What does the Bible have to say to a culture obsessed with body image, hookup sex, abortion and alternative sexualities? Jen Oshman identifies the empty promises the culture has made to us, especially women, and gives us a way forward that is faithful to the gospel. Join Scott and Sean for this interview, in which Jen also suggests that even marriage and motherhood can become idols making empty promises.

Jen Oshman is a former missionary to Japan and the Czech Republic and now is a staff writer for Gospel Centered Discipleship.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: What are some of the biggest cultural counterfeits today? What are some of the top empty promises of our age that Christians need to understand, identify and avoid? These are some of the questions we are going to explore today with our guest, Jen Oshman, author of Cultural Counterfeits. I'm Sean McDowell.

Scott Rae: I'm Scott Rae.

Sean McDowell: And this is Think Biblically from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. Jen, we want to jump right into your excellent book and I'm curious, the title, why you call it Cultural Counterfeits and why you bother to call out certain counterfeits? Aren't you afraid that you might offend some people?

Jen Oshman: Wow. Well, yes. That's a great first question and I asked myself that question very many times as I was writing the book, "Why bother doing this?" Because it was a taxing project, stressful project, for sure. But having been in women's ministry now for over 20 years, as well as being the mother of four daughters and just really invested in women's ministry in the lives of women. I have seen so much harm and shrapnel at the hands of cultural counterfeits, or you might call them idols. You might call them empty promises of our age. They're the things that our culture says, "You've got to have this. Do this to enjoy life." But really they deliver death. Or, "Pursue this for freedom." But really it delivers enslavement. And so as I saw the damage and the harm and the wounds that these cultural counterfeits were causing, it just compelled me to go ahead and put pen to paper and seek to draw back the veil on them and expose them for what they really are. Because the truth is, Jesus is the word of life. He has the words of life. We have a good God who designed us and he designed us in a good way-

Sean McDowell: Amen.

Jen Oshman: ... and we will not be well, it will not go well with us to ignore that or to refuse it. And so I just want to encourage women that we were made for so much more and here it is.

Scott Rae: So Jen, which cultural counterfeits are you calling out? And then, how did you pick the ones to address?

Jen Oshman: Yeah, the book could have been so much longer. There's just five cultural counterfeits that I chose. And again, having been in women's ministry and in the lives of my daughters now for over two decades, these were just the five that I saw causing the most harm or the five that were the most pernicious or sneaky. They look so good, but what I have seen over and over is that when women give themselves over to these idols, it causes just incredible harm. And so there are five. The first one is our bodies, meaning our outward beauty and ability. The second is cheap sex. The third is the idol or counterfeit of abortion. And the fourth is the spectrum of LGBTQIA identities. And then the fifth idol that I talk about is sort of the hidden one in the church and it's that of purity or marriage or motherhood. They all have to do with women and girls and things that we strive for, or think that we have to have so that our lives can have meaning or freedom or be ultimately just relevant. It's the things that we look to, to give us value and significance.

Sean McDowell: But you're not just writing to women and girls, because I read this. I'm like, "Oh, this applies to my wife, to my daughter, to my sister, to my friends." I didn't feel excluded reading this. It felt bigger even though it focused on girls and women, is that accurate?

Jen Oshman: Yeah, definitely. I'm so glad you felt that way. And actually a number of men, especially men in ministry or leadership positions have read the book and told me the same thing. And I'm so glad to hear that it resonates because I know that cultural counterfeits applies to everybody. I happen to just be passionate about women's ministry because of the calling that God has had on my life. So I wrote with that audience in mind, but I do think it's so beneficial for any member of society who cares about women and girls or cultural counterfeits. It's a helpful read, I think.

Scott Rae: Jen, before we get into some of the specifics on this, let's stay at the 35,000 foot level for just a second. You describe two competing stories that underlie all of these counter cultural counterfeits. What are these two competing stories and how does the disconnect between them affect us?

