kids and culture


Last month, Tiger Woods was all over the news. I don’t know if you had to talk to your kids about his situation, answering questions like “What’s an affair?” or “You can make money by playing golf?” About the former, depending on the age of your kids, some possibilities might include how it’s wrong to break your promises or to pretend that someone else who isn’t your husband or wife is. This also relates to some stories in the Bible that your child might read or hear, like the woman in John 8, David and Bathsheba, and really the whole story of Israel as told by prophets like Hosea. I’m actually not meaning to talk about it much in this post, but if there’s interest about talking to kids about adultery, you can comment and let others hear your thoughts or questions–we could definitely discuss it here.

The December 21 cover of Newsweek

What I did want to talk about relates to the celebrity-loving culture surrounding the Tiger Woods headlines. Neal Gabler wrote a really interesting cover story in Newsweek last month about it, subtitled “In defense of our Brangelina-loving, Jon and Kate-hating, Tiger-taunting tawdry tabloid culture.”

Gabler makes a couple of interesting points. One is that celebrity lives are a newer form of entertainment, competing with movies, books, and TV. As those older forms did, celebrity news provides a common experience that unifies our society. In other words, it gives us something we can all talk about at the office, school, etc. And when we as a society get more into niches and watch less of the same movies and listen to less of the same music, celebrity gives us some common ground. For a lot of men, especially, sports fills a similar role–I know that strangers and I have talked on the airplane for 30 minutes easy, brought together by a sports page in the seat pocket.

How to make friends on the airplane

How to make friends on the airplane

His other big point is that celebrity stories are popular and much discussed when, basically, they’re good stories. He explains the difference between being famous (like Queen Elizabeth) and being a celebrity (like Princess Di) is that the first is just a name but the second is a narrative, a story. And it’s the story that gets us talking.

What makes these “good” stories? Well, one thing Gabler points to is suspense. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out. It’s even better than movies, because movies are made up and there’s closure. With Tiger Woods, we don’t know what’s going to happen to him, so we tune in for the next episode. “Celebrity narratives,” writes Gabler, “have no final chapter.”

A famous person

So why am I talking about this? Well, I think it has something to say about our lives in a Christian community. Because we don’t need Tiger Woods; we have a crazy-interesting narrative that gives us common ground: the story of Jesus, of God reaching out to people by becoming one of us and dying on a cross. This is the story we talk about every time we meet on Sundays, in songs, prayer, creeds, sermon, and communion.

An interesting story

But not only do we have a story about events in the first century Roman Empire and Middle East, we also have a story–maybe a story within the first story–that we’re living now. It’s the story of our own following of Jesus. And we don’t know how things will work out, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next episode–there is suspense.

One problem we have, though, is that, honestly, our Christian lives are often not that exciting or suspenseful. They can be boring, and the narrative of Tiger or our workplace or our football team seems a lot more exciting. There’s probably a bunch of causes for this, but one cause, I think, is simply that we avoid excitement in our Christian lives by avoiding risk and avoiding change.

Because it’s risk, with the possibility of changes, that makes things exciting, whether it be in finding a new job, moving, or going for it on 4th and 1. And in our lives following Jesus, too, it’s when we try something different, or put ourselves out there in such a way that something great could happen . . . or something bad.

And I think this is a symptom of “affluenza,” the disease of suburbia, which can be especially acute in risk-averse 2nd generation Asian-Americans. If we were poker players, we’d never bet big, too afraid to lose much to try to gain much. And I don’t think Jesus played poker, but if he did, I don’t think that’s how he would have played. (Take a look at Matthew 25:14-30.)

Another interesting story

Our kids pick up on this–they like dramatic stories too! They sometimes might not be that excited about Jesus, because, well, Jesus as he’s been presented to them is kind of boring. They don’t see him changing lives, they don’t see people who were strangers to him becoming his friends, they don’t hear about all the things that God does all over the world, and they don’t see how, when our backs are to the wall, Jesus comes through.

How do we expose them to Jesus as he is, this exciting, all-in-betting Savior of the world? Well, a lot of answers I’m sure but how’s three? First, we can tell them our own stories–how we ourselves are so different from what we were, because of Jesus. Second, maybe we ourselves can consciously be taking risks for Jesus that they see–telling people about Jesus, having financial uncertainty because of our giving or choices for ministry, praying and expecting God to do what we asked. Third, maybe we can expose them to other people who are also taking risks for Jesus–like taking a look at our missionaries’ reports or visiting local ministries we support.

