I remember sitting at my sister’s house one night with her family watching the Drew Carey Show. It was a popular show back in the 90’s and it was a pretty harmless in its content as TV shows go. My niece was maybe 10 years old at the time and after one racy joke with some clear sexual innuendo she asked us why everyone was laughing. We just avoided the question until there was another joke, and then another and my niece kept asking what it all meant. I turned to my sister at one point and said, isn’t there a rerun of the Brady Brunch on or maybe the Andy Griffith Show? I had never thought of the Drew Carey Show as being that inappropriate, but suddenly watching it with my 10 year old niece gave me a different perspective. Not long after that, the same exact thing happened when we rented the first of the Austin Power’s movies and once again my niece started asking lots of questions that we really didn’t want to answer.
Those two situations taught me two valuable lessons. The first one is that the messages that surround us in our culture, whether it’s from TV, movies, music, magazines, websites, games and social media, are not always appropriate or in line with our values as followers of Jesus. Just because something is socially acceptable and popular doesn’t mean it is good for our spiritual well being. The second lesson was that I had become completely desensitized to those messages. I didn’t hear the jokes as being inappropriate. I didn’t see the situations that were being presented as that bad or bad at all and I didn’t see that the values being portrayed were not in line with my own. I just accepted it as part of how things are today. I didn’t see the toxic nature of what I was consuming which meant I didn’t take seriously how these cultural toxins were negatively effecting my life.
In his book Soul Detox, Craig Groeschel defines cultural toxins as things that may be culturally acceptable and yet actually hurt our soul. The truth is that these cultural toxins don’t just hurt our souls and pull us away from a deeper relationship with God and a fuller life of faith; they are also destroying our lives, marriages, families and community. Now I am going to be honest and tell you that at this point in putting the sermon together, I just stopped. For about two days I actually couldn’t keep going because I didn’t know what to say next. Do I talk about the cultural toxins we see in TV, movies, music, gambling, gaming, magazines, books, social media or the internet? Do I talk about the cultural toxin of violence or sex, the disregard for human life or the extreme profanity that permeates it all? These cultural toxins are everywhere and the empirical evidence of their negative effect is at times hard to nail down. For example, does watching Grand Theft Auto 5 lead to more violent behavior? Does reading 50 Shades of Grey lead to more promiscuous behavior?
While the scientific studies aren’t conclusive, I think we can all agree that there are negative effects to some of what we see in the world around us. The messages and images we consume through all the different forms of media available to us today are shaping our hearts and lives. It is changing what we see as socially acceptable for ourselves and for our children. We are that frog in the kettle and the water is getting hot and we just don’t feel it. Our culture is becoming more toxic and we keep saying, but that’s just the way things are.
Even if we do admit that things are getting worse, many times we don’t think that our exposure to these things is making a difference in us or will have any kind of lasting impact upon us, but this is just not true. I don’t have scientific evidence to back this up, but let me tell you a compelling story. I spent a summer working with Alzheimer’s patients at a nursing home in Atlanta and one of the things that surprised me and many family members of the residents who lived there was when sweet southern church going ladies suddenly started swearing like sailors. I had grown children say to me; I didn’t think my Mom even knew that word, after hearing their kind gentle mother drop the f-bomb. Obviously they did know the word and they knew how to use it as well. What that shows me is that the cultural images and messages we see and hear do penetrate our hearts and minds. It’s all in here (head) and it’s all in here (heart) and it does matter.
The Bible also tells us that these things matter and that we need to take them seriously. Proverbs 25:26 says, like a muddied spring or a polluted well are the righteous who give way to the wicked. A muddy spring can’t give you clean water to drink and a polluted well cannot provide life for a village. When we allow the toxic elements from our culture to enter our lives and have free reign within us, then we are that muddied spring or polluted well which cannot produce real life. So what’s the answer? Let me be clear that the answer I want share today is not that we stop watching TV or movies; it’s not that we only listen to Christian music and read Christian books, and it’s not that we stop surfing the internet all together. The answer is not to become a recluse and remove ourselves from society. We are called to live in the world and to be part of it, but we are not to be of the world, we are not to allow the world to shape us. The answer to this, for me is to bring God and others into our lives and into our consumption of today’s media.