Jen Oshman: Yeah. This is something that I first started thinking about after listening to a podcast by author and pastor Mark Sayers out of Australia. He talks about these two stories and it really resonated with me and I think describes so well our cultural landscape and that first story is the one that we hear. It's so loud and it's so prominent. It's in our music, it's in social media, it's in movies and it's also in our flesh, but really this story says, "You are the center of the universe and you can be awesome. You just have to make it happen. Choose your identity. Choose who you want to be. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, work really hard to make it happen and you can be fulfilled and amazing." And so we do that by whether it's shopping for different shoes or careers or even gender or identities or sexual orientations or sexual partners. We try all these different things on, believing that we can make ourselves amazing. But then there's that second story that's also in our heads and it's very quiet. And it's the one that I think we don't normally hear until the first story disappoints. It's that voice that's late at night, maybe when you can't sleep or when one of those identities that you tried on has delivered death or has delivered disappointment and this voice whispers to you. "You were made for so much more. There is more meaning to your life than you are seeking." And so what I say in the book and what I have to actually remind myself is that when I give into that first story, because I do, when I experience burnout or disillusionment or disappointment at the hands of that first story, that's a gift of God. That's a gift of grace where he's reminding me, "You were made by me and for me and you will find rest and fulfillment and peace and satisfaction and joy in me alone." So when we surrender to that second story, is when the Lord brings resurrection life and that's where we find just true peace and abiding in Jesus.

Sean McDowell: And that's what you mean by living inside reality and that we suffer when we live outside of reality, correct?

Jen Oshman: Yeah, exactly. So there's a phrase I use over and over in the book and it's this, "Human wellbeing requires harmony with reality."

Sean McDowell: Mm-hmm.

Jen Oshman: So we just will not be well if we refuse to live in alignment with reality. And what's real and true, whether or not we're willing to admit it, is that we have a good God who not only created us, but died to save us. And he is our author and he has authority. He's our designer and we have a design. And so when we live in harmony with that, that's when we thrive. That's when it goes well for us. But when we refuse that or reject that, it does not go well for us.

Scott Rae: And let's talk about your first cultural counterfeit, which is the myth of beauty and through the myth of the body. But the Bible's pretty clear that the body matters and that beauty actually comes from God. It's a gift. So how do you balance those things? There's a goodness to taking care of the body. We're called to take care of the body as a temple of God's spirit, but without being wrapped up in the kind of obsession with the body image that the culture preaches today. How do you balance those two things?

Jen Oshman: Mm-hmm. I am so glad that you started off this question by reminding us that the scriptures tell us that the body is good. I think even now in the 21st century in the church, sometimes we can slip into an ancient mysticism and believe that the body is somehow bad or less than. But the body is so good, so I really appreciate you starting us off with that. But idols are the things that are good gifts that we turn into ultimate gifts. So all of these cultural counterfeits are things that are blessings and gifts from God, but we misconstrue them. We put all of our hope in them or all of our trust in them. Or we say, "I have to have this specific idol in this specific way." And we place tremendous pressure on that thing and it cannot deliver. And so it is with our bodies. We do that now with our appearance as well as our abilities. And I feel like the struggle is not believing the lie that I matter only in so far as I am beautiful or only in so far as I am able. And social media is playing a significant role with this. As we scroll daily, as we have our smartphones in our hands and we are prone to believe that we are only as good as we look or we are only as good as we are productive.

Sean McDowell: You use the term that social media is discipling us. I'd love to hear you unpack that a little bit. Why you chose that term and what you mean by it?

Jen Oshman: Yeah, well, I felt like I knew this to be true as a woman in 2022 and with four daughters. My social media is such a big part of all of our lives, but as I started to dive into the data a little bit more, what I found is that more than 70% of American adults are using social media every day and teens are using entertainment online nine hours a day.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Jen Oshman: And tweens are consuming it for six hours a day. And this is not like education media. This is entertainment. This is social media. So we are spending our entire days online. That is having a cumulative effect on our minds and our hearts and our souls. As we mindlessly scroll and subconsciously consume other people's reels, their highlights that are edited and filtered, we are inevitably shaped by them. They're teaching our souls and they're teaching us to think a certain way about ourselves. So the impact is not neutral and the data shows that. We see a ton of data about sleeplessness, depression, loneliness, isolation, anxiety, all of those things are going through the roof, the more social media we consume.

Scott Rae: Jen, your second cultural counterfeit has to do with sex and sexuality. Cheap sex as you describe it. Where are we today in terms of the hookup culture? Because I read more and more studies that say that high school and college students are having less sex today than before. Is that true? Where are we in terms of just the hookup culture and this idol of cheap sex?

