In a recent interview, legendary Hollywood actor Tom Hanks reminisced about his role in the 1993 movie Philadelphia. In the film, Hanks played a gay lawyer who was fired because he contracted AIDS. Hanks’ character sues and wins the discrimination case before tragically dying shortly after the verdict is delivered.
Though the movie pushed cultural boundaries of all kinds at the time, it has long been criticized for not showing more explicit scenes of homosexual behavior. According to Hanks, the real power of the film was showing people that there’s really “nothing to be afraid of,” as he put it. “If you’re going to go and see a movie that’s essentially a polemic about ‘How Things Must Change,’” he said, “that feels like work.” This movie, however, convinced people because it didn’t try so hard to be convincing. It didn’t ask its audience to change too much too quickly.
Though I’d question how important Philadelphia was in the history of our culture’s embrace of sexual brokenness, Hanks is correct that cultural change follows a change in the public imagination and that change, more often than not, happens in many quiet ways. In fact, cultural change requires at least three ingredients. First, there must be new ideas. Second, there must be champions committed to spreading these ideas. And, third, the creation of cultural artifacts, such as laws or art or technology, is required to establish new norms.
Often, the most powerful cultural artifacts are stories told via entertainment, advertisement, and news content. Philadelphia presented a narrative about homosexual behavior, sexually transmitted disease, and gay men that was not mainstream in 1993. Without making an argument, a film that featured a very popular actor embodied homosexuality as normal and good and portrayed men who contract AIDS through homosexual activity as neither to be feared nor held responsible.
Cultural artifacts are particularly effective in making ideas seem normal. Today, nearly 30 years after Philadelphia, new norms are being created. Huge advertisements at cosmetics stores like Sephora portray young men dressed provocatively in women’s clothing and covered in makeup. Boarding most Delta flights requires walking past an image of a same-sex couple cuddled up in premium economy.
Without using a single word, cultural artifacts can communicate ideas not merely about what counts as normal behavior but about what it means to be human. In essence, Sephora is telling our sons and daughters that “the way we know a boy is a girl is that he is dressed provocatively and covered in makeup.” What message does that send if not to be a woman is to be like this?
Transgender ideology is particularly and ironically rigid. To be “drag queens,” for example, men dress up in sexually provocative clothing with exaggerated prosthetics and an attitude of silly theatrics. Children are not only targeted with the false ideas that a man can be a woman and that there’s nothing more to being male and female than what is portrayed. They are also subjected to an unimaginative and cruel caricature of womanhood, that to be a woman is to dress provocatively and to act flighty, silly, and foolish.
Cultural artifacts must be taken seriously in at least two ways. First, because they communicate messages at the level of the public imagination, they must be noticed and not ignored. Because harmful ideas about sex, gender, and identity have been normalized through artifacts produced in almost every cultural sphere, Christian educators, pastors, and parents cannot afford to ignore them and simply hope that kids won’t notice. Instead, we must use these artifacts to point out the lies as lies.
Second, Christians who wish to change hearts and minds must take seriously the task of making better cultural artifacts. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent.” Today, I’d argue that we not only want—we need more movies, stories, music, art, and advertisements by Christians who embed a true vision of the human person into what they create.
If the power of our dominant cultural artifacts is to be countered and if new, better artifacts are to be created, Christians must be grounded in a thoroughly biblical vision for life and the world. In particular, we must be clear, and we must train our children on what it means to be made in the image of God, male and female.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Maria Baer. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to colsoncenter.org.
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