You Might Be Pavlov’s Dog

Several years ago B.C. (Before Children), my wife and I were out with some friends and their kids. As we headed to our cars, we could hear loud music emanating from a car speeding by. I can’t remember what song or style the music was, but I do recall a pretty heavy drum beat. I didn’t think much of it and as I turned to look at our friends’ kids, I noticed that they were covering their ears. They looked at their parents and asked, “Why does that music have drums, and why is it so loud?” to which the mom replied, “Son, they don’t have Jesus in their heart. We need to pray for them”. Have you ever seen something so bizarre that you have a gazillion things running through your head in response, but you’re so stupefied that you succumb to temporary paralysis? Off hand and including this one, I can think of two. The other was while we were outside of a movie theater in Alaska in -40 degree weather and seeing a guy in a kilt standing proudly.

Please understand that this isn’t an indictment on the parenting skills or character of our friends. We love them dearly and appreciate their friendship. This underscores a deeper problem that I think plagues many of us within evangelical circles. So often we (I being the chief culprit) incorrectly identify sin and attack or avoid something that “appears” to be the problem, when it isn’t. In other words, it’s very easy to put the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syll-A-ble thereby creating a culture of behavior modification without genuine transformational heart change.

This problem manifests itself as we evaluate our relationship (or lack thereof) with various cultural expressions (i.e. music styles/genres, clothing, vernacular etc). We seem to ascribe the label of “sinful” to several of these expressions. We then avoid them as “sin” or potential “on-ramps” to the sin highway while urging others to do the same. We say things like “Christians need to avoid all cultural expressions that the ‘world’ engages in, to stay separate”. We think that because the expressions exist within groups of people blatantly engaging in sin, that the two must be connected with one causing the other. This is the logical fallacy known as “cum hoc ergo propter hoc” (meaning with this, therefore because of this). Essentially it means that correlation must equal causation.

This means that if a group of drugged hippies are listening to rock music, then rock music (as a genre, not based on lyrical content) should be avoided. If a group of inner-city youths are selling drugs or robbing people and they listen to rap music, rap music should be avoided. If you’ve suffered intense racism from a white supremacy group whose car radio is playing a song that happens to have the thick twang of country music, then you think that country music (and those who listen to it) should be avoided.


Many of us have heard of and/or learned about the scientific experiments involving Pavlov’s Dog. In a nutshell, dogs drool when they encounter food. Nobel prize-winning scientist Ivan Pavlov noticed that his lab dogs would often begin drooling without any food in sight. Interestingly, he learned that the dogs were reacting to the lab coats. Whenever they were served food, it was at the hands of people wearing lab coats. Consequently, the dogs reacted as if a meal was forthcoming when they saw a lab coat.

Over a series of experiments, Pavlov sought to discover the connection between a stimulus (food) and a response (drooling). He did this by ringing a bell (among several other sounds) in close association with the dogs’ meal. The dogs gradually began to associate the sound of the bell with food. After a while, they would drool at the mere sound of the bell with or without food present. These experiments proved that animals can be conditioned to respond to stimuli that ordinarily wouldn’t have the same effect.

Many Christians take a Pavlovian approach to sin in many cases in relation to culture. Let’s take the example of my friends’ kids. They knew that there were people who engage in all forms of sin while listening to music with loud and fast drum beats. For my friends, the “bell” was the music style and they began to “drool” on cue. They had no clue about the message or the lyrics of the song. To their credit, they rightly wanted to avoid sin. Scripture is very clear that we are to hate sin (Hebrews 1:9; Psalm 97:10; Psalm 101:3; Psalm 119:104). Romans 12:9 says this, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to that which is good”. All of these verses are clear that we are to hate SIN but this doesn’t include hating the surrounding periphery. In doing so, we actually overlook the real sin issues. Many people in churches like this learn to modify their behavior in such a way as to not trigger the “drooling” reflex from their fellow church members. They look “holy” enough, and talk “holy” enough, and their friends approve, while the heart is still struggling with sin.

Remember 3 things as you try to achieve a balance when trying to separate sin from the culture:

1. Ensure that you have a proper understanding and application of the Gospel, who Christ is, and God’s mission.

Many of us understand the Gospel and who Christ is, but we don’t understand the relationship between those two and God’s mission. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve brought sin into the world. This sin didn’t just affect their relationship with God (man-to-God). It created broken relationship between each other (man-to-man), and broken relationship between themselves and creation (man-to-earth). Our sin nature separates us from God, each other, and all creation. We were born with a verdict of “guilty”, deserving the death penalty as a result.

Jesus came to take our punishment thus rendering us “innocent” when we face judgment, but God’s mission was more than just our redemption. God is on mission to redeem ALL of creation. Colossians 1:19-20 says this about Christ, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross”. Do you see it? Christ’s redemptive work on the cross was about reconciling everything that God created- INCLUDING THE CULTURE! God is on mission to redeem all peoples and cultures so that they will bring him maximum glory.

This means that He’s on mission to redeem cultural art forms as well. These could be rock, acid jazz, tap dancing, quilting, hip-hop, country (a stretch), ballet, or rap. Genesis tells us that man was made in the image of God. Creative expression is certainly one of the attributes of God. The first two chapters of Genesis testify to this. Cultural expression shows the creativity of man given to him by the most creative being ever!

2. Separate Sin from Subterfuge

Ascertaining real sin becomes evasive when it’s entrenched in cultural art forms, or things that are not intrinsically sinful and in many cases are good. Again, look at the example I began with. The music coming from the car driving by was judged as sinful based on the heavy rock-drum style. Is a music style in of itself bad? Some may argue that it is, but I think they struggle to do so biblically. Colossians 1:20 makes it clear that not just “some” things are being reconciled, but ALL things. Now if the lyrics are glorifying sin then we have a legitimate problem. We are to hate sin, not revel in it. Getting angry with styles of music is akin to drooling when seeing the lab coats or hearing the bell ring. Learn the biblical difference between biblically centered “convictions” and culturally conditioned “preferences”. We too often mix up the two.

3. Engage the Culture

We were saved and empowered to be on mission with God. We are sent as ambassadors to glorify him with our lives and share the truth of the Gospel with everyone within the context wherein God has placed us. It’s vitally important that we understand the context/culture to effectively be on mission. This is what Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are with­out law, as with­out law, though not being with­out the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are with­out law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.”

Paul made it a priority to learn and engage the cultural context where God placed him. He was able to separate things that are sin, from things that were cultural preferences and thereby never compromising. This is a picture of what it means to be missional – being on mission with God.

I recently had the opportunity of doing spoken word at my church. Now culturally, my church wouldn’t be considered “hip-hop” by any stretch. It was definitely the first time a cultural expression like this had been displayed. The words were written by a Christian hip-hop artist named Shai Linne. Linne, is training for pastoral ministry and is being used mightily by God in sharing the Gospel with many people who live within a hip-hop context (for some reason the Gaithers haven’t caught on in Detroit!). After I completed the oration, there were many words of encouragement from people and I was excited that people were blessed by the powerful words. Many people loved the variety and embraced the art form. Some people came up to me and said, “That was really good and it almost sounded like rap!” It was almost as if they couldn’t fathom that full blown rap could ever glorify God the way a “milder” spoken word could.

I’m certainly a long way from “arriving” in this respect. It wasn’t until recently that I began to see how powerfully the Gospel is penetrating into metal and punk cultures. There are people proclaiming Christ, living imperfectly but seeking holiness and hating sin within this culture. God is on mission to redeem it. I grew up thinking that these folks were Satan worshipers! It was obvious right? As a kid, I remember seeing videos of people on MTV doing metal and the little that I had heard that some of them worship the Devil. So whenever I heard that style of music, without regard to lyrical content, I heard the “bell” ring and started “drooling”. Lord help us to not be Pavlovian Christians – Amen.


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