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Truth and Reality Compete for Teens Hearts

For more than 15 years, I’ve written a media advice column for young people called "High Voltage." Of the thousands of letters I’ve received from churched teens about entertainment issues, the most disturbing ones reveal spiritual confusion about God’s view of evil and a stubborn lack of discernment. Specifically, if we object to an album that romanticizes sin, we’re told to lighten up because the artist is singing about "real life." Or when we say a movie is over the top because it glamorizes violence, we get "What doesn’t these days?" It’s sad, but many adolescents judge entertainment’s appropriateness based on the changing reality of the world around them, not on the unchanging Truth of God’s Word.

I remember when a girl named Charlene hit me with a six-page defense of NBC’s sexually preoccupied sitcom Friends. While she didn’t argue with my evidence, it seemed irrelevant to her. "Yes, the show does focus on a ’sinful’ type of sexuality, but this fact doesn’t ruin the show. It is not only morals that make up a television show. It’s a show based on reality. It’s what’s out there. Whether you like it or not, this is what life is like."

Another time I questioned some of the themes running through popular music. A girl named Sarah wrote, "Music and spiritual beliefs are two different things. Sex, drugs, alcohol—those things are all found in more places than in music. It is reality." Elsewhere, Matt objected to our disdain over obscenities and the glorification of alcohol in pop tunes. "In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a real world out there," he chided. "A little profanity and alcohol won’t send you to hell in a handbasket." Maybe not, but compromise in the realm of entertainment is often symptomatic of a heart prone to waffle in other areas as well.

In the late ’90s, several of my young critics even stood up on behalf of MTV and its promotion of condoms and the safe-sex message. A young man defended the network by saying, "I think that MTV is getting teenagers ready for the real world." If worldliness is what young people aspire to, he was absolutely right. But God calls us to embrace a higher standard. Holiness. Purity. Christ-likeness. After all, if floating along on the cultural course of least resistance were acceptable, Jesus—the Truth—would have had no reason to rescue us from the worldly status quo.

What’s more, with the popularization of hate-filled, hopeless and angst-ridden music has arisen a disturbing twist on the "reality vs. truth" confusion. Teens—even Christian teens—are indulging in this music because it feels real to them. It identifies with their pain. For example, one teen wrote, "[Dark] music speaks to me. You should realize that the world is not fun and full of life, [but] that the world is full of hate, love, suicide and murder—and we as Christians cannot deny it. You need to look at music with an open mind and understand that not only I, but millions of depressed teens and kids turn to music that understands them."

Another adolescent stated, "Your comment on how we should ’…pray for [so-and-so]’ instead of wallowing in his ear-splitting hopelessness’ is extremely false. Maybe the ’ear-splitting hopelessness’ is all some people have to lose themselves in." Another honest reader admitted, "[This angry band’s] music has really helped me through sometimes when I was thinking about suicide. Now I go to church and I prayed to God and God did help me. But the music is what made me feel better."

As adults, we can’t deny that extreme pain exists—even for Christians. Still, young people who defend violent, angry music as an answer to this pain have missed half of the story. Dark, "real" music may reassure teens that they’re not suffering alone, but it doesn’t offer a cure for their wounds. Fortunately, the truth of the gospel of Christ can offer that cure.

Truth can set us free (John 8:31,32), sanctify us (John 17:17-19) and purify us (1 Pet. 1:22). Reality cannot. Truth, as found throughout Scripture, gives us a reliable set of unwavering parameters to live by. Reality is affected by time and manipulated by the agendas of man. It knows no boundaries of acceptability. Indeed, every form of depravity is "real." Does that mean it’s acceptable to consume it as entertainment? Of course not. So how can we learn where to draw the line? Only through the eternal, encouraging Truth of God’s word. If we dwell on truth, we will live truth. But to make that choice, teens must first understand the difference between eternal truth and worldly reality. A study of Romans 12:2, John 10:10, 3 John 4, 2 Timothy 3:1-9 and 4:3-4 is a great place to begin.

Revised and published December 2009