Sermon #4 in our Pop Culture Series. Preached Sunday, June 21, 2015, at Euless First United Methodist Church. Many thanks to Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You for a good part of the theme running through this message.
“Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
Ah, the simple black-and-white days of Dragnet. And Andy Griffith. And Adam 12. When everyone trusted police officers and police officers were all good.
It seems like the world was simpler back then. It seems that for some the world is still cut and dried, black and white. Everything has a clear right and a clear wrong.
Then why is it so difficult to raise children to make good choices?
Why do many of us, if we are completely honest, find it really, really challenging, to consistently make good choices?
If life were always easy, I suppose we would have to come up with another word for it. “Life” is complex, challenging, difficult, rewarding, frustrating, exciting, long, fast, short, slow, and usually some combination of these all at once.
Most of us adults – especially adults 30 and over – cannot imagine what it must be like to be an adolescent these days. Used to be you could only be bullied at school or out in the neighborhood somewhere. Now bullying follows you into your home via the internet.
Once upon a time you’d let your kids out of the house in the morning and not think about it again until they came home when they heard the dinner bell or until the sun was setting. Now a couple who lets their kids walk to the local park gets charged with negligence.
Once upon a time you could take your pick of any of the 3 channels and watch anything that was on during prime time together with your kids and everyone would enjoy it all together.
Once upon a time, everyone knew everyone else in the community and we all trusted one another.
We tell ourselves – and each other – all kinds of stories about how things used to be. We tend to remember them as better than they actually were, but this isn’t all bad. I read recently that if we want to be happier people, we’ll spend our time and money on experiences rather than things. Experiences, by memory, last longer than most things. And, better, memory is selective: we could have had a family vacation where the car broke down twice and the credit card was declined as we tried to get into Disney, but 15 years later what we remember is the adventure that we made of the trip anyway.
Some of the way we view the past through rose-colored glasses is probably healthy, but I fear that we are overdoing it these days.
As bad as some of you thing the world is right now, in 30 years you’ll look back to 2015 as “the best of times.”
Maybe Dickens was saying more than 12 words ought to be able to say when he opened The Tale of Two Cities with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
It was, and always is, the best of times and the worst of times.
So what do we as followers of Jesus do with this? One response is to continue to endorse the past as good, the present as evil, the future as getting worse.
This is most noticeable when “Christian tv networks” air shows from broadcast TV as long as they are at least 15 years old.
Because shows were better – and better means more Christian? – back then?
Really? We were more Christian back then? Life was better back then?
The epitome of this is hearing an african american baby boomer lament for the good old days of the 1950s. In the 1950s, few blacks in Texas could actually vote and they all had to drink from separate water fountains, see different doctors, stay at different hotels.
Were the old days really better?
There are some things about our past we would do well to recapture and reclaim, but we cannot go back in time and God’s Kingdom is in the future, not the past.
We need to move forward into the future God has for us. But we continue to move into the future that God has for us as though we are driving. Since we still have cars that need us to drive them, you’ve probably noticed that the driver ought to keep his or her eyes on the road and the surroundings in front of the car.
But cars also have 3 mirrors that help a driver see behind. A driver is at his or her best when able to watch the road ahead and make occasional and regular glances to the mirrors.
I believe life functions this way as well: if we intend to follow Jesus into the future God has for us, we must look mostly forward while making occasional and regular glances behind us.
Though it isn’t scripture, I do believe that if we don’t learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it.
Pop Culture can help us learn from the past because Pop Culture is good for us. It is making us smarter. If we will let it.
In the days of Dragnet and Andy Griffith and Adam 12, each 30 minute episode was self-contained. You could watch any episode and get everything you needed to know. The shows were written, it seems now, so you and I wouldn’t even wonder if Joe Friday even had a personal life.
Were all his relationships as straightforward and clear-cut as the cases in each episode? Does any actual human have relationships that are straightforward and clear-cut?
Then along comes Hill Street Blues in 1981. Steven Bochco borrowed from Soap Operas the weaving together of multiple plot lines through each story. Unlike Soaps, though, Hill Street Blues was only on once a week.
At first it was really challenging for viewers because it was unlike any other weekly tv drama. Some story lines lasted the entire season. Some overlapped seasons and developed across all 7 seasons.
In 1981 this was ground-breaking television. In 2015, it feels slow-paced and stilted.
1989 gave us Seinfeld and the Simpsons. Both series made Hill Street Blues feel old. Both took the telling of a television story to the next level.
At least, that what Art Vandelay said about Seinfeld.
Did you know that Art Vandelay, a fictional name used by George Costanza (a fictional character) when he got really nervous (was he ever not nervous?), only appeared in 7 of the 172 episodes of Seinfeld. Yet, if you were a Seinfeld insider, merely referring to Art Vandelay brought extra laughs, as well as an extra sense of satisfaction.
