Turning This Week’s Pop Culture into Next Week’s Curriculum

Shaun Sass
October 7th, 2009


This guru of the modern media does more than generate academic and biblical analyses of popular culture. He positively revels in the profusion of Bible-teaching aids he finds at Blockbuster and in Rolling Stone, on MTV and on “Home Improvement.” Here's how to recruit pop culture to fortify your Bible teaching.

I was once baptized by fire into the world of youth ministry. I still carry scars from the flames. It happened in front of about 4,000 youths representing every major denomination.

My subject was MTV, the scourge of Christian parents. I had prepared by reading practically everything ever written about the rock-video channel. I had composed a wonderful lecture, peppered with many telling video clips. But when I walked onto the stage before that skeptical adolescent multitude, they decided to have a little fun with this professor type trying to talk to them. They got feisty, hooting at me with jeers, howls, and catcalls. I think I remember some pennies flying my way, too.

My carefully laid plans begat only an unexpected baptism, which shook me up enough that I did a pretty poor job of the lecture.

There are two kinds of education, humorist George Ade once wrote. First is the schooling that takes place in classrooms–the stuff of textbooks, lesson plans, blackboards, and desks. I have a doctorate in this kind of education.

Then there is real education, the hard knocks that may or may not force some sense into our dense brains and hard hearts. Many of us know how to teach formal lessons (or how to formally teach lessons), but not how to teach informally the real material of the Christian life in contemporary culture. Sometimes secular flicks do it better than we do.

Relational ministries rightly try to break through formalities by meeting youths on their own terms. But what about curriculum? Can we have both our relationships and our classroom lessons–the two kinds of education? Are they really compatible? One of the keys is using pop culture. Here are my ten commandments for integrating pop culture into curriculum.

Use stories.

I am absolutely convinced that stories are the most potent form of human communication. We can teach more with stories, and do it more effectively, than we can with any other single type of instruction. Narrative both entertains and instructs–if it's used wisely.

The tendency in some circles is to create impressionistic, non-narrative, youth ministry materials. This is a big mistake. MTV-styled productions can capture youth's attention, but they essentially have nothing to say, only evocative images and catchy music. Even if we don't want to turn youths off by using overly pedantic materials, do we really have to skip the message for the mood?

Youth curricula offer two major possibilities for storytelling in relation to pop culture. First, popular narratives are loaded with fertile illustrations for communicating biblical truth. We find on TV, in movies, and in popular fiction virtually all the icons of contemporary pop culture–beauty, success, popularity, status–as well as the problems created by these icons–miscommunication, guilt, peer pressure, loneliness, anxiety. How can we not use in curricula the popular tales which depict the actual values and beliefs of each generation? These tales are our parables, just waiting for biblical interpretation.

Furthermore, we can tell the stories of human interaction with pop culture. This is admittedly more difficult and far more risky. But the truth is that pop culture doesn't exist “out there”; it pervades the daily lives of many youths and a surprising number of adults. All of us have our pop-culture tales of victory and defeat–our stories of how the media work…and how the media work us over. When we share these tales, we listen and learn. There are great and awful concerts, terrific and terrible flicks, underrated and overrated TV shows, and humbling as well as humiliating trips back to the video shop to return a turkey. Most pop culture is storytelling. Our own lives are often parables of our dealings with that pop culture. Wise is the youth minister who creatively applies the story of Christ's redemption to both pop tales and life tales.

Use first-person stories.

Nothing teaches more effectively than a true-life tale of one who has already lived the truth. When knowledge and truth are personally experienced, they can become wisdom. We ignore this pedagogical truth at our own peril.

One of my favorite scriptwriters and novelists, Jean Shepherd, says that the purpose of his storytelling is to help audiences realize that “they, too, have lived.” By casting his films (e.g., A Christmas Story and It Runs in the Family) and novels (e.g., In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters) in first-person narratives, he creates a dynamic relationship between the main character and the audience. In effect, he “teaches” people about themselves by inviting them to share in the stories of his “own” childhood. This kind of parabolic, empathetic, vicarious storytelling is usually much more effective when it's accomplished as a personal, first-person journey through life.

The alternative to storytelling is to objectify and formalize biblical truth as knowledge external to anyone's experience, as truth that belongs to the institutional church or only to God, not to the people of God. Most textbooks do this, which is largely why I have nearly replaced all texts (except Scripture) with trade books, novels, guest speakers and the like.

Unless youths see that knowledge and wisdom come in and through experience, they are likely to write off their teachers (and parents and pastors) as purveyors of irrelevant information. On the other hand, when biblical truth of all kinds (doctrinal, theological, practical) is linked to personal experience, it becomes relevant, useful, and meaningful. Successful youth ministry invariably depends on the informed self-disclosure of the leader, just as parenting requires personal mentoring by experience.