Jen Oshman: Yeah, I do think that is so fascinating because there's definitely this perception, I think, that hookup culture, everybody's hooking up, everybody's having more sex. But you're right. There is this great sex recession that is happening right now. And teens and young adults are hooking up less. I mean, that is a multi-layered issue, but it has to do with pornography usage, social media, just the isolation that I spoke to in your last question. But really all of it, we think, "Oh good. People are having less sex. That's good." And while it's good that we are having less illicit sex, the root problem remains the same and it's that we don't need to think more about sex. We need to think more of sex. And the farther away our culture takes sex from the way God created it and intended it, the more harm we experience. Whether we're having less sex or more sex or hooking up more or hooking up less, the reality is again, human wellbeing requires harmony with reality. And so if what's true is that God created sex to reflect Jesus' relationship with a church, which I know is so mysterious and it's such a hard thing to even say out loud, because it's so hard for us to wrap our finite minds around that. But if he meant for sex to be an image of his relationship with the church, he will never leave us. He will never forsake us. He died to make us his own. Then we have really cheapened sex and we've really taken it so far away from its intended purpose. And then when we consume it, when we're consuming takers, rather than covenant makers, as God intended, we end up hurting ourselves as well as one another. So cheap sex, really, even if we are in a sex recession, it remains harmful to us if we are not viewing it in light of what's true and real in God's good design.

Sean McDowell: By the way, Jen, one of the things I love about your book is that there's the short phrases that are just memorable, but packed with meaning like the one you just said, "We do not need to think more about sex. We need to think more of sex." And I've been thinking about that since you wrote it in your book, that the solution is not quantity, but to value sex the way God values sex, would change the way we interact with each other. So there's lots of lines like that that jumped out to me and been making me think. Now, one of the points you talk about also is double victimization that women and girls face. What is that double victimization and what are maybe some ways that girls and young women can best resist it?

Jen Oshman: Yeah. This is something, as you can imagine, raising daughters that I feel especially passionate about, and I do talk about this double victimization. So the first of the two victimizations is this cultural conditioning. It's this sexualization of young girls. It's the cultural air that we breathe that tells even young girls, toddlers, four year olds, five year olds, elementary school age girls that their worth is bound up in how sexual or how sexy they are. So it's this conditioning that women and girls face where they feel like, "My worth is bound up in my sexuality or how sexy I am." And so once a girl believes that her highest good is to be sexy or to have sex, then she is all too willing to hand herself over to that behavior. Whether she pursues it herself or she gives into it, then she believes that's where her worth is found. So that's the first victimization that happens to her mind and her heart. But then the second one happens to her body. And I say that the second victimization can be unmistakable in the case of an assault or rape. But oftentimes that second victimization is ambiguous because it leaves the girl wondering like, "What just happened? I just engaged in sex with my boyfriend or I just hooked up with somebody or I gave over to a predator, but I wasn't quite sure if he was a predator." She's not sure what just happened, but she knows deep down that she didn't like it. And so part of my passion is helping women and girls and of course, men as well, to resist this counterfeit. To not be training ourselves and our girls that their worth is bound up in their sexuality and to just be drawing us back again and again to the imago Dei and to the worth that we each have as human being because we are created by God and in his image.

Scott Rae: Now Jen, some of the promises that you describe, I think are somewhat predictable, especially if you have daughters that you were raising, but one of them I wasn't expecting. And that was the empty promise that comes, not from outside the community of God's people, but from within the church. What is that one and how do you deal with that? I didn't see that one coming.

Jen Oshman: Yes. I understand that. And you're not the only one. And admittedly, yeah, this one does stick out a bit. The first four counterfeits are easy for those of us in the church to identify. It's very easy for us to look out there to those who are outside the church and say, "Well, of course you've been burned by cheap sex or abortion or body image or LGBTQ stuff. Like of course those things are empty promises." But what I have noticed, and I think just more and more, the longer I'm in women's ministry and in leadership roles where my life intersects with various kinds of diverse women throughout the church, the more I'm becoming aware that inside the church, we have elevated, especially marriage and motherhood to this status as well of an idol or of a cultural counterfeit. And it's this idea that you are not a fully mature Christian woman until you're married. Or you're not a fully mature Christian woman until you're a mom. I mean, how many times have I heard in the church, and it's a lot, "A woman's highest calling is motherhood." And so I think the church has rightly pushed against the sexual revolution. It was good and right for the church to say, "No. Bodies matter, marriages matter, children matter. We want to be protecting these good gifts." But I think what happened inadvertently or subconsciously is maybe as we pushed against the sexual revolution, then we accidentally made these good gifts then into ultimate gifts and said, "Our identity is not really complete. We don't have total value until we've reached or achieved these statuses." And I think a lot of that came out of the Purity Movement, which the heart behind that was wonderful. Purity obviously is God's heart and God's good design. But if we turn it into a behavior that you and I have to master, or we are worth less if we don't, then it does become an idol, as do marriage and motherhood. So I just want to sound the warning inside the church and say, "Hey, we are not immune from this. We too inside the church can put things on pedestals that shouldn't be there. Let's remember that we have died. And we are hidden in Christ. That our identity is in him, not in what we attain or achieve in terms of relationship or status or labels or benchmarks as women inside the church." I hope that makes sense. I know it is challenging.