Look at Romans 12:2 (NIV). Now listen to it from Eugene Peterson’s version of the Bible, The Message:Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
In talking about the culture around us, Paul doesn’t tell us to avoid it or remove ourselves from it, he just says don’t be conformed to it. In other words we can’t let the culture shape our values; we need our values shaped by God. Fix your attention on God, he says, and you will be shaped from the inside out. When we focus on our relationship with God and allow God’s will and desire for our lives and world to shape us we will begin to see the cultural toxins around us for what they are and in time God will direct us away from these things that seek to drag us down.
So the first thing we need to do is focus on God. What are the values of God’s kingdom? How does God want us to treat others and what do healthy relationships look like? What should be our priorities and goals in this world? What kind of words and messages truly honor God? It’s important that we have a handle on all of this because not only will these be the things that will shape us but we this will be the standard by which we test the things around us.
Look at 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22: test everything; hold fast to what is good; reject every kind of evil. We need to evaluate what we see and hear on TV and in the movies. We need to test the messages that we get from our popular culture but we don’t test them by using the standards of the world and by what is culturally acceptable or politically correct; we test them by the standards of God. If something is good and in line with the will and heart of God then we should hold on to it, but if it is evil, we should reject it and consider letting it go.
This week I want to encourage all of us to do a cultural inventory. Make a list of all the media we consume? What TV shows do we watch? What music do we listen to? What games do we play? What sites do we visit on-line? What movies have we seen recently? As we think about these specific areas of our lives we need to start asking ourselves what messages and values we are seeing and hearing? Once we can name the message, we can then test it against God’s heart. Are the values that are being portrayed in the media we consume in line with the values of God’s kingdom? I’m going to tell you right now that the answer in many cases is going to be “no”. Our culture has drifted far away from what God wants it to be, but this is nothing new. Jesus faced this same issue.
Look at Luke 9:46. Now here’s what we need to understand, the disciples are having this argument about who is the greatest right after Jesus has told them that he is going to suffer and die. Jesus is saying that the values of God’s kingdom are selflessness and sacrifice but all the disciples are focused on is becoming the greatest. It’s as if they have been watching too many episodes of Survivor or The Apprentice. All they can think about is coming out on top. They want positions of power and privilege because they have been told over and over again that winning is what is important and being the top dog is what will make you happy. Not much has changed. This is the same message we hear and see all around us today.
So Jesus had cultural toxins that he had to face in his day and he tried to help his disciples see that what they were focused on was wrong. Let’s keep reading in Luke 9:47-48. Jesus tried to give another message about where true life is found, but he doesn’t have much success with the disciples because in Luke 22:24-27 they are at it again.
Jesus says it well here, the culture around you says one thing, but I am giving you a very different message. Don’t strive to come out on top – strive to serve. The leader among you is going to be the servant. The greatest is going to be the least. While the disciples don’t have all the electronic media surrounding them that we do, they were getting the same message that we hear today and Jesus is trying to help them test that message to see if it is from God.
So we need to identify the cultural messages we see and hear and test them to see if it is in line with God’s values. If they are – great, hold on to them. If they are not – it doesn’t mean we uproot them from our lives altogether, but it does mean we need to stop and think about it. Now clearly some material we consume might be so damaging and offensive that we need to reject it completely, but much of the material we see and hear is going to fall into a grey area. Action movies have a lot of violence – does this mean we can’t ever watch them again? TV, music and books have a lot of questionable sexual situations, does that mean we don’t watch TV, listen to music or read any books unless they are Christian? Some will say yes, I am going to say – maybe.
