[Christianity Today, January 11, 1999]
When I was first approached about becoming a member of the Spice Girls, I was a little taken aback. My impression was that this troupe of British singers was salacious and provocative, one more example of the debasing of our culture.
"I’m embarassed to admit it, Mom," my 21-year-old daughter confessed, "but I actually liked the movie. It’s harmless—a teenybopper thing, like for preteen girls. It’s singing Barbies, and there’s nothing dirty about it. It has that nutty English humor, kind of like the Beatles’ Help!, so I actually ended up really enjoying it—I even watched it twice."
We rented Spice World that evening and studied it, side by side on the couch in the darkened living room. At the end I was satisfied that the Spice Girls remained decently clothed and did not veer into inappropriate innuendo. The movie, though lighter than fluff, even had a quirky charm. I picked up the phone and gave my decision: yes, I would consent to be a Spice Girl.
Thus it was that two weeks later at the church picnic I was clothed in a babydoll dress (with modest shorts underneath), a blonde wig in pigtails, and white knee-high socks with shiny, black Mary Jane shoes. I was attempting to portray "Baby Spice," and at five foot one I approach her size—vertically, anyway. The skit was designed by the youth group to say good-bye to their leader, who was heading off to seminary. Why’s he going to seminary? "’Cos that’s what he wants, what he really, really wants," we sang.
"We" included me and the church secretary ("Sporty Spice"), and one of the basses from the choir ("Ginger Spice"). But the teens’ hope of having an all-grownup Spice Girls was not fulfilled. Several adults turned the parts down, feeling uneasy about what seemed an endorsement of questionable pop culture.
Questioning pop culture is something Christians don’t do often enough. We tend to absorb it unresisting, turning on the radio at the beginning of the day and the television at the end, scarcely aware of how much mental junk food we are ingesting. How much energy Christians spend on political battles to prevent outside forces from damaging the family—and how gladly they welcome into the home poisons that do much worse.
So why is it OK to dress up as the Spice Girls? Because there is a difference between passively absorbing pop culture and critiquing it. We were hijacking this pop icon in order to laugh at it, exaggerating the costumes and style and making it ridiculous. We had examined the phenomenon we were lampooning and ascertained that it was not so corrupt that to mention it at all would be damaging.
When it comes to pop culture, too often Christians choose one of two paths—passive ingestion or total rejection. I think a third way is called for: wise critique. We can’t reach a fallen world if we’re clueless about the ideas and entertainment forming that world day and night, shaping the imagination of the culture and providing a common frame of reference.
We cannot be effective evangelists if we do not, for example, have an idea of what the X-Files is about, and what the show’s popularity indicates about contemporary Americans’ hunger for mystery. We can ask, for example, whether the fascination with eerie space aliens is a reaction to our zeal in expunging mystery from our churches, and turning a faith of miracles and majesty into something we hope looks friendly and accessible. Perhaps we have miscalculated the depth of the human hunger for supernatural reality beyond our everyday lives, and those who can’t find it in our churches are chasing it around the TV dial.
Being informed by pop culture without being formed by it is a goal that requires discipline and caution. Religion columnist Terry Mattingly recommends that families watch only carefully selected prerecorded television, parents with their children beside them and one hand on the remote control, ready to stop, discuss, and analyze what they see. No more than an hour of television a day is sufficient for this. Much else of what passes for entertainment in today’s culture can be observed at a safe remove, through reading reviews and news stories. The goal is awareness and wise critique, neither ignoring the messages that are programming our neighbors (and perhaps rendering them numb to the gospel) nor carelessly ingesting those messages ourselves.
We did the skit in part to make fun of the Spice Girls, but we were also making fun of ourselves. My biggest reluctance to join in this fun was that I was afraid I would look foolish. Turns out I did.
I’ve learned that it’s a good thing for me to look foolish on a regular basis, because otherwise I take my own wisdom and gravity too seriously. I picture myself wisely discerning among the garbage that seduces my gullible neighbors, and forget that I am gullible and foolish in my own ways. Portraying that overtly from time to time is good for me; it helps me get smaller and draw closer to God. And that’s what I want, what I really, really want.
(Illustration - Jeff Thompson)