Our world is soaked in pop … culture. Entertainment saturates everything around us. It’s impossible to get away from it all, even if we wanted to. And, truthfully, how many of us want to? Entertainment tries to fill lots of holes in our lives. It can be an escape. A salve for hard times. It can make us laugh and cry and think and feel and, sometimes, forget about the sorrows or mundanity of the real world.
Entertainment is powerful, and it can sometimes be powerfully bad. That’s one of the reasons we do what we do here at Plugged In. Our entertainment landscape is so big and loud and seductive that it can make us forget we’re supposed to be listening to God’s still, small voice—not the media’s bombastic shout.
But God doesn’t always whisper. And sometimes we can hear Him—or at least echoes of Him—even in entertainment.
That’s the heart behind our very own Paul Asay’s new book, Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet. Right off the bat, the title says two things: Yes, pop culture sometimes tries to elbow aside God’s Word—distracting us with its CGI bells and salacious whistles. But Paul believes God sometimes speaks to us through our entertainment, too, even in the midst of negative content that is anything but God-honoring.
“God gave us free will, and we’ve used that will to mess things up plenty,” Paul writes. “Our stories—our movies and television shows, our games and music—are no exception. They’re fallen too. But just as God spoke into the formless void, into the darkness in the face of the deep, He speaks into our darkest places, too.”
What follows is an excerpt from the book, starting with one of storytelling’s most honored clichés.
Once upon a time …
Every story begins as such, whether it says so or not. Whether the first words are “In the beginning” or “Call Me Ishmael” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” the promise of once upon a time is there. It’s both the invitation and invocation of storytelling, a hot cup of tea and a fasten-your-seatbelt sign. You’re going away for a while, those four words promise. Prepare to find yourself in a different place, a different time, perhaps a different world. We’ve got a story to share.
When I was about four, my dad told me my first story—or, at least, the first I remember. I sat on his lap and leaned against his chest, mesmerized.
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Paul, this story began.
Already, I knew it was going to be the best story ever. And it went something like this.
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Paul, and he had a friend named Big Bird (The Sesame Street character but, more importantly, a stuffed animal I slept with every night). One day, Paul and Big Bird were walking down the street, when suddenly (!) a big, black dog leapt out from a dark alleyway! He had huge eyes and white, shiny teeth and he growled a low, terrible growl: Grrrrrrrr …. Big Bird was scared. He was so scared that he opened his mouth, turned around and ran away, as fast as his big orange feet could carry him. But dogs, they’re faster than big birds, and people, too. They love to chase things. And a big dog like that, if it caught up to Big Bird, who knows what might happen. But just when that big, black dog was about to run after Big Bird, growling and barking, POP! Paul hit it right on the nose. And that big, black dog ran away.
It was the perfect story. It had everything a four-year-old could want: Horror, action, comedy and a brave, bold hero. And then the ultimate kicker: That hero was me! Not, maybe, the me sitting with my dad at that moment. Both he and I knew full well he’d never let me and a suddenly self-aware stuffed animal walk down a street unsupervised. We both knew it was pretend. But the Paul in that story—the hero—was the kind of boy I wanted to be someday: brave, courageous and willing to go out of my way to help those weaker and more cowardly than myself. Sure, maybe in truth I was a little more like Big Bird than Paul, prone to run away from big, black dogs (or worse, sit down and cry). But the story gave me a vision of myself that I’m not sure if I truly had before.
And when I look at the stories I still love to this day, they all have elements of that very first story. I no longer listen to them on my father’s lap. I read about them, watch them, listen to them and play them. Sure, the characters are different: Big Bird might be a damsel in distress or a couple of kids trapped in a burning building or the whole universe. The black dog might be a demon or drug lord or the vacuum of space. The hero might carry a batarang or a magic ring or simply the courage of his convictions. And none of them mentions me by name.
And yet many of them are, in their own way, still all about me. About who I am. How I feel. Who I fear I might become. Who I want to someday be.
Stories are always about us. That’s why they move us so.
Think about it: People talk about their jobs and say, “It’s just like Office Space.” Or compare one of their friends to Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. Couples turn love ballads into “our song,” and when they break up, someone’ll invariably play the same emo tune again and again and again. Video games are the apex of self-focused storytelling in some way, where we become for a time a different person onscreen, able to slay dragons or beat Bowser. A little like a four-year-old boy was able to punch a big black dog in the nose.
Through our heroes and villains, we see pieces of us. We slip into the narrative as we slip through a door, entering a new world where we can root for our heroes and feel their hardships. When the characters suffer, we wince. We look away. We grow angry. Sometimes we cry. I know I do, anyway.
Yeah, these characters may be pure fiction—the product of a fertile imagination somewhere in London or Los Angeles or Lubbock, Texas. But they can feel so real. So powerful. And through them, we often discover who we are and who we’d like to be.
The words once upon a time can take us to centuries past or future, to epochs that have never been or might one day be. They whisk us across the street or the world or the galaxy. But the best show us places in ourselves, too—trips through our minds and psyches and our very souls. Stories are, by their very natures, spiritual. They can play around our intellect, tossing out ideas and theories and quandaries to puzzle over and then go deeper. They can knead our emotions, triggering laughter and fear and sadness and joy and then go deeper. They dive to the very cores of our being, expressing thoughts and feelings that, before we saw or heard something, had no words. We find the dissonance between our fallen world and God’s glorious blueprint, the deep, voiceless longing we have for justice and mercy and grace and love.
In our stories, we look for God, even if we don’t know it. And sometimes, I believe, we find a hint of Him. An echo, perhaps. A fingerprint.