ABC's "Modern Family" won the award for outstanding comedy series in last month's Emmy awards. Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" is No. 1 on iTunes and the accompanying video is No. 1 on YouTube.
Or to put it another way, a show mainstreaming a homosexual couple and their adopted child and a song glorifying premarital sex are big hits.
You may be thinking, "Sigh…is this going to be another moral rant from a self-righteous religious blogger?"
Actually, I want to raise what I believe to be a deeply important question: "How does something that was previously denounced become the new normal in a culture?"
The answer, it would seem, is apparent. You expose people to it from a positive, or at least accepting, perspective. A lot. Ideally through a popular medium, such as a sitcom or the lyrics to a song. Eventually, you reach a tipping point of exposure and opinion where the culture is desensitized to any scandal that may have been attached to it previously.
There is no doubt that "Modern Family" is just flat-out good in terms of writing and acting. Katy Perry is very talented as a singer and songwriter.
Rumor has it she's drop-dead gorgeous to boot.
But think about the lyrics to "Teenage Dream":
We drove to Cali
And got drunk on the beach
Got a motel and
Built a fort out of sheets…
Let's go all the way tonight
No regrets, just love…
And don't ever look back
Don't ever look back
Let you put your hands on me
In my skin-tight jeans
Be your teenage dream tonight
These are just the lyrics. The video itself leaves even less to the imagination.
I am reminded of the words of the prophet Jeremiah, who said of the people of his day:
"Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
they do not even know how to blush."
So who will speak into the culture about God's vision for family and sexual expression? If this is how such things become accepted, how does the church provide a counter-balance?
The short answer is to teach on such matters - to offer a winsome and compelling explanation and apologetic for the sacred nature of sex and sexuality and the beauty of God's design.
Yet we live in a day when Christians are increasingly shying away from these issues, finding themselves more comfortable - and culturally accepted - sticking to matters of, say, social justice. And there can be little doubt that social justice issues abound, and Christians must engage them with the full force the biblical mandate would demand.
But our world is degrading sexually at a frightening pace. The widespread acceptance and eventual legality of homosexual marriage seems almost certain; access to pornography through the internet is shaping a coming generation in ways we cannot begin to imagine; premarital sex is increasingly considered the norm and, through such programs as MTV's reality show "Teen and Pregnant," glamorized.
I recall a gathering of 15 or so leading pastors - many of them names that would be recognized - as we engaged various issues facing us as leaders. At one turn in the conversation, I remarked how sexually confused the people we were reaching seemed to be, and how I had recently found myself compelled to address issues related to sex annually, or at least every 18-24 months.
Ringing in my ears was an email I had just received that outlined one young woman's reaction to our membership process. She was quite open with the membership counselor about engaging in premarital sex with her boyfriend - and quite upset when she learned that the church believed that the Bible might not affirm such activities.
The membership counselor, sensing an important teaching moment, encouraged her not to leave the church, but to stay and keep exploring what the Bible said about such matters. The counselor asked if she would be willing to listen to a CD on why the church has the position it does - based on what we believe Scripture says about the topic - and then talk about it afterwards.
"I would definitely be open to listening to the CD, but I doubt that it will change the way I'm choosing to live my life…my relationship with my boyfriend is…sacred to me."
She had no sense of the true meaning of sacred, much less sexual sacredness. She had no sense of the Apostle Paul's words in I Corinthians, where he wrote: "There is a sense in which sexual sins are different from all others. In sexual sins we violate the sacredness of our own bodies, these bodies that were made for God-given and God-modeled love, for 'becoming one' with another. Or didn't you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit?"
So imagine my dismay when the leader of the pastors' roundtable quickly informed me that he thought speaking on it every year or two was way too much; that focusing on sex that frequently wasn't needed, helpful or productive.
There were more important issues to address.
My initial thought was, "Are we talking about the same culture? Are we living in the same church-world?"
My second thought was more foundational.
"You are wrong."
If we want to serve this world, at this time in its history, we will speak to issues related to sex. Frequently. We live in a sex-soaked, sex-dominated, sex-driven, sex-confused world.
As the novelist Elizabeth Rundle Charles, inspired by the words of Martin Luther, once wrote:
"If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at the moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point."
James Emery White
"‘Modern Family' and ‘Mad Men' Win at Emmys" by Brian Stelter, New York Times, August 29, 2010, at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/30/arts/television/30emmys.html?src=mv
Jeremiah 6:15, New International Version.
"Is teen parenthood glamorized on MTV?", NBC's Today Show, Thursday, September 16, 2010, at http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/26184891/vp/39209845#39209845
I Corinthians 6:18-19, The Message.
Source of Luther-inspired quote: Elizabeth Rundle Charles, The Chronicles of the Schoenberg Cotta Family (Thomas Nelson, 1864). Though often attributed to Luther, it is a common misattribution, usually due to Francis Schaeffer's misattribution of it to Luther in The Great Evangelical Disaster (Schaeffer attributes it to Luther, but gives no source). It is, instead, inspired by Luther's writings, such as page 81 and following of the third volume of Briefwechsel (correspondence) from D. Martin Luthers Werke, the German (Weimar) edition of Luther's Works - but actually written by Charles in her 19th century novel.
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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