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Illustrating from Pop Culture

How to refer to pop culture appropriately

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Preaching Today: The dominant culture in America today is, of course, pop culture. Illustrating from that culture in our sermons raises all sorts of questions as to what sort of things we can use in the pulpit, how to use it well, how to use it in a way that will connect with our hearers. Kevin, give us some advice.

Kevin Miller: I want to offer two powerful principles for how to illustrate using pop culture—songs, movies, TV shows, and so on. But first, because this topic necessarily involves a philosophy or theology of culture, I'd like to give three assumptions that I bring as a preacher to this whole topic of illustrating from pop culture.

The first assumption is that all teachers and communicators must take people from the known and move to the unknown. Starting with what is known, they make comparisons or contrasts so people can understand what they don't already know. This is a universal law of education. It is the reason behind every metaphor, simile, and analogy.

For example, when you read the parables of Jesus, they're filled with the known world of his listeners. There are many references to sheep. I've hardly ever been around sheep in my life. I don't know anyone who herds sheep. But that was common for Jesus' listeners. That was part of their known world, so he used it. Fig trees and oil lamps are other examples. These things were common in first-century Palestine. Why did Jesus do that? He wanted to teach them something about the unknown world of the kingdom of God, and he knew he couldn't just immediately start talking about something completely unknown without a reference point in what they knew.

It is the tone even more than the content that will make or break you.

I face the same thing as a preacher when I want to talk about unknowns. I want to talk about heaven. I want to talk about inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I want to talk about the indwelling presence of Christ. These are unknowns to many of my listeners, and so the only way I can do that is to start talking accurately and convincingly about the world they already know. I need to know a little bit about politics, business, the way families work, and it means I must know something about pop culture.

Many unbelieving people who come into our churches come with the assumption that this is totally irrelevant.

Exactly. One way I can start to chip away at that assumption is to show that Christianity directly applies to the world they know. That leads into my second assumption, that pop culture is the known world for an increasingly large number of people today.

For example, there was a young woman who worked at Christianity Today. She was an extremely bright and literate person working on her doctorate in English. One time she and some friends were standing around in the hallway talking about a friend of theirs who is a TV-watching junkie. I was listening and I said, "Yeah, some people actually know the name of every person J.Lo has ever dated." The conversation just stopped dead. This young woman looked at me and said, "I know the names of every person J.Lo has ever dated." All of a sudden I realized I had accidentally insulted this person I cared about. I had looked down on her world, a pop culture world.

This came home to me again recently. A friend of mine is a professor at a Christian college, and we were talking about how we stay up on the news, which websites or newspapers or TV shows he tries to watch to stay engaged with the world. He said, "I don't really follow all the national news."

I said, "Why not?"

He said, "That doesn't affect me."

I said, "National news doesn't affect you?"

He said, "No. What I need to know about is pop culture because that's what my students are talking about. If I'm going to teach my students and connect with my students, I need to know pop culture."

For an increasing percentage of people today, pop culture is the known world. So if I as a preacher want to take them from the known world to the unknown world, I have to know something about it.

This is such a challenge for someone who is devoted to Bible study, prayer, the ministry of the local church, and that can be all consuming. For those who with all their heart are pursuing holiness and a separation from the world, this seems like going the other direction.

It is. That's why it requires prayer and discernment. When John Wesley finally decided to preach outdoors to the mobs, to the coalminers, to the poor and ragged people of England, that was a radical thing for him to do in his time. He said, "I consented to become more vile." In other words, he was willing to rub shoulders with the messiness of the world in order to bring the gospel there. We need a lot of discernment as we move forward to use pop culture well.

The third and final assumption I make for using illustrations from pop culture is I can gain or lose credibility by using pop culture references in a sermon. It all depends on how I do it.

So it's not just that you use it; you've got to do it right.

Exactly. For example, Paul did this well in Acts 17 when he went up on Mars Hill and spoke to the pagan Athenian philosophers, and he referenced their culture. He said, "I was walking through your city, and I noticed this statue dedicated to an unknown god." Later he said, "As one of your own poets has said" At two points in that message Paul referred to things in Athenian culture. Notice the second one "as one of your own poets has said," he cited approvingly. The statue dedicated to the unknown god he did not cite approvingly. He did it graciously, but he didn't cite it approvingly. He said: That god you think is unknown, let me make him known to you, because the God, the true God, can be known and has made himself known in Christ.

That message in Acts 17 would be an example of Paul's words in Galatians 4:12, where he said, "I became like you." He reaches out. He tries to make a connection point.