Scott Rae: No, it does. It makes a lot of sense. And I've had some personal experience with this too, because I was a singles pastor for a while before coming into academia. And I finally had to tell some of the folks in our church, "Stop setting people up. It's insulting. And stop assuming that you're incomplete as long as you're single."

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Scott Rae: That was a message that we had to overcome. And then my wife and I dealt with infertility for a while, and I remember my wife, she described it as a cult of motherhood that existed in where we were going to church at the time. And she was looked at differently once she was pregnant. And so we really saw that come out and I've often wondered, if motherhood is the highest calling for a woman, why wouldn't fatherhood be advertised as the highest calling for a man? But it seems to me, we rarely talk about that. Why do you think that is?

Jen Oshman: Oh boy, that is a really multi-layered question. But I think you're right. I mean, I have a single friend on the mission field who's in her thirties and is just serving the Lord in such dynamic and amazing ways. And she feels like this particular idol makes motherhood one dimensional. I'm sorry, makes womanhood one dimensional. It turns being a woman into one dimension, that of being married and a mother. And so I think to answer your question would take a long time, but I think we can go back to the sexual revolution and we can go back to our cultural tendency that sort of exploits and commodifies the body and reduces us to our bodies rather than to the embodied souls that we really are. God made us dynamic diverse people with bodies and souls and minds and hearts. And so if we just reduce all of that down to one dimension, we miss so much of his good design. I think that has happened both to men and women. But since the sexual revolution, we've really looked at female bodies as these instruments to be used for sexual gain or to use ourselves for gain. And so I think that probably has part of it. I think it's probably a complex issue, but you're absolutely right. We don't tend to say that about fathers and I write about in the book. The way the family has disintegrated and how so many women and girls are living without husbands, dads and fathers and how harmful that really is too. We do both a disservice, to be honest.

Sean McDowell: Jen, one of the empty prompts of our age that you have, as you say, abortion has not delivered. I'm going to ask you a question the way it was just asked to me last week and see how you'll respond. And I'm going to tie it into how you discuss how abortion has a racist past. Last week someone said, "Sean, how is it fair and just that minority women tend to have less access to abortion and thus are more likely to have their lives changed forever by an unwanted pregnancy than non-minority women?" In other words, the lack of access to abortion is putting minority women at a disadvantage. Given that you think abortion itself is an empty promise, I'm curious how you might respond to a question framed that way?

Jen Oshman: I think this is such an important discussion right now, but your listeners might know and I'm sure that you know obviously, that Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood starting in the early 1900s and that her motives were racist. It came out of the eugenics movement whose motto was, "More from the fit and less from the unfit." So the promotion of birth control and abortion was to limit the segment of society that abortion providers through Margaret Sanger saw as unfit. And I don't believe that the majority of abortion providers now see themselves as racist. I don't think they're consciously racist. But we have to be honest about how the truth is, abortion harms women of color far more than majority culture women. So here's just a couple statistics to back that up. Abortion is responsible for 61% of black American deaths and 64% of Hispanic and Latino deaths. Black Americans make up only 13% of the U.S. population, but black women account for 36% of all abortions. So that's a gross discrepancy. These are huge imbalances that should give every American pause. Why are minority cultures represented far more in the abortion industry? So the question that that person posed to you was actually based on a faulty perception of what's really going on. Abortion providers are located far more in communities of color, marginalized communities than they are in the majority culture. So here's what I think is true. Abortion providers... This is a caveat that I think is necessary and maybe difficult to articulate, but those who are providing abortions believe they are doing so out of compassion, right?

Sean McDowell: Sure.