And you cannot watch an episode of The Simpsons – check that – you cannot enjoy an episode of The Simpsons – unless you really, really pay attention. To be fair, you can watch and laugh all the way through an episode of The Simpsons with no prior knowledge of the show or of the world around you.
But if you are astute – if you pay attention to the world around you, and if you are literate in pop culture, you will get so much more out of every episode!
Take the 1995 Halloween episode, for instance. That 30 minute show – actually 22 when you account for advertising time – referred to at least 15 different movies: including, but not limited to, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Terminator, Terminator 2, The Pagemaster, The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, Tron, and Poltergeist.
You don’t have to be smart to watch Seinfeld or The Simpsons, but watching them, and learning to catch all the integration of references to pop culture and historical events will make you smarter.
Seinfeld has been gone for 17 years and The Simpsons doesn’t really stand out in the crowd the way it used to.
But the real reason I share all this with you is because I think we need this help. We need to be able to integrate and catch pop culture and historical and cultural references. We live in a world where things happen and change happens. Time is relentless And as the past disappears We’re on the verge of all things new.
30 years ago a “Children’s BIble” was a King James Version text with Precious Moments pictures included.
Did your kids understand King James English when they were young? Did you?
Here’s another example – clear to me – on why we need, as followers of Jesus, to learn this lessons from Pop Culture.
Jeremiah 29:11 is probably a “life verse” for a lot of people. Look at the way we treat it:
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But do you know what is actually happening in the time and culture to whom Jeremiah 29 was written? They were in exile. They had been ripped from their homeland – the Promised Land – and taken to Babylon. They knew the stories of the Glory Days – how wonderful, how glorious their past. And now they were in Babylon.
Alongside Babylon’s streams,
there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up
in the trees there
because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing
the Lord’s song on foreign soil?
Jerusalem! If I forget you,
let my strong hand wither!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I don’t remember you,
if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy. (Psalm 137:1-6)
We’ve turned 29:11 to fluff, to perk us up when we can’t decide if we should go to church this week or go shopping instead.
Jeremiah 29:11 – I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. – was hard to hear for the people who wailed for relief and for a future in Babylon. But it was deeply reassuring that they COULD endure, that their God had NOT abandoned them. That God did indeed have a plan, a hope, a future in mind for them.
And the future God had in mind for them was an incredible future, no matter how horrible life was at the moment.
The future God has in mind for you and me, is an incredible future – IF we can trust God. God IS trustworthy!
Knowing that story behind and around Jeremiah 29:11 makes it say so much more than the fluff we put it in.
The same is true for everything Jesus did and said and taught. Every story Jesus told, every thing Jesus did, fit precisely within the culture of God’s people living under the thumb of Rome. To follow Jesus we must begin – or seek – to understand Jesus, and even to begin to understand Jesus we must learn the backstory, the culture, the history, the countless references small and large that the Gospel Writers embed in the accounts.
Pop Culture helps us do this because over the last 50 years pop culture has made us smarter. Or at least it has expected more of us. As a whole, we have stepped up. You and I can follow modern television without realizing the effort we put into it.
Doesn’t the greatest story ever told deserve the same time, attention, energy, effort?
The greatest story ever told, by the way, other than being a 4 hour 20 minute movie from 1961, is, of course, a reference to the story of Jesus.
Which, itself, has a good bit of backstory.
Here’s just a tiny bit.
You can find this phrase, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” carved in stone on any number of buildings across this country – and probably several others. It appears on college campuses, probably some government buildings, and, I wouldn’t be surprised if it weren’t also on some high school buildings.
What a great phrase: You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free!”
There is, of course, a context, or a backstory, and you heard it in this morning’s gospel reading.
Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
So, we take the part of what Jesus said, the part that abstracts it from him (Jesus), his life, his ministry, and his teachings, and we carve it into stone.
I think Jesus deserves for us to take this statement, that “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” in the context of the actual statement: “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
This is John’s Gospel after all. This is the same Gospel where Jesus says, “I am the truth.” The same Gospel where John writes (1:14) that
The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
and, other than 1:14 and 8:32, “truth” appears 21 additional times in John’s Gospel.
There’s something going on here that is a little more complicated than an academic quest for some generic truth!
The Truth dwelt among us. The Truth died on a cross. The Truth rose again, conquering death and initiating the Kingdom of God in this world.
This is the truth that Jeremiah says, in chapter 31, God will etch on our hearts. Not on buildings.
Now, there’s obviously a lot more going on here even than that. Following that statement, the “Jews who believed in him” took up to argue with him and being children of Abraham, and what it means to be a child of Abraham.
Which is a whole lotta backstory!
The better we grasp the backstory, the hungrier we are to learn and to find and to mine the depths of this Truth, the closer we find ourselves to God. The closer we find ourselves to God, the better chance we have of being part of what God is doing in the world.
And Pop Culture draws us, begs us, trains us, to seek the backstory, to learn the backstory. To settle for nothing less than the full, deep, rich experience of truth in our own lives.