What do you think?

I know some parents are wondering about whether to let their kids read the Twilight books or watch the movies.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had, a decade ago, with a mother whom I really respect. The Twilight of the time was Harry Potter. Less teen-angsty than Twilight, but some of the same concerns for parents (dark realms, glorifying life without parents, the casting of unproven British actors . . .). She had two girls, the younger in 5th grade, the older in middle school. The 5th grader was pretty into the book. I asked her mom, “So, I guess you’re letting your kids read the book?”

This is what a lot of you parents live with

Before I tell you what she said, let me pause the flashback and think about the various ways parents might answer that question. One, possibly tempting for an ambitious immigrant, is “Of course, it’s a book! And it’s long! SATs, here we come!” Two, tempting for parents concerned about their kids’ fitting in, is “Of course, everyone’s doing it!” Three, tempting for many Christians, is “Of course not! A book written by a non-Christian about witchcraft!?” While these all actually have some legitimate concerns in mind, the mother speaking with me chose a fourth option. “We’re reading it together,” she said. “We read chapters and talk about what we’re reading. It’s been fun.”

The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) issues movie ratings–G, PG, PG-13, R–to help parents decide what to allow their kids to watch. While that service is helpful, I wonder if, for Christians, every movie is rated PG, that is, requiring parental guidance.

It’s in the Bible, or at least I think it is. Specifically in Deuteronomy 6:6-7. “These words that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”

Put into our world, it might read something like: “These words I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you watch TV, when you talk about school, when you drive to soccer practice, when you read the news, and when you say goodnight.”

What are those “words” we’re always supposed to be talking about with our kids? Well, in the New Testament, the word that is corresponds most to “word” in the Old Testament is “the gospel,” the “good news” about Jesus. That is to say, for the New Testament writers and readers, Deut 6:6-7 meant that they were supposed to be talking about the gospel, the message that brings lost people to God. And I don’t see why it wouldn’t mean the same for us. What we talk about with our kids, what we impress on them through day to day life together, is the gospel of Jesus.

So whether you decide to let your kids read Twilight or not, maybe the best advice to keep in mind is the advice from Deuteronomy: talk about the books, talk about your decision to read it or not to read it, talk about the movies, and when you talk about them, be impressing the gospel on your kids’ hearts.

(This actually applies to the Bible too, which is not really written for kids [or anyone?] to digest by themselves. The Bible would actually not make it into a lot of school libraries, I think, if librarians knew more of the stories told in the book.)

Admittedly, just going by the MPAA is easier–“my kid is 14 and the movie is PG-13, so let him watch it”–than Deut 6’s “everything is PG.” Any parent who has ever needed a childless getaway can tell you that. But that’s the way our kids grow best. And that’s how a lot of stuff that’s out there–TV, the internet, movies, music, books–can get redeemed and become instruments of growth.

This is what I live with

Practically speaking, this means to do it together and talk about it. Watch, read, listen, play with your kids; talk about what they’re watching and hearing. And the most helpful perspective you can bring to the conversation is how it relates to Jesus and the gospel. My own daughter is too young for Twilight, but we’ve tried to do this with the stuff she reads and watches. Dora the Explorer? “Swiper, no swiping!” is just like how Jesus gives us authority to stand up to and beat things that are not right. Disney Princesses? If you’re a daughter of God the King . . . guess what, kiddo, you’re a princess. So be a good princess, one who’s generous and kind. (And, fine, you can wear the heels.)

So should I let my kids read Twilight? That’s ultimately your decision, but, either way, use it to impress the gospel on your kids. If you don’t let them read it, talk about what Jesus values and modeled–independence from a herd mentality, growing our purity of thought, and willingness to let go of desirable things.

If you do, remember that most, if not all, of the stories our culture tells have a basis in truth. It’s just that usually they miss something. But Jesus has a way of revising these stories to make them his own. Let’s help our kids hear his revisions, by hearing and processing these stories with them. Who knows? Maybe a story about a teenage crush on a vampire can actually help set “the words,” the gospel of Jesus, on their hearts.