Jen Oshman: They believe they are providing care. And I think as Christians and pro-lifers, we have to acknowledge that. We have to say like, "Okay, they're doing it from a heart that wants to help." But we know from the data that women are harmed way more than they are helped by abortion. So women who have abortions, there's a 110% increase in alcohol abuse after an abortion. There's a 155% increase in the risk of suicide after an abortion. So we see that women are harmed by abortion and most women wouldn't have had one if they hadn't been so heavily encouraged to do so. In fact, 80% of post-abortive women say they wouldn't have had one if they hadn't been so encouraged to have it. So while abortion providers think that they are providing compassionate care, what marginalized women, what vulnerable women need is support and protection. They need wraparound services to help them get on their feet, to help them flee an abusive situation, to help them get out of poverty. They don't need abortion. They need services, support and care. So it's a very just misguided... The whole thing is so misguided and I would love to see the church especially, continue in our pursuit of wraparound services and care so that women can be strengthened and empowered and equipped to have the babies that they're carrying, rather than feeling like they're painted into a corner and they have no other option.

Scott Rae: So Jen, is this the primal wound that you described that abortion does to women? Is that what you mean by that?

Jen Oshman: Yes. Well, we can see that the female body is meant to bring forth life, right? It's obvious by our bodies, we have a womb, we have mammary glands. We are born carrying eggs. We are meant to produce life and to nurture life and to nourish children. Now, again, going back to a question a couple questions ago, that's not the sum total of the female purpose, but it's undeniable that we are life givers by design. So abortion then inflicts a primal wound because when we choose to do away with a child inside us, then it does violence to our composition as women. It goes against reality. It goes against our very nature. Abortion demands that... It takes a life, but we are meant to give life, if that makes sense. And so this wound is really deep.

Sean McDowell: It does make sense. It's interesting, your book, like I said earlier, is written to men and women, young men and young women. But of course, it's talking about the cultural counterfeits that tend to affect women in particular. When it got to the end, one of the things you say is that it's good to be a girl and when I read that it hit me, I thought if I was reading a book similarly written, but focused on boys, I don't know that it would say it's good to be a boy. I don't know that it would need to be said in the same fashion. So tell us why it is good to be a girl and why this needs to be emphasized today?

Jen Oshman: Sure. Well, when I finished this manuscript over a year ago, maybe 15 months ago or so. And I've got to tell you, even then, I did not understand or fathom how important this chapter would be just a year later. You think of so many of the cultural conversations that we've been having lately, what does it mean to be a girl? What is a woman? How do we define femaleness? This is the conversation of our moment. And I think for so many reasons that I discuss in the book and that we've brought up, even in this conversation, there are... Girls are conditioned, either consciously or subconsciously to believe that it's somehow less than, to be a girl. Now that is of course a generalization, but it's true. We see that girls believe somehow our gender is less than, and now we're seeing rapid onset gender dysphoria, which I talk about in the book as well. We're seeing just incredible record numbers of girls seeking gender therapy, to transition to being boys. They think that somehow their gender is a mistake. That they were made wrongly. That they'd be better off being male. But again, we have a good God and he's a good designer with a good design. And I want to remind women and I want to remind girls that God created us with intention. Eve was not an afterthought. God knew that his image was not complete in Adam alone. And so he created Eve. God knew he would be making Eve to complete his image in human beings. So we see Genesis one and two there's beautiful stories. We see the powerful language surrounding the creation of Eve. We see her purpose. We see just the amazing diversity of women in scripture and how God has used women in history. And I think it's so exciting. And so often the conversation is in a negative. Like, what can't girls do? What can't women do, or how should we limit them or what should they be prevented from doing? And I just wanted to write a celebratory chapter and going all the way back to Genesis and all throughout scripture and throughout history, just delight in how God made women and made girls and celebrate and rejoice in the goodness of being a girl. And I think we should say the same about boys. It's good to be a boy too, because our God is good. And he made two really good genders.

Sean McDowell: Man.

Jen Oshman: And let's maybe spend more time celebrating his good creation rather than wanting to refuse it or reject it or create ourselves in our own image. His image is so good.

Sean McDowell: That's such a good word that just comes through your book, that you're not just railing against these lives. You're saying there's actually a good replacement found in God's design for us. So rather than seeing women, as so often happens in our culture, in a default position compared to men in terms of their lives and their bodies, et cetera. The question is what has God uniquely made women and girls for? And it's when we understand that and align with reality that they can be free. Such a good book. Again, Cultural Counterfeits. Our guest today, Jen Oshman, and the subtitles confronting five empty promises of our age and how we were made for so much more. Scott and I want to commend this book to our listeners and thank you, Jen, for joining us.

Jen Oshman: Thank you so much. This has been great.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. To Think Biblically podcast has been brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our masters in Christian apologetics where I teach. Now offered fully online, visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please consider giving us a rating on your podcast app. It'll just take moments and consider sharing this with a friend. Thank you for listening. And remember, think biblically about everything.