The Neglected Role of Popular Culture in Christian Parenting
Prince Naveen discovered that Tiana was what he never knew he needed. Narnia fans don’t know what they’re missing until they discover scholar Michael Ward’s findings about Lewis’ “secrets.” And I never knew I needed Avatar: The Last Airbender in my life until my wife introduced the show to me.*
Yes, sometimes you don’t fully recognize your need for something until it appears.
In the particular case of this blog post, the “you” is Christian parents, and the “something” is the book The Pop Culture Parent. With the combined insights of its three co-authors (one whom I know personally, one whom I know online, and one whom I stalk online), this resource explores a much-neglected facet of parenting: engaging popular culture with and for your children.
In a society infatuated and inundated with pop culture products, how can Christian parents raise their children to be faithful ambassadors in, and wise stewards of, the output of the surrounding culture, with its mix of common grace and secular idolatries? It’s a question the body of Christ needs to be asking, and it deserves a book-length answer.
THE IMPORTANCE OF POP CULTURE PARENTING
To quote the authors, “As sons and daughters of the King, our Great Commission is to serve as ambassadors of Jesus to people around us. Wise ambassadors get to know the culture of their host country, studying the heart and soul of the people they are trying to reach” (17). This applies to our own relationship to the surrounding culture, but also to how we shepherd our children from within that culture—and, Lord willing, how they themselves can act as ambassadors of Christ once they experience and demonstrate saving faith.
The influence of popular culture on our children—including in the ostensibly “safe spaces” of our religious communities—cannot be ignored. Pop culture is to us like the ocean is to a fish. The question isn’t whether we will interact with it or not; the questions is if we will do so actively and directly, or passively and indirectly.
As such, Christian parents can actively harness the power of popular culture to examine, appreciate, and experience the power of the gospel:
Popular culture can woo imaginations both through contrast and reflection. By contrast, we mean the gospel shines brighter when we see the emptiness of the false gospels in popular culture. When the hero saves the world through violence, you can talk about how violence often doesn’t save the world and how God actually saved the world by allowing his Son to become a victim of violence, absorbing its ugliness. By reflection, we mean that popular culture sometimes gives hints and echoes of the beauty and power of the gospel. When we see a character learn to forgive a friend who has betrayed her trust, we hear an echo of the gospel—of God’s forgiveness of our betrayal. As counterintuitive as it sounds, with adult guidance, popular culture can actually place the gospel into new imaginative contexts for children, helping them see its power and beauty anew. (41)
AN INCARNATIONAL APPROACH
One point of the book stood out to me more than any other—the need for us to model Christ’s ambassadorship in our parenting:
Parents are often tempted to parent from above, from a position of detached authority looking down on the child’s world, judging and dismissing it, safely encased in the parent’s comfort zone. But we only effectively woo our children’s hearts to the beauty of the gospel when we mimic Jesus by being incarnational. That is, just as Jesus entered our world, we enter the worlds of our children, including the culture they enjoy. (42)
It is much easier (in the short term, at least) to make our children meet us in our world, exposing them only to cultural artifacts from our time—mistaking, perhaps, that our familiarity with them somehow translates into being automatically safe for them. Not to say it’s wrong to share our cultural experiences with our children (it most certainly is not); rather, it is wrong to equate our preferences (what we personally consider best) as their prerogatives (what is best for them). This self-centered mindset can affect our entire parenting paradigm, not just those that intersect with pop culture.
In parenting teens, for example, we may be tempted to compare their generational trends with our nostalgic view of our past and interpret our teens as attempting to “replace [our] familiar culture with an inferior, subversive alternative”:
You can’t support your teen and also dismiss their cultural tastes with an attitude like, “The garbage kids watch and listen to these days.” You can either walk with teens through their cultural worlds or indulge in snap judgment and push your teens away.
Engaging with your teen’s cultural choices does not mean you agree with every message and image in those works. It means you understand…and you care enough to want to understand…what he or she finds excellent. (168)
The authors model and unpack this incarnational approach in several ways. For example, three rubber-meets-the-road chapters are strategically inserted to guide parents through the process of using pop culture as a training tool. These “practice sessions” examine some especially popular cultural products: the movie Frozen (for young children), the film Star Wars: The Force Awakens (for older children), and the game Fortnite Battle Royale (for older teens and young adults). I found the chapter on Frozen to be especially insightful, demonstrating how to wield the world (so to speak) as a tool for developing a Scriptural worldview.
WITH POPULAR CULTURE COMES PRODIGIOUS RESPONSIBILITY
Shepherding our children’s hearts is a challenging task in and of itself. It’s a responsibility that shows us our own weaknesses, our own childish and petty ways—and the Savior which we and our children desperately need to overcome our sin. In His kind provision, God has graced the church with numerous books on the subject of parenting, many of which have proved beneficial to my own family.
The Pop Culture Parent earns its place near the top of the list of those books I will likely refer to again and again, for years to come. It may not have been a parenting book we were looking for, but it’s a book we discovered we needed. And dare I say it, my perspective on parenting—and on living the Christian life itself—will never be the same again. That’s about as strong of a recommendation as I can give.
You can purchase your own copy of The Pop Culture Parent directly from New Growth Press.
* Okay, so “needed” may be a bit of a theological stretch.
Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash