Every summer from 1984 to 2004, the Calvin College Alumni Association hosted a one-week program called Summerfest (later renamed Midsummer at Calvin). This family program included lectures by Calvin professors for the parents and various activities for kids of all ages. During the week families would stay in the residence halls, eat together in the dining hall, swim in the pool, watch movies in the Fine Arts Center and sometimes take trips to Lake Michigan. This was my family’s vacation for a number of summers when I was in elementary and middle school. One year I attended baseball camp with Coach Pettinga (later as a Calvin student I would have him for swimming), another was learning acting techniques from Calvin’s Improv team (with River City Improv alumna Mary Jane Pories), but my most memorable summer experience was the summer before I started high school.

In the summer of 1996, I showed up to Summerfest less excited than past years. I had done this before, and like most teenagers I was learning I should project an air of boredom: If your parents think something is good, it must mean that it’s not cool for a teenager, right? I didn’t find out until I arrived that the teenagers were going to be meeting every morning to discuss popular culture.

I hadn’t been exposed to much “pop culture.” I wasn’t even sure what this meant. My family was somewhat unique in that we didn’t have a TV in our house, rarely saw any movies other than Disney “family” friendly fare and listened to my dad’s favorite classical records. My perception was that if a majority of the population liked something, it was probably bad for a Christian to like it. I can still remember my dad saying, “Why would you call your band ‘Smashing Pumpkins?’” And although my parents grew up in the heyday of the worldly amusement bans (card playing and riding your bike on Sunday were just downright sinful), I wasn’t raised under this strict legalism, but I didn’t get the sense that every area of life was equal either. I was stuck between the subtle dualism of the sacred and the secular and the openness of asking honest questions about the reality of living in a good, yet sinful world.

Engaging culture

Back to my first day of that week at Summerfest: 9 a.m. Monday, I enter a classroom in the Fine Arts Center to the tune of “Let the Day Begin” by a band named The Call. Junior student Nate Swanson ’98 then introduced himself as the leader and guide for the week. We proceeded to listen to music, read through lyrics, and watch films and discuss the meaning that can be gleaned from the popular culture that is all around us and almost unavoidable. I vividly recollect listening to music of the Vigilantes of Love, U2, K’s Choice and James, as well as going to the theater one evening to see The Truman Show and finishing the week viewing and discussing The Breakfast Club (good preparation if any of us ended up in high school detention).

I didn’t walk away from that week with a fully formed idea of how to engage popular culture or even a decent ability to discern the good and the bad in culture, but I did gain the imagination needed to understand that something new was possible. Might it be possible to love and engage culture and remain a faithful Christian? The question was a bit overwhelming, but it was there, and it refused to go away.

I left that summer with a new sense of purpose. I could do this; I could give it a try. And so I did, with a few false starts—Pearl Jam was a little over my head at the time—and plenty of stumbling. Can anything good be said about Pulp Fiction? (Yes, but that will have to wait for another time.) But the depth of U2’s “Wake Up Dead Man” and Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal kept me pressing on.

After graduating from high school, I came to Calvin to continue my formal education but also began to seriously pursue my love and learning of popular culture. I joined the Student Activities Board, which works with Ken Heffner, director of student activities, suggesting films to show and producing concerts by popular musicians. I attended pretty much every film shown by the Film Arts Committee. As I dug deeper I found there was more to this idea of discernment than I had first assumed.

My roommates and friends noticed that the insights and questions I had about popular culture were not obvious. That it took a bit of work to be able to ask the sort of questions that get at the ever-present distinction between the good and the bad of a cultural product.

Discerning culture

So, in my sophomore year, I became a Cultural Discerner (CD for short), a voluntary leadership position in the residence halls. Heffner started the Cultural Discernment program in the fall of 1995. The idea was to have students aid and guide their classmates in the residence halls through the development of the skill of discernment. The CD’s role is to take the lead on helping classmates and dorm dwellers engage and ask questions about popular culture. Through programming, the CDs are an embodied example of what discernment might look like. The purpose is to use one’s gifts for the benefit of the larger community. It isn’t glamorous, but every year there are always a group of students who passionately take up this task.

One day upon returning to my dorm, I stopped by my mailbox to grab a few things—mostly junk mail. I would have probably just thrown it all out if I hadn’t noticed the name on the address label: Nathan Swanson. Coincidence? Most definitely, but it reminded me that as a Cultural Discerner I was in a tradition that has taken shape at Calvin over 16 years.

This fall the 17th class of CDs is passionate and active in their residence halls, leading music-listening sessions and viewing and discussing films. This fall also marks my own story coming full circle. As the new research and program coordinator, I now work with Heffner mentoring the Cultural Discerners, working with the Student Activities Board and promoting the education mission of the Student Activities Office.

Love God? Love the world?

My time at Calvin was formative in my wrestling with this big question: Is it possible to love God and love the world at the same time? Steve Garber, who was a visiting scholar at Calvin at the time, helped me understand that the Reformed worldview was one of the few ways to reconcile this tension, which is found in all religions and worldviews. The Reformed view that “all things” were created good, “all things” have been affected by sin and “all things” are being renewed gives us a reason to develop the skill of discernment.

Discernment means trying to avoid the trap suggesting or claiming that some things are completely redeemed or that they are completely irredeemable. It is a complicated dance. The work of discernment never ends as we gain new insight into all areas of life in God’s creation. It is work filled with great hope and joy, but also one of sorrow as the reality of sin breaks hearts. U2 says it well in their song “When I Look at the World.” In a song that reads as a prayer to God, Bono sings: “So, I try to be like you/Try to feel it like you do/But without you, it’s no use/I can’t see what you see/When I look at the world.”

The work of discernment is taking the long view. We try to gain a cosmic view of life: to see and feel like God does about this beautiful and good creation that is broken and marred. By trying to understand the distortions that exist we not only reaffirm our hope in a renewed creation, but also we are better able to act and co-create a culture that more adequately reflects the kingdom of God: not escaping to some heaven in an afterlife, but to experience “God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

So, while discernment has become a jargon word at Calvin, through the programs of student activities and as a key idea in introducing first-year students to the mission of the college, it remains the best way to communicate a theological framework for our engagement with the world. Rather than become useless, the task of discernment is as needed as ever. Culture, and popular culture in particular, is always developing and changing, requiring an attentiveness and curious spirit, and ultimately a discerning mind.

Everyone has their own story of discernment, how they came to think about and engage culture and how complex it can be to find the good and the bad that has influenced “all things.” What is yours? Are you still actively discerning?

Greg Veltman is research and program coordinator for the Student Activities Office at Calvin.

Ken Heffner explains the work of the Student Activities Office.

Further reading on discernment

"What does it mean to be reformed?" (PDF) - Prof. Kurt C. Schaefer

"Beyond Starstruck: Calvin concerts take you there" in VERGE

Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God (Brazos Press, 2011) by Christian Scharen

Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons (Brazos Press, 2002) by David Dark

Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (Brazos Press, 2001) by William Romanowski

The Day Metallica Came to Church: Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything (Faith Alive Resources, 2010) by John Van Sloten