Our experience of popular culture, then, is critical to our teaching about it. We have to be able to convince youths that we, too, have lived (and are living) in pop culture. And we have to be reflective enough about pop culture that we can bring some biblically informed truths to bear on it. As Parker Palmer argues in To Know As We Are Known, even the most biblically informed knowledge is best taught in the context of personal relationship between mentor and student, not in the relationally sterile context of formal, objectivistic schooling.

Practice authenticity.

Pop culture changes so rapidly that we can easily get caught in a state of nearly total ignorance. One response is to feign more knowledge than we have. Another is to pretend to be “into it” more than we really are.

There are honest ways to deal with our own ignorance of contemporary pop culture, as I will explain shortly. But nothing is gained by a lack of personal authenticity–at least not in the long run. Even if we have no tales of our own interaction with pop culture, we can empathize with youths by listening to their tales from the land of pop culture.

Avoid relevancy for the sake of relevancy.

I get frequent phone calls and unexpected visits from school teachers and youth workers who want a crash course in contemporary youth culture. After I tell them that this can't really be done, they look dejected and even a bit fearful. So is there an alternative to being culturally relevant?

From a youth ministry perspective, the only “relevant” pop culture is that which captures the universal experiences of youths. For me, this can be reduced primarily to two questions: How are youths using pop culture to 1) form an identity, and 2) to learn how to achieve intimacy with others?

Our job, then, is not to stay on top of everything happening in youth culture (God forbid, or we'd all die of exhaustion), but to try to keep our fingers on the most popular and most significant trends, movements, and artifacts. Who or what's hot–and most importantly, why?

The next step–and this separates the serious youth worker from the occasional interloper from adult culture–is to locate the parallel culture from one's own youth. Youth culture changes in style and degree, but not in real function. It has always addressed, for example, sexual practices and gender roles, even if the specific sexual messages change.

I have found that youths respond much more openly and directly to me when, instead of trying to speak somewhat ignorantly to their particular pop culture, I address the universal aspects of youth from the genuine vantage point of my own youth. Of all of the things I've learned about youth curricula, this is to me the most important–because it frees me to be authentic, it encourages me to tell personal narratives, and it nearly guarantees real relevancy.

By avoiding trivial relevance, we can recontextualize the universal qualities of youth culture as expressed in any currently fashionable form. We don't have to be up on everything happening, as long as we are aware of the major trends, and as long as we are able to tell our own tales of youth in a way that will resonate with the youths of today. After all, we, too, lived it–and survived!

Balance media and personal communication.

Some of the pre-packaged, mass-mediated formulas for youth ministry are misused by youth workers who ought to know better. Human orality (speaking and listening, in person) is fundamental to our humanness as created by God. All other media, including the written word and recorded media, are secondary. The best curricula carefully balance orality with nonpersonal media.

In other words, I disagree with the intellectual eggheads who think that all mass media are evil, corrupt, or trivial, or with the naive progressives who think that media will be the salvation for burned-out youth workers. The truth is that media alone are not nearly as effective as a mix of personal communication (e.g., group discussion and personal mentoring) and media (e.g., video, audio, magazine, book). Moreover, the newer technologies, such as laserdiscs and CD-ROMs, are remarkably easy to use, can be adapted to many different curricula and teaching styles, and can truly help to motivate as well as to illustrate. Let's not let even the best pop culture overtake our curricula.

Avoid media frenzy.

The biggest drawback to using media in any type of curriculum is a lack of time for discussion and critical reflection. When my wife and I began work on The Best Family Videos: For the Discriminating Viewer (Augsburg), we consulted various youth leaders to determine how a video-movie guide might be most helpful to them. The good news was that we could easily include the suggested list of discussion topics for each movie. The bad news was that many youth leaders didn't have time to view and discuss an entire feature movie, even if the youths were viewing scads of flicks with friends.

The result is that some youth workers have a tendency to try to cram too much media product into the curriculum. A little music here, video there, a magazine or two and–whoops!–where'd the time go? Where'd the ministry go? This type of need-induced media frenzy is big on the bun and short on the beef.

Use drama.

I don't mean that we should use all kinds of histrionics, or that we should over-dramatize our presentations. I do mean that curricula should follow essentially the narrative form of drama:

  1. Introduce the characters and setting.
  2. Develop the conflict in the plot.
  3. Resolve the conflict and offer a lesson, which we hope will be internalized and lived.

Although we usually plan the curriculum backwards (i.e., the lesson is the goal), we present it as drama.

For example, suppose you want to teach a unit on this theme: Do everything to the glory of God. Your goal is to move as many youths as possible to live their whole lives to the glory of God. Okay, what are the roadblocks–the conflicts–to such living? Perhaps one is inadequate time in prayer and Bible study. Perhaps another is the various things which youths glorify instead of God (personal popularity, material goods, money). Next, who are the characters in this “drama” (media, God, Satan, parents, teachers, youth workers, peers).