Yes.It's also a good example of how as Christians when we try to make a connection point to the pop culture world, it doesn't mean we need to embrace or affirm everything we find there. Obviously we can't. Paul doesn't affirm the fact that they have a statue to an unknown god. He simply uses that as a jumping off point.

Billy Graham will do this a lot. Before he starts saying,"The Bible says you must be born again," he spends the first portion of most of his evangelistic messages talking about problems in our contemporary culture. He'll reference headlines, national and social problems. He'll mention the incline in divorce rates and suicides. Then he'll lead up to the fact that Christ is the ultimate answer to those things; and then says, "You must be born again." He's making a connecting point with the people in the stadium.

Now with those assumptions in mind, let me say that to use pop culture illustrations well I must do two things. I must answer the two questions that the pop culture person has. Number one, do you know about my world? Number two, do you care about my world? If I want to use pop culture illustrations well and gain credibility, I have to demonstrate that I know something about that world and that I care about the people in that world.

So you're saying I have to be an expert on pop culture?

No, and that's a great question. In fact, I don't think people expect me to be the expert because they know I'm a pastor, and so I'm supposed to be knowledgeable about the Bible and God and spiritual matters and prayer. But they do appreciate it and respect it when I make a comment that shows I at least know something about their world.

For example, this summer on vacation we went up to Wisconsin, and we were at a Go-Kart track one day with my family. Standing next to me in line was a young man with a T-shirt that said Flogging Molly, and it sounded sort of sadistic. But I turned to him and said, "Hey, is that a Celtic punk band?" And he nodded. I said, "Are they sort of like Dropkick Murphys?" And his eyes got wide, and he looked at me with astonishment, like, Hey, you look a little old, but you know something about Celtic punk music.

That's the kind of bridge I want to make in a sermon. I want to at least know enough about your world that you start to think, If you know that about my world, then maybe I can trust you when you talk about the world I don't know yet, the world of heaven and the gospel and the riches of the kingdom. If I don't know about that world, I can lose points. It's okay if I admit I don't know. But if I act like I know and I don't, then I lose points. Let me give you an example.

There was a great quote by Johnny Depp in the PreachingToday.com illustration database. I can't use that because I have not seen Johnny Depp's film. I couldn't talk for ten seconds before my ignorance would give itself away. I might even call him John Depp or something, which would be like calling Michael Jordan Mikey Jordan. It just betrays my ignorance of the subject.

What would you do in that case? I have two options. One, I can go online and learn who Johnny Depp is enough to speak intelligently about him for a few seconds and introduce that quote. Or I can drop the name and just say, "Recently, a famous actor said," and use the quote and sidestep that I really don't know much about Johnny Depp.

Or you can have resident experts in your family or church who you can go to and say, "I've got to check out real quick; who is this guy? What movies has he been in?" You check that you're pronouncing his name right and all those things.

That's very important because the details make all the difference. For example, on Sunday I used an illustration from The Lord of the Rings. Some people are absolute fanatics about The Lord of the Rings. They've seen every scene in that movie many times. They've read the trilogy many times. And so when I used that illustration, I actually looked up those pages in the book. I asked my son, who is a Lord of the Rings nut, and I asked somebody else, who is even more of a Lord of the Rings nut, to make sure I had all the details when I retold that story. It meant that the story lifted off with power. That's because people conclude, Hey, you know my world.

It takes a little time, but it pays off.

Now let me talk a bit about how you can get more knowledgeable about the pop culture world. One publication I find helpful is Entertainment Weekly. Entertainment Weekly covers a lot in the realm of pop culture, especially film. It helps me learn about it without having to go see every film, because I know I'm not going to like some of the films from a morality standpoint. It gets me in that mindset of knowing who the people are and what's going on.

The second thing is the Christianity Today E-mail newsletter, which has movie reviews every week and summarizes what Christian reviewers are saying about a movie. That's helpful for me to know where a movie falls in terms of its worldview and how salacious or redemptive it is.

I personally like to read movie reviews rather than go to a magazine like People. In some of those magazines, the salacious images serve as a temptation.

That's why Christianity Today E-mail newsletter is a great source because it's coming from a Christian perspective. It's not tied up with images. It's just reviewing the worldview. What is this movie trying to say? And how well is it saying it?

I recognize that when I stand up as a pastor or preacher in a worship service and I name a movie, it comes across as an implied endorsement of that movie. It may be that all I want to do is use this one scene, which is morally impeccable; but I can't assume that my hearers are going to hear it that way. They'll hear, Oh, he went to that movie. He must have liked it because he's talking about it. There may be something that's morally reprehensible in another scene of the movie, and I don't want that implied endorsement to come across. What am I going to do?

