I’m continuing to blog through Christian Scharen’s outstanding new book Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God. I invite you to grab a copy of the book and join me in reflecting on it.
Chapter 5 of Broken Hallelujahs (“Grace and Karma”) returns to consider one of the concepts introduced in the opening chapter: the “constricted imagination.” Leading off with a bone-chilling story of a mother’s murdering of her own son, Scharen in a sense baits readers into passing judgment on the murderous mother from a position of smug superiority. The story functions almost as a parable, then, to reveal that many readers have a view of the world shaped far more by notions of karma (people get what they deserve) than by visions of grace (people get what they don’t deserve and don’t get what they do deserve). As he makes clear throughout this chapter, a view of the world shaped by karma rather than grace and, similarly, a view of God shaped by karma rather than grace, has tremendous implications for the way one engages the world, other people, and especially popular entertainment. As much as anything, such a view of the world and of God leads to a kind of overconfidence in one’s own ability to distinguish and identify “evil” and “good” as well as a sort of fear for one’s own safety if one is exposed to anything “evil.”
Lamentably, an organization (Focus on the Family) that was founded out of a sense of duty to minister to those crying out from the midst of their troubled experiences in life has, over time, morphed into an organization whose primary interest seems to be helping people attain a feeling of safety that comes from being untouched and unaffected by the trouble in the world. This aim has been pursued in large part through Plugged In (the entertainment ministry division of Focus on the Family). Plugged In provides evaluations of popular media that are produced by a process they liken to an autopsy and describe as “decidedly clinical” (105). The supposedly objective reviews include notations of so-called “pro-social content” (though it’s unclear how that is actually defined), sanitized recognition of so-called “objectionable content” (e.g. “226 uses of the f-word” or “one reference to incest” ), and a “summary advisory” (107). Drawing upon the work of C.S. Lewis, Scharen suggests Plugged In‘s approach embodies a hands-off, judgment from afar approach, as opposed to an approach of knowing something experientially, from the inside. Further, the mindset that listening to a song or watching a movie that is judged by a checklist to be “evil” will endanger a person’s relationship with God or destroy the fabric of society reveals the degree to which the thought process behind Plugged In is influenced by karma far more than grace.
Scharen’s criticism of Plugged In is motivated largely by his recognition that the kind of attitude Plugged In fosters is one of isolation and withdrawal from the world, as opposed to intentional and incarnational engagement with the world. Further, the very motto of Plugged In (“Shining a light on popular entertainment”), seems to assume the Light of the World is nowhere present amidst popular media. Citing Lewis once again, Scharen exposes such an assumption as not only misinformed but self-destructive: “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him (sic). He (sic) walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labor is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake” (113). But a sense of calling to intentional and incarnational engagement with the world and an awareness of God’s presence amidst popular media does not imply that Christians are to abandon the effort to discern between good and evil, but rather acknowledges that in a world in which “the line between good and evil . . . runs right through us all” such discernment is bound to require far more than a checklist. Indeed, it will require the development of a new mode of discernment.
I applaud Scharen for the respectful manner in which he critiques Focus on the Family. Truth be told, the path Focus on the Family has followed is all too well-worn by numerous other organizations, whose zeal has at some point along the way diverted their attention from a worthy goal onto a lesser goal. While this pattern isn’t of particular concern to the focus of the book, it is instructive to readers affiliated with organizations, whether as supporters, members, leaders, or critics. While I think Scharen’s critique certainly was adequate and appropriate to his purposes, I wish he had devoted a page or two to the inherent deficiencies of the good-and-evil checklists themselves. For instance, I wonder whether an “acceptable” word spoken in an “unacceptable” tone or manner would be “red-flagged” or whether a scene depicting careless destruction of the environment would be noted. In other words, checklists are inherently unreliable, for they reveal both the degree to which we think of sin in hierarchical terms and the order of our respective hierarchies of sin. It also would have been interesting for Scharen to explore the big business that purports to aid the finding of safety and the maintaining of purity. Nevertheless, Scharen respectfully but forcefully makes his case for shedding the constrained imagination and embracing “freedom to give away what we have in Christ in compassion for all those twisted and broken cries in popular culture” (114).