I was stuck in Seattle traffic the other day, and I realized that I forgot my CD case at home. Left without my typical source of entertainment, I resorted to calling everyone on my cell phone presets. Nobody was home. Drat. So, I dial surfed on the radio. This time of year, you get your choice of Christmas music, sports, talk radio, or Christmas music. I wasn’t in the mood for Christmas music, and listening to sports radio makes me want to hurt someone (maybe it brings out latent testosterone). So, I settled on having someone talk at me for awhile.
I don’t have the stations memorized. I’ve only lived here for a year and a half, after all. So, unbeknownst to me, I was listening to NPR. They were doing an interview with an actress I admire, and I actually found myself enjoying the experience for awhile.
Then, they switched to news. I wanted to gnaw on my steering wheel. I watched my finger fly to the radio dial, but just when I was ready to hit the closest button to make it stop, I checked myself.
“No,” I said to myself. “This is good for me.”
Reluctantly, like a slapped puppy, I withdrew my finger and put both hands firmly on the steering wheel. I forced myself to listen for 10 minutes more, until I couldn’t take it anymore.
In the movie The Princess Bride, Wesley wins his battle of wits by developing immunity to a highly lethal form of poison. He does this by ingesting a small amount of it, little by little, over the years, gradually increasing his dose, until he could tolerate amounts that would be fatal to most people.
I couldn’t help but think of brave Wesley as I sat listening to the news and opinions that differed so much from my own view of the world. Too much of this stuff in one dose would suck the life out of me. But I could tolerate a little bit. Tomorrow, I might be able to handle a little bit more.
For a Christian, there are many reasons to study our culture. Paul’s missionary perspective was to understand the culture he lived in so he might best serve them. He was even ready to adopt some different cultural habits, if it meant that he would draw some people to Christ: “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Keep in mind, though, that Paul wasn’t talking about doing things that were inherently sinful. Jesus addresses this aspect when he prepares his disciples for ministering in the world: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16). He wanted them to understand the people and the culture but not to become corrupted by them. Basically, don’t let the poison get to you. Be smart about it.
Listening to NPR is just one form of this cultural training. You could read a book written by someone in secular mainstream right now, someone you know you disagree with in general. For example, every time I see Christopher Hitchen’s book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, I want to turn all the copies upside down or move them in the fantasy section at the bookstore. Maybe in addition to that, I should read a copy (On a side note, I don’t like purchasing these books since I realize that I vote with my dollar, so to speak. I’d rather borrow them from the library or read them at the bookstore.).
Whatever books you’re reading or cultural forms you’re studying, don’t forget to remain grounded in the Word of God. It’s our guide through all the murky waters: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).