Arts & Leisure

Seeking Escape—and Enlightenment—in Popular Culture

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

I’ll admit it. Sometimes I use popular culture to distract myself from reality. I want to spend some time in a fantasy world where everything is just a little bit too pretty and the problems are low-stakes and easily resolved in 20 to 60 minutes. (A recent choice for me has been Supergirl). Especially during a time when politics and world events seem uncertain and high stakes, it’s nice to use pop culture as an escape. But is this irresponsible? Might it even be anti-Christian?

Certainly, we shouldn’t avoid uncomfortable realities altogether. It’s not healthy for individuals or good for society. But there is plenty of middle ground where some escape into fictional worlds or semi-fictional realities is part of a balanced spiritual life. What’s more, something doesn’t have to be difficult or depressing to reflect truth or be meaningful. Here at Think Christian, we’re continually seeking God’s truth in unlikely, pop-culture places—so many, I no longer think of those places as “unlikely.”

A recent Washington Post essay by Emily Yahr considers our relationship to popular culture from a slightly different, but still illuminating, perspective. Pop culture can serve a useful purpose in allowing us to set aside more serious concerns for a moment and rest mentally and emotionally so we can do something about our larger concerns. Yahr cites a metaphor that NPR’s Linda Holmes makes using The Martian. In the movie, Matt Damon’s character, who is trying to escape Mars, spends a lot of time growing potatoes. The potatoes are not necessary for the escape, but they are necessary for him to stay alive to keep working on the escape. Light pop culture, Holmes says, can be like those potatoes—it helps us keep going so we can work on the bigger thing.

Yes, Christians can be refreshed in other ways; we also have our direct connection to God through prayer and the support of God’s people. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also benefit from a little evening wind-down with The Great British Baking Show or Playing House (to name two of my favorites, both of which we’ve recently covered on TC).

Pop culture can sometimes offer a surprising glimpse of God’s kingdom.

Yahr also notes that the very things we sometimes use to “escape” might be supplying us with new ways to think about cultural and political problems. The distance of fiction and art has long been an effective way to offer social commentary, especially when direct arguments have a hard time fitting into the available political climate. Art and culture can help us think differently—and, we often argue at TC, can sometimes offer a surprising glimpse of God’s kingdom.

Yahr points out another reason we might indulge guilt-free in a bit of popular culture: it functions as an easy topic for conversation, a common ground where relationships can be built, relationships that might eventually blossom around more serious concerns. This is especially important for Christians, because building relationships with others can be an important part of missional living. Sometimes people respond to a direct offer of a spiritual conversation or reveal their pain in a first encounter, but usually trusting relationships take time and effort to cultivate. Talking about The Bachelor or Game of Thrones can be one way to begin those relationships. Being able to enter such pop-culture conversations as equals is one reason a Christian might want to stay engaged in things that at first seem like a silly escape.

Of course, we should pay attention to the various messages we find in cultural objects, whether they are true, deceptive, or half-true. That’s an important part of what we do here. But we don’t need to feel guilty about engaging in the first place. We should think about what cultural texts do for and to us. Helping us relax and “escape” and see the world differently might be a legitimate good.

Christians should be involved in making and interpreting popular culture, especially since our view of the world brings the perspective of God’s word, something that can sometimes be conspicuously absent. We know that although world powers and political players change, God’s truth is steady. We should be open to new paths toward finding it.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Entertainment