Mar 28, 2017

Walking the Cultural Tightrope

By Cheryl Magness

In January, during the lead-up to the Super Bowl, my Facebook feed reflected a high level of concern about what the halftime act, Lady Gaga, would do. Would she use the opportunity, a la Meryl Streep, to promote an ideological agenda, or would she keep her expressed promise to try to unify and not divide the audience? After her performance, my corner of the internet seemed to perceptibly and collectively exhale that it wasn’t the propagandistic platform it could have been. In fact, several of my friends saw Lady Gaga’s halftime show as not merely tolerable, but excellent, and gave her an unreserved thumbs up.

Upon reflection, though, I think the bigger story may have been missed. What was newsworthy was not that Lady Gaga largely refrained from overt political advocacy (what there was was subtle), but that the prevailing culture has changed so much that we were surprised that the pop music act at the NFL championship game was relatively free of not only political posturing but also vulgarity. Gaga’s performance was seemingly so tame and family friendly (she even sang some patriotic songs and acknowledged her parents) that we could have allowed our preteens to watch it. But was it, really? Or have we just become so numb to the corruption of the popular culture that it takes a lot more to shock us than it used to?

In one of my various part-time jobs, I provide piano accompaniment for local school music programs. At one of them, the show choir, which I fortunately don’t play for because they perform with tracks, is singing Lady Gaga's song "Born This Way,” which Gaga also sang at the Super Bowl. After hearing it sung by children I was curious what underlying message the song might contain. At face value the words could just be taken as a celebration of individuality:

"I'm beautiful in my way, 'cause God makes no mistakes. I'm on the right track, baby, I was born this way."

There's even a welcome nod to the value of respecting the differences of others:

"Whether life's disabilities left you outcast, bullied, or teased, rejoice and love yourself today 'cause baby, you were born this way."

What's not to like? We want kids to believe in themselves, right? We want them to accept who they are, respect the differences they have with others, and not bully or be bullied because of those differences. Hey, the song even mentions God!

But wondering if there was more to it than that, I pulled the video up and watched it on YouTube. As a matter of principle, I’m not going to link it here. But as the parent of a 13-year-old, I was horrified to think of junior high students singing it. There was pornographic content, simulated sexual acts, promotion of non-biblical and unnatural sexual behaviors, and the juxtaposition of sexuality with images of death. The kids I know of who are learning this song in school are as young as 11. Unsurprisingly, some of the lyrics have been changed for the edition they are using. But if they didn't know the existence of the song and video before, they certainly do now, and in today's world-at-your-fingertips existence, they would have little problem finding, listening to, and watching the original. For the record, it is not appropriate viewing for 11-year-olds. Heck, it's not appropriate viewing for me. In addition, in the lyrics that were left out of the show choir version (and possibly out of the Super Bowl version, although I'm not sure--it was a truncated version of the song, included in a medley of Gaga's music), there is quite clearly the pushing of a progressive, anti-biblical agenda:

In the religion of the insecure
I must be myself, respect my youth
A different lover is not a sin
Believe capital H-I-M (hey hey hey)
No matter gay, straight, or bi
Lesbian, transgendered life
I'm on the right track baby
I was born to survive
Don't hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you're set
Don’t be a drag, just be a queen

What is a parent to do? Whether you homeschool your children or send them to a parochial, private or public school, it has become impossible to completely shield them from a culture that seems bent on undermining everything that we as Christian parents are trying to teach them. Even if our children’s school isn’t pushing questionable material, and even if we aren’t providing our children 24/7 internet, many of their friends have access to both. And then there are the television and radio ads and highway billboards, not to mention the sometimes immoderate words and actions of those with whom we come into contact, that insinuate themselves into our children’s existence whether we like it or not. It starts to seem as though our choice is either to lock our children up in a remote tower, Mother Gothel style, or to shrug our shoulders and surrender because it’s just the way the world is now and the sooner our kids get wise to it the more prepared they will be to survive it.

There is a third path, though, one that draws on the so-called Benedict option in consciously rejecting the prevailing culture while not going so far as Mother Gothel. In our house, it has meant choosing to homeschool our children, watching very little TV, listening to very little radio, seeing few movies, not providing our children with smartphones, and ordering our lives around the church. This approach has allowed us to largely keep things for which our children are not ready away from their eyes and ears until we ourselves can prepare them. We haven't done this perfectly, but have tried as much as possible to be the doorway by which our children encounter the harder things of the world, rather than coming along behind to clean up the mess. In doing so, here are a few of the the principles we have tried to keep in mind.  

