Many Christians who love popular culture remember bleak decades in which attending a movie was the very definition of worldly compromise. Times have changed radically, and not entirely for the better. If many of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters once shielded their faith by ignoring popular culture, many evangelicals today opt for comfortably numb consumerism.

When we do engage the culture, we tend to be unimaginative. Too much of evangelical movie criticism amounts to compiling lists of offenses, indulging in unreflective subjectivity ("I liked it"), or applying Bible verses to films that make no pretense of spiritual insight. Contemporary Christian music offers evangelical alternatives to virtually every genre, including such frothy projects as boy bands.

Christians need not relive the days when piety meant spurning entire art forms. Still, an opposite danger is to assume that Christians must respond to (or imitate) every crass, morally bankrupt gimmick promoted by the entertainment industry.

To state it bluntly, millions of Christians will complete their lives in obedience to the Lord without ever exploring the existential questions posed by Phone Booth or Lockdown. Thoughtful Christian reflection on pop culture is always possible. Whether it's always necessary is another question. How many Christians truly need help in discerning whether Dude, Where's My Car? or Natural Born Killers have much to say about leading a meaningful life?

Further, we need a more developed understanding of cultural engagement. Is it not cultural engagement to volunteer in a soup kitchen, to cast an informed vote, to reclaim city blocks overtaken by prostitutes and drug-dealers? And don't these costly forms of cultural engagement make more of a difference in people's daily lives than being a pop-culture consumer?

For evangelicals in particular, the cultural engagement we ought to practice most often will help transform people's hearts, minds, and souls. At its best, popular culture plants seeds of life-transforming decisions. But let's not kid ourselves that a person's salvation depends on whether we can enter a thoughtful conversation about the Austin Powers series.

We can enjoy the best of popular culture because it is art and because art is a portion of God's common grace, available to Christians and non-Christians alike. People are able to create art because they are made in the image of God, and we need not impose any utilitarian end on art to justify its existence.

Evangelical Christians may enjoy and celebrate those aspects of popular culture that bring glory to God because they reflect reality with beauty and grace. Let us think of fresh ways to engage the culture around us—not only as consumers but also as creative people and as humble servants of our neighbors. And let's not confuse those forms by thinking we're doing our part for the Kingdom of God simply by attending a movie or buying a CD.

Related Elsewhere

Christianity Today has articles on cultural engagement, film and music reviews, and other analysis of popular culture in our culture and technology archive.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.