Despite the presence of such a diverse alternative media culture, evangelicals do not live in some kind of protected bubble, sealed off from the rest of popular culture; the residue of popular culture enters their homes even if tainted videos do not. How do they prepare their kids to confront a world where Janet Jackson’s fetishwear is just one strong tug away? Some evangelicals have organized to offer their own ratings of contemporary media products based on what they see as Christian principles (see, for example, Christian Spotlight on Entertainment).In some cases, these ratings are purely negative, helping families filter out profanity, nudity, violence, or content tagged as occult or new age. In other cases, groups such as HollywoodJesus.com promote works that they feel raise spiritual and philosophical questions, even if they do not necessarily adopt Christian perspectives. Increasingly, such sites are encouraging what they call “discernment.” One such group, the Ransom Fellowship, defines discernment as “an ability, by God’s grace, to creatively chart a godly path through the maze of choices and options that confront us, even when were faced with situations and issues that aren’t specifically mentioned in the Scriptures.” The discernment movement draws inspiration from a range of Biblical passages that speak of people who maintained their faith even when living as exiles or captives in an alien land. Christians, they argue, are living in “modern captivity,” holding onto and transmitting their faith in an increasingly hostile context.
In “Pop Culture: Why Bother?,” Ransom Fellowship founder and director Denis Haack advocates engaging with popular culture, rather than hiding from it. Discernment exercises can help Christians to develop a greater understanding of their own value system, can offer insights into the worldview of “nonbelievers,” and can offer an opportunity for meaningful exchange between Christians and non-Christians. As Haack explains, “If we are to understand those who do not share our deepest convictions, we must gain some comprehension of what they believe, why they believe it, and how those beliefs work out in daily life.” Their site provides discussion questions and advice about how to foster media literacy within an explicitly religious context, finding ideas worth struggling with in mainstream works as diverse as Bruce Almighty, Whale Rider, Cold Mountain, and Lord of the Rings. The site is very explicit that Christians are apt to disagree among themselves about what is or is not valuable in such works, but that the process of talking through these differences focuses energy on spiritual matters and helps everyone involved to become more skillful in applying and defending their faith.
Somewhere between the production of new forms of popular culture and the discernment of values within existing commercial media lies a movement to adopt live action role-playing and computer games as spaces for exploring and debating moral questions. The Christian Gamers Guild (which titles its official e-zine “The Way, The Truth and The Dice”) emerged in the midst of strong attacks from some evangelical leaders on role-playing and computer games. As the group’s collective statement explains: “Role-playing games allow people to make choices, to make wrong choices, and then watch them unfold into the painful consequences, without ever taking any real risk. In this way it gets players to ask the important moral questions, and weigh the answers-and all in the context of having fun.” There is even Project X, a Christian effort to develop games with overtly Christian themes. And Christian gaming groups, such as Men of God, go into military or shooting games and witness on the virtual battlefield. They are, to borrow the name of another group, “Fans for Christ.”
Confronting the proliferation of cable channels, the diversification of media content available on video and DVD, and the sheer expanse of the Internet, we all struggle to make decisions about what kind of popular culture we want to bring into our homes. We can respond to that challenge with fear or with courage, with minds open or minds closed. The culture war rhetoric closes off discussion: its metaphors of sewage, pollution, or dead skunks imply that some forms of expression are indefensible (and it is easy for this contempt to get directed against the people who consume such media). What I respect about the Christian discernment movement is that it is educating people to make meaningful choices and giving them a conceptual framework for talking about what kinds of ideas get expressed through the media they consume. These folk have been willing to defend popular media against others in their same religious denominations who would denounce them. They hold firm in their own beliefs and they have not renounced their desire to see such beliefs become a more powerful force in our culture, but they have created an approach that respects diversity of opinion and civility of expression.