My thinking on this is that I should know the source. I should know the rating of the movie, and I should know the general worldview of the movie before I'll be able to use an illustration from it. In order to do that, I'll go to a movie site like Screenit.com, which tells me clearly what the movie is about, how violent it is, how sexually oriented it is, what the worldview is, and so on. I can get a good feel about whether this is a source that I could mention the name of in a sermon, and whether I would regret that.

Some preachers might use an illustration with a warning, "This particular scene is great, but I don't recommend the overall movie." You can do that, but you don't want to do that a lot, and here's why. When you say to your people, I can see it but you can't, that comes across in one of two ways: Either I don't practice what I preach about lifestyle selection, holiness, and discernment; or I can handle it, you can't. Either one of those is a bad message to send. I don't want to get in the practice of saying I love this scene, hated the whole movie. Sometimes I can, but I would make that rare.

I need to get the details right so they feel like, You do know something about my world. You know who plays 007 now. You don't think it's Roger Moore or Sean Connery. You've stayed up a bit.

So we've got to know it, and then you say we have to show it?

We care about their world. We care about the people in that world. This is the most critical point I'm going to make, because it is the tone even more than the content that will make or break you.

For example, let's say you read this quote by Madonna, and you want to use it in your sermon. It's good to use contrast or foil in your sermon, and this is a great one because it's so antithetical to the gospel. Suppose you say, "I heard Madonna say something the other day. I mean, what can you expect from her?" and then you go on with the quote. I understand that emotion, but that immediately distances you from anybody in your church who's got a Madonna album and who likes her. All of a sudden they feel like, Why is he beating up on this artist I like?

It's harder but more productive to say, "I heard Madonna say something that really made me think." Now, I haven't said I agree with any of it. I've just said it made me stop and think. Or I could say, "I heard Madonna say something that perfectly expressed how many people feel today." Now again, I've set up that same quote and through the rest of my message I may show how that is completely the opposite of the gospel, but I've done it in a way that doesn't tear her down, that at least respects the fact that she's representative of a worldview shared by others.

Madonna could even be in the room and not feel as though she was walked on, even though you're disagreeing with what she said.

Absolutely. I reserve the right to fully and forcefully disagree with the values and the point, but I want to do it in a way that respects the person. Jesus was a friend of sinners. I want to have that same tone.

Let me give you one more example. When Ellen DeGeneres announced she was a lesbian, Jerry Falwell called her Ellen Degenerate. I believe he apologized for that comment later. People reacted negatively to that. Falwell as a minister of the gospel needs to stand up and say something about not accepting an active homosexual lifestyle as part of the gospel, but can he do it in a way that doesn't attack her? Because then anybody who likes her takes her side and feels she's being unfairly attacked.

I had this challenge recently. It was Easter, and I was preaching about the resurrection of the body. Here are my original notes from my sermon. "Rolling Stone interviewed Natalie Portman, who plays Queen Amidala in the Star Wars movie, and they asked her about the afterlife. And Natalie said, 'I don't believe in that. I believe this is it.'" In my notes I wrote, "She may be a good actress, but she's a terrible theologian."

When I was reviewing my message before I preached it, I thought, That's kind of a slam. It may be accurate, but if she were in the room, how would she feel? If one of her fans was in the room—and a lot of people like Natalie Portman as an actress—how would they feel? Would they feel distanced or brought near to what I want to get across? Here's what I finally went with. I said,

I wish I could have been in the room during that interview and asked Natalie some more questions. I would have said, "Natalie, are you sure? Are you one hundred percent confident that it is physically impossible for an afterlife to exist?" And then I'm sure she would have asked me, "Well, Kevin, what makes you so sure that there is one?" And then I would have said

Then I went right on to the next part of the text where it talks about the Holy Spirit as a down payment guaranteeing the life to come. When I presented it that way, it's as if I were conversing with her. I wasn't preaching down at her. I wasn't using her as a cardboard caricature. I engaged her viewpoint. I engaged her as a person. But then I showed the contrasting message of the Bible. It took me three revisions to get to that. I had to keep working until I followed my own advice and showed that not only did I know something about the culture—I know she plays Queen Amidala—but I also care about the people in that culture, and I'm willing to take some time to engage respectfully their viewpoint even when I disagree.

Kevin Miller is vice president of Resources for Christianity Today International and editor at large for Leadership journal. His most recent book is Surviving Information Overload (Zondervan, 2004).

Kevin A. Miller is the Executive Director of Ministry Advancement at Christianity Today and senior pastor at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois.

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