I have been studying the intersection between biblical faith and pop culture for decades now, and have read mounds of books on the subject. I have done this with one eye on possibly writing my own book on the subject—the working title is Devil in a Blue Dress—and I have been doing this because there is no other area that I know of where there is so much personal consumption and so little personal reflection. This lack of reflection is evident with movies, music, clothing design, art, dance, literature, body modification, along with many more areas, with the line running down the street and around the corner.
The combination of high consumption and low reflection results in numerous Christians who are street savvy when it comes to “name that band” kind of knowledge, but who are clueless when it comes to seeing the actual context their knowledge is operating in. Since this kind of street smarts is equivalent to the mouse knowing where on the little wooden platform to find the cheese, constant warnings are always in order.
So a critic might know the band 15 Drunk Ponies, and point out that I have obviously not had that pleasure, but there are other issues in play. Other words that need to be defined, studied and analyzed would include nature, liturgy, covenant, worship, dominion, culture, eschatology, lordship, presuppositions, aesthetics, and many more. This is not a discussion about incidentals. It is thick with paradigm assumptions, basic assumptions concerning some of the most important issues of life. And, as the apostle Paul might say if he were in this position, I am out of my mind to talk this way, but I know my onions.
Here are some of the basic principles that are involved.
- There is never any neutrality anywhere. Every hair on every head is claimed by Jesus Christ, and is counterclaimed by Satan—and Jesus Christ has the only true universal claim. If something is adiaphora that does not mean that it is outside the authority of the Lord Jesus.
- The Bible does not require women to wear plain jumpers and the men to wear skinny black neckties. But if the Bible did require it, we should be eager to obey. One of the reasons these issues are so controversial is that many in the church are unwilling a priori to submit themselves to whatever the Bible teaches on this subject. They are not interested in finding out what the text actually teaches and actually requires.
- Clothes, hairstyles, jewelry, and other personal accoutrements are all forms of communication. Christians should be concerned centrally with communicating that which is true, good, and beautiful. What you say non-verbally is no more under your own personal authority than anything else is. You are not your own. You were bought with a price.
- The Scriptures teach us repeatedly how to comport ourselves in the world. We are not told to be edgy, but rather respectable—e.g. “likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” (1 Timothy 2:9, ESV). We are given these sorts of instructions in multiple places—and there are too many places to simply dismiss them without first dealing with the teaching of the authoritative text. We should not assume that we simply “know” what that instruction is—we should pursue this knowledge. And the fact that some do in fact make an idol out of respectability does not alter the scriptural injunction. So if you had to choose between looking like the local meth dealer and looking like the chairman of the Young Republicans, the answer of Scripture is clear. Go with the Young Republicans. And I might be willing to bet ten bucks that this answer surprised more of you than it should have.
- When it comes to how we face the outside culture, the church must constantly keep in mind the distinction between apostles and refugees. Refugees are fleeing the world and taking shelter in the church. Apostles are trying to bring the world into the church. The former must be welcomed with open arms, regardless of tats, hair color, rap sheet, or anything else. The latter must be resisted to the last ditch. The ship is supposed to be in the water, but the water is not supposed to be in the ship. And to make this distinction is not obsess over a trifle. “Ship, water, water, ship . . . are these not just words?”
- The revolution has a uniform. If it is true that culture is religion externalized—and that is true—it is worth asking what religion is represented by the sartorial exhortation to “reinvent yourself” as you please, every day, while making sure you don’t let anybody tell you what to do. The revolution is radically relativistic and believes that existence precedes essence. And that means that they want you to have as much authority to alter the genitalia God gave you as to abandon the original shape of your ear lobes. The cultural alt-regalia that confronts us regularly now is simply one of the early questions in the pomo-catechism that is drilling a set of pernicious but foundational assumptions into the minds of young people. “Q. What can you be? A. I can be anything I want to be.” Can I have weird hair? Sure thing. Can I become a little girl? Why not, Sammy?
- There are places where biblical personal adornment and some practices of the revolution may overlap. But the intent in each is radically distinct. The former wants to adorn God-given nature and the latter wants to impose man-made choices on what used to be called nature, thus proving that nothing has a fixed nature. Depending on the circumstance, the same set of earrings can be making statements directly opposed to one another. A woman could wear them to adorn her God-given femininity, and a man could wear those same earrings in order to spit on his masculinity. Clearly the problem does not reside in the earrings.