First, when it comes to music, art and literature, the best way to crowd out the less worthwhile is to feed our children--and ourselves--a diet of excellence, one that will cultivate a taste for quality and a low tolerance for the vacuous. That doesn’t mean that everything we read, look at and listen to has to come from the Western canon, but that we need to make choices rather than simply accepting what the culture gives. We are all prone to have our heads turned by the showy and shiny at the expense of that which requires a greater investment of time and attention to be appreciated. As I watched Lady Gaga’s halftime performance in preparation for writing this piece, I caught myself tapping my foot. It’s catchy stuff, and testifies to the potential insidiousness of music (and the importance of choosing it carefully not only for life but for worship, but that’s another article). It is so easy to find ourselves singing along with something that upon reflection, is a blatant contradiction of our most deeply held beliefs. If we are so easily sucked in, how much more are our children likely to be? But the more discriminating we are in our choices, the more we will learn to desire excellence and not have our heads turned by the shallow. More than once as a parent I have shared a song or program with one of my children only to be aghast at the elements that I had forgotten about, elements that flew squarely in the face of the values I have spent my entire time as a parent trying to teach. I loved Grease when I was 12 years old. Now it makes me cringe.

Second, while there is certainly a category of “adult” entertainment that is “adult” not because of graphic content but due to mature themes, we should remember that as parents we are our children’s primary examples. When we watch or listen to something in the popular culture, we are giving it our seal of approval and marking it as worthwhile. If we have to send our children out of the room to enjoy the entertainment at hand, is it really worth our time? I have written previously about coming to the conclusion that if I have to worry about my child walking in, not because of the material’s lack of interest to him but because of its inappropriateness, I would rather not watch it. There is too much out there of worth, and so little time, and my children are making mental note of every choice I make.

Third, while we can’t perfectly protect either ourselves or our kids from that which is not edifying, we ought to at least try. The normalization and “mainstreaming” of artists who make shock and titillation part of their brand leads to a letting down of one’s guard that is dangerous, especially where children are concerned. It is already difficult enough these days to navigate the cultural sea, as what used to be considered R-rated is now PG-13, and what used to be considered PG-13 is now PG, and so on. Things that were once forbidden on television are now routine. We have moved from Rob and Laura sleeping in separate beds to unmarried people nonchalantly jumping into multiple different beds with multiple different people during primetime. The more we choose to watch such programming, the more we learn to accept it as the new normal and teach our kids to do so, too. The more we embrace Lady Gaga’s tamer fare, the more we open the door to the rest of her body of work.

As I write this, there is currently a debate among many of my friends about whether or not to see, or take their children to see, the new live action version of Beauty and the Beast, which reportedly has some hints of homosexuality as well as other “modern” messaging. Not all of my friends agree, and that’s okay. What is good is to see the debate happening. It means that the parents I know are thinking, carefully and deeply, about the choices they are making for their children and themselves, not blindly showing up merely because it’s Disney’s latest offering. For each of us, whether we are parents or not, the line between a wholesale withdrawing from the culture versus a complete surrendering to it will always be the breadth of a tightrope, and walking it an extremely difficult balancing act. To do so will require constant vigilance and a combination of strategies to equip both ourselves and our children for life in this strange land--a land in which we will never feel completely at home because our home is somewhere else.

In the end, though, while we can try as parents to protect our children from a hostile world, we are helpless to protect them from the devil and their own sinful nature. Souls that have been compromised by original sin are all too ready to think on--and celebrate--things that are neither pure nor lovely. Thanks be to God that in Baptism He makes us, and our children, His own, promising that He will never leave us defenseless and that He will never stop pursuing us. The world may serve up a never-ending supply of corruption, but Christ invites us to eat the purest food at His table, providing His very body and blood for the nourishment of our parched and emaciated souls. The devil, the world, and our sinful natures may constantly lurk, looking for opportunities to attack and weaken us, but they cannot hold us captive, because Christ has set us free to pursue the good, the beautiful, and the true.


Cheryl is the sister of ten, daughter of two, mother of three, and wife of one. She was an English teacher in a past life but these days freelances as a writer and musician. She blogs at A Round Unvarnish'd Tale and has also been published by The Federalist,  American ThinkerOnFaith, and Touchstone magazine. Cheryl lives in Oklahoma with her husband, a Lutheran cantor, and their three children.

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