In fact, I can imagine an entire unit organized around Paul's discussion of freedom in Christ at the end of 1 Corinthians 10. Add some current pop-culture illustrations and personal storytelling about how pop culture shapes who and what we glorify, and you've got a dramatic curriculum.

Use a positive approach.

Positive approaches usually have a more lasting impact than do negative ones, especially fear appeals. When I wrote and produced Winning Your Kids Back from the Media (InterVarsity Press; video series with Gospel Films), I struggled with this issue. After all, much media content is negative. Yet I didn't want to harp on the negatives, but rather to lead parents to the positive benefits of more relational time in their families. Christians always have a positive alternative to negative habits, lifestyles, attitudes, and the like. Philippians 4:8 expresses this spirit of longing for the good.

Consider the implications for pop culture in the curriculum. Do we use good as well as bad examples in our critique? Do we offer positive alternatives to negative music, movies, and other media? Do we create the impression that pop culture is redeemable? Do we even acknowledge the fun, joy, and good cheer that youths can derive from the better pop culture? Is our mood in presentation and discussion of pop culture condescending or even elitist? You see, I hope, that the Christian community has much work to do in positively reclaiming pop culture for Christ.

When I coordinated the work that led to the book Dancing in the Dark, I faced this problem. One of the Dancing coauthors organized pizza focus groups with youths, and in his reports of these fact-finding missions among teenagers I sensed fun and energy, not just mind-numbing, heart-stealing pop culture. If you read Dancing with care, I think you'll detect our desire to find a critical balance, to correct the misperceptions of many hypercritical pop-culture researchers and scholars. I believe that our sensitivity to the positive aspects of pop culture won for the book a hearing among many youth workers.

Stir in plenty of humor.

Let's face it–pop culture is not entirely serious, so it makes sense for us to use it in funny ways. I'm not talking about silly presentations loaded with slapstick–the pop-culture techniques that some Christian video presentations rely on. There's a big difference between teaching childish buffoonery and treating youths like adults who are capable of seeing the comedic stupidity in some pop culture.

Pop culture is rich with humorous material that illustrates both the Fall and grace. It's hard to find better, more truly relevant examples and illustrations of the gap between the way people are and the way they should be, between our current (even laughable) condition and the shalom in which God would have us live.

Tim Taylor of the hit tv show “Home Improvement” is not just a klutz; more importantly, he is a typical North American male– he's more interested in technology and gadgets than in people…he's self-delusionary about his own abilities as a TV professional, father, and husband…he's slow to listen, but fast to offer opinion and to act…he's willing to bend the truth to save face. A discerning male viewer of the show will not only laugh, but will see himself in the character of Tim.

Pop culture offers a wide array of characters and situations which can help us to see ourselves humorously in a biblical context. To a large extent, the media accept us the way we are, and then make us even more that way by exaggerating our weaknesses, highlighting our foibles, and even spotlighting our anxieties and insecurities. When they do this with humor, the media provide rich curricular fodder that is less threatening to youths than deeply serious critiques. We need only “read” the spirituality of popular movies or evocative advertisements to see in the media mirror our tragi-comedic selves. Grimly comic case in point: the beer commercial that says, “It doesn't get much better than this.”

Emphasize grace.

It's not enough merely to be positive and humorous in using pop culture. Youths can become discerning, even critical of their cultural milieu–but they also need a strong dose of the sovereignty of God even in pop culture. God's grace is the only real antidote to a hypernegative view of pop culture. We dare not leave our youths with the foolish sense that God is not Lord even of music, movie, tv and all the rest.

Where does grace appear? In the secular culture that captures glimmerings of truth by depicting agapic love, genuine forgiveness, patience, kindness, and all of the other signs of the kingdom in our midst. In music that is a well-crafted and terrifically performed, even if the lyrics are not altogether holy and healthy. In pop culture that helps us see ourselves as we really are, warts and all. In television shows or videos that effectively bring family and friends together to talk about their hurts and triumphs in life. In movies that inspire us to do our best, to challenge the prevailing culture or to go the extra mile for a friend. In Christian pop culture that rivals its secular counterparts in quality as well as in message.

All good youth curricula breathe in enough of this grace to maintain youthful hope and enthusiasm for the world of pop culture. Gifted is the youth worker who is not suffocated by unbridled, often reactionary, criticism.

I wish I had known that lesson that day I walked onto the youth-event stage to face thousands of exuberant teenagers who expected an out-of-it professor to bash their MTV. The next time I spoke to teenagers, I walked to the podium wearing a sequined glove on one hand–a small Jackson gesture of humor and grace from an adult world seemingly filled with arrogance and contempt for pop culture. The kids loved it–and so did I, for mine eyes had seen the joy as well as the evil of pop culture in a fallen world that adults ought not fear to tread.

Shaun Sass

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