// morality, naivety and cultural sensitivity

There’s a fair amount of malicious glee knocking around certain corners of the internet over the failure of MTV’s American import of the show Skins, an adaptation of the UK concept that is currently shedding sponsors owing to a fear that its depiction of teenage life may stray into a technical definition of “child pornography” (by convincingly depicting under-18s in sexual contexts). A range of right-wing Christian commentators in particular have seen this as a vindication of their views on the need for morality on television and denounced MTV for wanting ratings and using sex as a way to get them.

However, in this particular case, that’s an argument that doesn’t seem especially far-sighted. Partly because it apparently hasn’t made any difference to MTV’s policy at all, but also rather more pertinently given that the UK version, which sought to give a picture of the reality of teenage life, ultimately came to the conclusion that being a teenager was an altogether more bleak and difficult period than normally concluded – albeit a period that was admittedly shot through with splashes of vibrant colour from time to time.

The terms of the debate are frustrating, really, though, because all these sort of labels tend to do is sensationalise the discussion and most likely put Christians off watching the programme and forming their own conclusions about what culture is saying to their teenagers. I should clarify that I haven’t actually seen MTV’s Skins in this case, but I’m a big fan of the UK original, which started its fifth season on E4 last night with a storyline about teenage bullying, sexuality, popularity and social outcasts, and which incurred similar criticism when it first aired. In fact, there are elements of it that I would even go so far as to applaud.

I think its depiction of the emptiness of teen hedonism, the bleak and unsatisfying place that pornography and drugs bring people to, is refreshingly honest; I think that the questions it raises about the meaning of life, especially in the face of the tragic and unexpected death of one character, are profoundly relevant. Actually, I happen to think that it is a show that asks the right questions, even if it doesn’t always provide satisfying answers to them.

So what worries me a little about those Americans laughing about the demise of the US Skins is the lack of evangelistic or cultural sensitivity that it shows. It’s fine to sit back, talking about how you have all the right answers, but when something is asking questions about what the right answers are or how you get to them and you just shoot them down, what you’re effectively saying is that if people want to come to know Christ, they have to do it your way.

I’m not saying that the message is any different at the core, because it’s not, emphatically not, but the way in which people come to know Jesus Christ is unique and also often kind of strange.

See, I know of – or have heard of – people who have met Christ in visions whilst worshipping in mosques, who have encountered Christ while under the influence of drugs, who have been leading large groups of Christian leaders and all the time feeling like a great con-man, only to have individuals come up to them and tell them the exact details of their situation. Some who became Christians in late adulthood, some who became Christians at the age of six and stuck it out ever since, some who made a commitment in youth and then fell away only to come back, set on fire by something they only partially understand.

There are some profoundly strange stories out there, and not just from people that you’d describe as flaky or theologically-liberal, either. In all honesty, they’re the sort of stories that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Skins. Stories of people questioning, people broken, people finding grace or purpose or truth in the midst of chaotic lives.

I’ve been following a year-long Bible reading plan this year, and the past few weeks it’s had me reading about King David. There’s one verse at David’s calling by Samuel that says, “man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7) and it’s one that has always stuck out at me. Never so much as here. Because lately it’s been making me wonder if one of the ways that we can become better evangelists, better communicators and more wise individuals, even, is to ask God for that kind of wisdom – to see beneath the appearance to the heart of things, and to ascertain what is really going on here.

You see, from where I’m sitting, Skins doesn’t look like that much of a dangerous proposition. What do you expect, that teenagers are going to get ideas to have sex and take drugs from a show that talks about how profoundly dissatisfying sex and drugs are? Come on, give them some credit.

I’m a huge fan of Dexter, too, another controversial show (one network went so far as even to label it “amoral”) that depicts a serial killer who is by day a forensic pathologist. He has a series of masks and a carefully constructed false life that includes a wife and family, along with what he calls a ‘dark passenger’ – the hidden darkness inside of him, which nobody sees or knows. Again, it’s a show that asks all those questions that need to be asked – that looks into universal experiences and faces them head-on.

These are the spaces for evangelistic conversations, the places where people are already asking the questions.

In contrast, look at something like The Joy of Teen Sex instead, also a Channel 4 programme, and one which has incurred considerably less flak than Skins has taken because of its frankness to deal with the practical mechanics of sexuality and yet contains an underlying ethos that takes little or no consideration of the ethical, moral or social consequences of teenage sexuality. That’s a whole other proposition, for sure. That’s a show that already knows exactly what it believes.

So here’s a question for you: to all those Christians out there who shout that there is more to sex than just a physical act, why are you still shouting about mechanics of sex on TV rather than looking at the heart of these things? Do you see why there’s a problem here?

Engaging with culture is always going to be a balancing act between engagement and withdrawal, and we’re unlikely to ever reach a stable position – and nor should we. But let’s not become naive or arrogant when it comes to looking at cultural output, standing back at denouncing anyone who hasn’t quite got to where we are yet. Much healthier to look instead at the heart, to investigate the reason why people are looking to these things and what questions underpin them and then go from there.

Because that ought to keep us from becoming one of those guys sitting in the corner, well-fed and lacking nothing, laughing at the poor, hopeless imbeciles on the outside, don’t you think?

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    • Heather Topham
    • January 28th, 2011

    Well said!

    I always think of the verse about being in the world but not of it. Christians always focus on the ‘not of it’, and forget that we are still in the world and are called to live real lives alongside real people (albeit always remembering that we belong to Christ).

    One of the arguments I’ve had time and time again with Christians who work with teenagers is the way that sex should be talked about. No teenager is going to stop having sex just because they are told not to, and a good few will see it as a challenge to start! Nor is it any good either pretending that none of the young people you know would ever do something like that, or denouncing them when it’s clear that they do. Teenagers sleep around for so many different reasons, from deep-seated hurts to simply never having been taught to care. We’re called to love them despite what they do and through what they do, help them to know the God who loves them, and lovingly show them alternatives to the morals their world so often teaches.

    But we can’t really love them unless we’re willing to be real with them.

  1. This is one of the kind of reviews I’m thinking of – from a site that I actually respect, reviewing an MTV episode that sounds word-for-word identical to the UK version, one of the most powerful statements about the emptiness (and loneliness) of teen hedonism and the dangers of losing authority figures in the form of metaphorical parents:

    http://www.youthministry.com/articles/culture/skins-review

    It just seems like a crazily naive way of looking at how one show is reflecting culture and what its perceptions have to say to youth work practitioners…

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