- The reasons for adopting the uniform of the revolution vary. Not every person wearing that uniform is a revolutionary. Some of them are not even aware that there is a revolution on. Some do it because that is what all their friends are doing. Others do it because they want the pain of their childhood to have a visible and external expression. Others do it because their parents don’t want them to do it. Others do it because they are narcissists who crave attention—anyone with an Instagram feed with more than 500 selfies is in this category. Others do it because they are apostles of the revolution, declaring their inverted version of the good news. “Become whatever you want to be.”
- The reasons for adopting the uniform, although they can be quite distinct from each other, are still—overwhelmingly—not good. Narcissism, ignorance, ink therapy—none of this is what we should want.
- People who dress traditionally can certainly do so thoughtlessly as well. A lot of people in cubicles with pieces of cloth cinched tightly around their necks can give no better account of themselves than can the tie-dyed circle-drumming guy down at the Up with Economic Illiteracy Protest. Socrates taught us that the unexamined life is not worth living. I would want to add that the unexamined skinny jeans are not worth putting on. This one goes for everybody, khakis included.
- The algorithms know what I am taking about. It is easy for Christians who think that I am being “judgy” to defend themselves by saying “nobody really knows what these words are supposed to mean anyway.” But people have an amazing ability to identify a new thing and then name it. They also have an amazing ability to yell loudly whenever a conservative Christian picks up one of those nouns and uses it as though it has a reasonable meaning—which it actually does. If I write a post like this, and decide to make a meme to illustrate it, as I often do, I just go to Google Images and type in lumbersexual. And do you know what? The algorithms know exactly what I am asking for, and give me hundreds of images to select from. I then take it to memedad.com, make it my own image, and post it. What we are talking about is not mysterious. So if you type in metrosexual, and the first three images that pop up are the bass player in your worship band, the problem with all this is not my bigotry.
- The agents of the revolution, the apostles, have an astute eye for detail, and know exactly what they are doing. It is imperative for them to marginalize anyone on the other side who can see the same thing they do—in order to prevent them from blowing the gaff. And so the inky murk begins, and all of it is blamed on the bigoted purveyor of sensible Christian values who has, it is claimed, been poking the cultural squid with a stick. But say all the employees in a retail outlet “look gay,” that didn’t happen by accident. Vibes don’t happen by themselves. People create them. These are actions. Other people see them and name them. A little bit later, you can search for the term on Google.
- Culture is not possible without cultural expression. True counter culture is not possible without counter cultural expression. The biblical instruction to Christians is to be counter cultural in such a way as to create a new polis that has a transformative effect on the polis of man. This necessarily translates to the externals. So the battle within the church over these things is therefore not a trifle—it is a struggle for the creative control of the reformation.
- As a pastor, I am responsible for the spiritual formation of my congregants. A number of them are college students. And as one of the faculty of New St. Andrews, dedicated to graduating shapers of culture, I am responsible there as well. We want our students to graduate knowing how to shape culture. This is entirely different from being shaped by culture. Suppose another hula hoop craze swept the country, and I saw a bunch of our students hula hooping away like there was no tomorrow. My concern would not descend upon the plastic hoops, as though that item were inherently sinful. My concern would be all about the students—don’t they have any resistance at all? I hate to show off my mastery of nuance, but I do know that leaders and followers are not the same thing. I do know that 21st century America needs Christian colleges graduating yet one more evangelical generation of me-tooers like they need a hole in the head.
- Returning to the point made at the top, this topic is not an unfortunate but recent jag into censorious legalism. In a very real way, this topic is right at the center of my life’s work. If there were but time, I could produce scores of examples, but here is a small, random sampling—Unleashing Your Inner Fundamentalist (2009), Lowlife Authenticity (2005), Apostles or Refugees? (2005), and The Coronation of the Infantile (2017).And if there were but more time, I could go find them all and turn in a 600 page manuscript of DIABD. Maybe I will sometime, just see if I don’t. When bare bodice Minoan dresses become a thing for Christian junior high girls, I will consider myself sufficiently provoked and will get right on it.