Book Review: Plugged In - Dan Strange (2019)
In this concise and helpful book, Dr. Daniel Strange outlines an approach to how we as followers of Christ can ‘confront and connect’ (p.95) with what we ‘watch, read and play’; in other words, we are shown how to be ‘Plugged In’ to culture without conforming to it. He addresses this through the lens of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ and our faith. As someone with a keen interest in cultural studies and its interaction with faith, Strange is well endowed to present his findings and equip readers to employ them in their own lives. This book is seriously eye-opening, as many of us may not have considered the extent to which biblical principles are either undermined or embraced in culture, and the way we can introduce the gospel into these cultural conversations.
Observing facets of God’s good creation, such as community, represented in movies and music can be astounding, yet it is clear that these representations are skewed and distorted. As fallen humans, we take the good and bad of life, ultimately God’s blessing and provision in the former, and drops of God’s wrath in the latter and attach our own false meaning to them, thus sinfully stifling the truth of the messages given by God. Whether that is using our God-given gifts and talents as a means to be prideful, or as we face the harrowing certainty of death, we either ignore it or we instead say that everything will turn out okay for us all (pp.66-68). However, as God makes clear in His word, neither of these is the true meaning, and in the latter example, it is clear that apart from Christ this happy ending is far from the truth. Therefore, those of us who are believers should aim to ‘wake (others) up’ and get them to ‘stop and think’ about these narratives they create, consume and observe (pp.72 & 74), pointing them to the true meaning.
Culture, as referred to in ‘Plugged In’, is ‘the stories we tell that express meaning about the world’ (p.23) – and it is through this definition that Strange frames the discussion in the book. ‘Plugged In’ covers a lot of ground; firstly, demonstrating why we should care about culture. For many of us, it is not immediately clear why we should care about culture, and even for those who already care we can lose sight of the reason behind this. Strange clarifies the most powerful reason for us: we care about Jesus and sharing Him with others.
In the book, Strange quickly makes it evident that culture is inescapable. Therefore, as Christians, it is important that we engage with the culture around us – resisting the temptation to bury our heads in the sand, or conversely, to assimilate and plunge into the culture around us (p.16). In this case, there are certain truths we must hold in tension, that Jesus calls us to ‘be Holy as (our) Father is Holy’, while we are sent ‘into the world’ (p.79).
Chapter four tackles the question many a Christian asks ‘Can I watch…?’. Perhaps disappointingly for some, and comically aware of this, Strange is sure to conclude that our answer to the question is an anticlimactic ‘it depends’, so he does not draw hard lines around what one should or should not watch. Rather, we are encouraged to use our own discernment and conscience, reminiscent of Romans 11. In order to do this, we should look at the ‘Five Solas’: Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, God’s glory alone (p.83). By using these as markers for our cultural engagement, we can faithfully look through the things we watch, read, or play such as Netflix shows or jazz music, and examine them. For example, we can ask whether watching a certain show will allow us to ‘Glorify God’ (namely, ‘For God’s Glory alone’). This task can seem mentally challenging, and perhaps it may be, but as Strange exalts Christ as the King of all creation, he shows that it is key for us to remain aware of and put these ideals into action. Furthermore, we are encouraged to work alongside our church family to help us cultivate honesty and accountability as we enter into the world and all its cultural stories (p.93).
Lastly Strange presents some worked examples for how we can consume aspects of culture, what they reveal about the meaning of the world from that perspective, and how we can engage in gospel-filled conversations. These conversations can range from a chat with friends after a movie, or to a pastor’s Sunday sermon - so flexibility to our discussions with others is necessary, as no two individuals are the same and will respond to our comments differently (p.121).
Using the example of Paul in Athens (Acts 17), we see an effective approach to engaging with culture that arises around us, from football matches to Japanese domestic toilets! Strange lays the strategy as follows: ‘Enter, Explore, Expose, Evangelise’. Imitating Paul, confronting (p.96) and connecting (p.99) with culture takes place within specific contexts. It initially identifies and is troubled by the idolatry that surrounds these cultural pieces, making this clear to those who consume it and pointing them away from idols to Christ. For Paul, these idols included literal constructed statues, in our western contexts, these idols may be sentimentalism, comfort, or success for example. As challenging as this approach can be, Strange reminds us that we may not be experts at it, neither are we expected to be, but we should be willing to keep learning as disciples (p.119). As Christians, we are not immune to the lure of idolatry, so being aware of these false gods is key, as is returning to Christ when we falter.
‘Subversive fulfilment’ (p.102) is a concept addressed in the book that summarises how the Good News of Jesus Christ both subverts (confronts) and fulfills (connects with) the longings that our culture tries to fill with idols. The gospel overthrows the false narratives and calls people to repentance from these idols to an all-satisfying faith in Christ. The gospel of Christ crucified also exchanges the distorted pictures of good things, for new and solid hopes. Strange effectively applies this subversive fulfillment method to the Football World Cup, Birdwatching, Adult Colouring books, Zombies, and the Japanese Domestic Toilet. These examples help us see that even the most mundane of activities represent stories that express meaning about the world and can be reclaimed by Jesus.
This book serves as good introductory material for any Christian who desires to learn how to faithfully engage with culture consumption and creation, as the book lays the foundations for effective evangelism in the midst of the rapidly changing culture that we live in. If an individual desires to learn more about this subject, it would be wise to consult other material by Dr. Daniel Strange and his contemporaries.