Look at 1 Corinthians 6:12. We no longer live under the law where everything is black or white, yes or no. We don’t live under a strict set of rules that says all secular music is bad and all R-rated movies are evil. We have freedom in Christ, but we have to use that freedom wisely. Again, we are called to be in the world – which means interacting in the world around us – even speaking to it in positive ways at times, but we cannot let the world shape our values. So how do we walk this tight rope? Here is what I think can be valuable, invite other people into the world of our cultural consumption. In other words we need to start talking to trusted people about what we are watching and listening to and what sites we surf online and books we read. If we are open and honest with others about what we are consuming it gives them a chance to speak to us about the situation and it keeps the us living in the light. If there are things we don’t want to talk about with others, if there are things that we keep hidden in the dark, then chances are those things are not healthy for us and if left unchecked they will take over our lives. If we are willing to talk about it and keep it in the light, at least it helps us evaluate and test what we are experiencing.
A couple of years ago some friends and I were away together on a Monday night. They wanted to watch one of their favorite TV shows Dancing with the Stars because it was the semi-finals and I wanted to watch the next to last episode of my favorite TV show – 24. Now if you know the TV show 24, you know that it is pretty violent and my friends were surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did. We actually agreed to watch our shows in separate parts of the house and during the commercial of Dancing with the Stars Jeff came and watched some of 24 with me. As I was explaining to him all that had gone on that season and what we were watching in that scene I realized that the show really was pretty violent. Again, I had gotten desensitized to it all and what was helpful for me was just talking about it.
I’ll be honest, I watched the rest of that season of 24 and I watched the end of the series as well, but talking about the show that night at least opened my eyes to what I was consuming and allowing into my life. I could see that the message and values of the show didn’t always line up with my values as a follower of Jesus. Sometimes it is just important to have someone hold us accountable to what we are watching, listening to, reading and visiting on line. The more we shed light on things and discuss them, the better off we are.
This is especially truth with our children and youth. Parents, you need to know what your children are watching and listening to you, you need to see where they are going on line and what kind of messages and images they are being exposed to and you need to talk to them about the values that lie beneath it all. If there can be more discussion with our children and youth about the toxic messages they are consuming and we can remind them and teach them the right values then maybe there can be less bullying and violence, less teenage pregnancy and eating disorders. Maybe tragedies like the suicide of a 14 year old girl in Florida and the arrest of a 12 and 14 year old girl for the bullying that led to her death can be avoided.
So realistically, the answer to guarding our hearts and lives against cultural toxins isn’t living in a germ free environment. We can’t become the boy in the bubble. We will never be free of the messages we see and hear in the media that surrounds us, but we can be aware that some of them are toxic and filled with lies. We can limit their input by cutting out that which is truly offensive and we can monitor and discuss with others that which remains. And we always need to invite God into our lives. Are we comfortable thinking that God is by our side as we watch TV? Are we comfortable inviting Jesus to go to the movies with us? Are we aware that the Holy Spirit surrounds us as we surf the net, play video games, read the latest Danielle Steele novel or listen to the latest song by Miley Cyrus? God is there and maybe just being aware of God’s presence will help us filter out all that is toxic.
If nothing else today, I hope we can take to heart the words we heard from Romans 12 and not be so well-adjusted to our culture that we fit into it without thinking. Instead, I hope we will fix attention on God so we can be changed from the inside out. The culture around us always wants to drag us down to its level of immaturity, but God brings out the best in us and it is God and those of faith around us that help develop well-formed maturity in us.
Soul Detox ~ Toxic Culture
*1. Do a cultural inventory of all the media you consume. Include specific names of what you watch, read, play and listen to:
*2. What are the dominate messages from these sources in the following areas:
(*taken from Craig Groeschel’s Soul Detox Participant’s Guide)
3. Share this inventory and the messages you receive with someone you trust who can help you test the messages to make sure they are healthy for you.
If there are areas you aren’t willing to share – consider giving them up.
4. Invite God into your daily consumption of media through intentional reflection and prayer.