The church gets lots of advice about what it ought to be like, how it ought to change. Sometimes this advice actually helps clarify a problem, or brings to light a problem where the church hadn’t perceived anything wrong. Much of the time, though, these suggestions come from who have problems of their own to work out, who project them onto the church and tell us how to make the world better by conforming to their expectations.
Somewhere between “helpful” and “neurotic” lies the terrain on which people (very often church people) insist that the church’s leadership should immerse itself more fully in popular culture. On this suggestion, I wish to register a forceful dissent.
I may be kvetching because I’ve become a cantankerous old codger (thereby attaining a lifetime ambition), but I pretend to myself that I have plausible reasons for objecting. For instance, I don’t believe in “popular culture,” at least not as a definable field from which the church is significantly absent. Popular culture manifestly includes both The da Vinci Code and Left Behind, Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart, The Simpsons and 50 Cent and Prairie Home Companion and Keith Urban. I have a hard time believing that the blanket term “popular culture” does much productive work in identifying all these, especially in conjunction with the notion that church people neglect all of them.
When I hear this suggestion, context often suggests two more precise implications for the proposal. The less laudable reduces to the complaint that “the church doesn’t pay enough attention to the kind of popular culture I like.” So a homilist may scold me for not being sufficiently in touch with popular culture because I don’t watch TV or attend many movies — although I listen to rock’n’roll constantly, and spend recreational hours playing online games.
The more responsible version of the complaint entails (though I’ve
never not usually heard this point made explicitly) that the church’s engagement with popular culture rarely escapes a stupefying aye-or-nay binarism. For a while, I heard abundant sermons about The Lion King, none of which raised the theologically- and culturally-critical questions that the movie raised. Instead, as best I recall (and I did try to suppress these memories), they drew facile comparisons between the characters in the movie with characters in the gospels, and noted with facile satisfaction the similarity of the young lion’s spiritual journey to Jesus’ (or ours).
If the church were a more congenial ecology for learning and critical reflection, the “popular culture” topos might bring to the surface more interesting issues: what shall we say about earnest disciples of Jesus who enjoy listening to songs with persistently misogynistic themes, or how we should negotiate the complications of Christian involvement with technology. If you’re just going to bash or endorse an ill-defined glob of under-examined cultural phenomena, though, I’d rather turn my iPod on or go play Warcraft.
(Later: I edited my remarks above to reflect that fact that I have indeed encountered people who work critically at the convergence and divergence of the church with popular culture — I just wasn’t thinking of them as the focal subjects of my crankiness at the time. Mary and Dylan come to mind as people who don’t just trade in glib binary alternatives, and Mary nominates Kathy Tanner and I invoke the Archbishop of Canterbury. As I acknowledge in my comment below, I had in mind a string of tedious sermons and sententious columns, rather than the diligent analysis characteristic of scholars such as Mary. My bad.)