no idea who this iconic person is. I suddenly thought, “Oh, no…am I becoming some sort of Christian separatist?” I glanced down quickly to make sure I wasn’t wearing a jean jumper. (I wasn’t.)

About three years ago, maybe more, Warren and I decided to get rid of cable TV. It was financially driven, really – certainly not the decision of religious extremists who consider television to be “the devil.” We simply found that for the cost of the service, we didn’t watch television enough to justify having cable. And since its departure, we really haven’t missed it.

But sometimes, in fleeting moments like that dinner party conversation, I sense that maybe I’m out of touch with our culture, perhaps as a direct result of my growing faith in Jesus Christ. Because we are called to share our faith with others (Mark 16:15), though, I think it’s dangerous to lose touch with what’s going on “out there,” at least for me. There’s a real possibility that by closing myself off too much to the culture, I could easily become judgmental and self-righteous, and that’s the last thing I want. Those are the kinds of attitudes that make Christianity a stench to non-believers before you ever get a chance to share the gospel.

So, concerned that maybe I’d gone too far in separating myself from certain aspects of American culture, I spent time this past week watching an episode of Jersey Shore, to find out who exactly this Snooki person is. If you’ve never seen the show and want to understand the premise, you’ll need to do your own research, because I won’t provide details here. Suffice it to say that I didn’t get very far into the program before feeling like I needed to take a shower. I must be getting old, because I’ll be honest: it just didn’t seem like entertainment to me. I knew my desires had been changing for awhile now, but I didn’t realize how much until this past week.

Please don’t get me wrong; I’m not against watching television for the purpose of “just” being entertained. I grew up managing my evening around fluff-filled TV shows like Love Boat, Fantasy Island, or the Saturday night movie. As a kid, I ended most of my school days by plopping myself down in front of the television and watching Gilligan’s Island and The Munsters. Some of my favorite memories of time with my dad include piling around the TV with Doritos and canned bean dip (was that a popular 70’s snack in every household?) while black-and-white westerns or old war movies played all Saturday afternoon.

I’ve also read a lot of books in my lifetime that had about as much theological depth as Jersey Shore. I was a voracious reader as a teenager, and I couldn’t wait for the latest Danielle Steele romance novel to come out. If you’re not familiar with her work, let me brief you – girl meets boy, girl loses boy, boy pursues girl until they are ultimately together again. Steele has dozens of books, and while the names of the characters and other details change, the plot line is largely the same. The ultimate romantic relationship with just the right person of the opposite sex is (apparently) the one thing that brings happiness to life, according to Danielle’s books.

In other words, I grew up soaked in the idea that books and television existed primarily to entertain. Diverting oneself in this manner is often as edifying to the mind as eating a large bag of circus peanuts is to the body. While it provides pleasure in the moment, you’ve gained nothing but empty calories when you reach the bottom of the bag.

Is it okay to eat candy every once in awhile? Yeah, I think so. Is it okay to read novels or watch sitcoms designed solely to entertain? You won’t ever find me arguing against that. Even now, I love watching the occasional movie; my teenage girls can pick out a flick I’ve already seen a dozen times, and I’ll happily settle in to watch with them, especially if it involves popcorn and chocolate raisins.

But here’s the point of tension for me, I think. As I see my desires changing, how do I rightly focus my energy on the things I want to pursue without getting judgmental, closed-minded, and out of touch? If I decide not to expose myself to most of today’s hyper-sexualized version of entertainment, which is so popular with lots of people but no longer appeals to me, am I sending the message that I no longer approve of the people to whom that entertainment does still appeal? It wasn’t that many years ago when I wouldn’t miss an episode of the sitcom Friends. How do I retain a winsome heart for those who still love Friends, when my own heart for those kinds of temporal activities is dimming?

I know there’s a danger in pulling too far away from the world and developing our own holy huddle – surrounding ourselves with Christian friends, buying our bread only from Christian bakeries and making sure our banker, insurance agent and dentist are all believers. Even as I write this, I’m uncomfortably aware that I’ve actually done some of this, and that a couple years ago I even allowed myself to buy a Kirk Cameron movie…because, after all, he’s a Christian!

On the other hand, the apostle Paul exhorts believers to guard their minds by taking every thought captive (2 Corinthians 10:5), and to guard their hearts and control their actions by intentionally focusing on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8-9). I think Paul is warning believers to be careful about what they allow to influence their thinking – what they allow “into their heads.”

I think whether we realize it or not, we can be affected by the songs, movies and television programs, art and conversations we allow ourselves to participate in, and we need to carefully consider how often we want to expose ourselves to any experience that is not helpful to our own walk with Christ. I feel pretty comfortable saying that watching much television that extols the virtues of a hedonistic life, or reading many books whose overarching premise is that romantic love is the highest pursuit, is not helpful to me. I want to be clear – I’m not judging what levels are right for anyone else…I’m just talking about myself.

I’ve said before that the Christian walk can be a struggle for me, and I suppose this is just one more area. Or, it might be more accurate to say that I think the Christian life is filled with tensions that we need to figure out how to hold in balance. While I could not relate to a particular show this young woman at the dinner party mentioned, as I looked back on our evening I realize I was able to connect with her in other areas of interest; I think that’s a good sign. And while I don’t really care to know anything more about Snooki, I would love to know more about this well-spoken young woman I recently met, and as long as we aren’t constrained to talk about reality TV shows, I think I’ll probably do okay.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5 (ESV)
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

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