No Popular Culture

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.)

4 thoughts on “No Popular Culture

  1. At the risk of self promotion, I think that I — and many others! — have been trying to engage mass mediated popular culture (which is of course one of the distinctions you’re trying to make), in the context of Christian community. My book does so in some small ways (Engaging technology in theological education), as does Belief in Media. Then I could also point you to the work of many fine theologians, among them Kathryn Tanner and Thomas Beaudoin. Come on, AKMA, just because you’re not reading in that arena doesn’t mean people aren’t engaging it — and I haven’t even mentioned any of the wonderful movies, podcasts or blogs available.

  2. Mary, you’re absolutely correct; I stated my point imprecisely. Where I made it sound as though “no one is doing this,” I should have said that too few people are paying attention to such intensely insghtful explorations as you exemplify (original remarks edited to correct my false claim never to have encountered such critical engagement).

    I was thinking more about sermons and finger-wagging newspaper columns, which (so far as I’ve been able to tell) haven’t caught on to the significance of work that does indeed reflect critically (in the best sense) the negotiations of theologically-rigorous participants with the mass-mediated culture (thank you for this term) that itself usually takes only scant, trivializing account of thoughtful theology and discipleship.

  3. Thanks, AKMA! After all, there are just two kinds of people in the world: those who engage in glib binary alternatives, and those who don’t, and I wouldn’t want to be in the wrong category.


    I’m with you completely in crankiness regarding very artificial “I’m down with the young people” silliness. There’s one writer in the church in particular I know who was ordained when I was about five years old and who writes as if he got paid by the pop culture reference, no matter how strained, resulting in passages like this:

    When it comes to bible study, ‘I Just Can’t Get Enough’ (Depeche Mode). Even though now I’m a writer and ‘Every Day I Write the Book’ (Elvis Costello), I just ‘Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ (Rolling Stones) without quality ‘Time’ (Culture Club) spent with God’s word, even when I’m on ‘Holiday’ (Green Day).

    The above isn’t a quote (I wouldn’t want to embarrass the guy by identifying him directly); but an approximation of his style, though he DOES do parenthetical citation of every phrase he uses that could be taken as an allusion to pop/rock music, a TV show, or a blockbuster film. Reading his stuff feels like playing that improvisational comedy game where you have to carry on a conversation using only song titles for dialogue, and it’s eye-rollingly awful when it sounds so forced. I admit that I’ve gone in that direction for at least one writing project where I was handed a brief that required it, but I far more often excise references to U2 songs in my sermons that crept in naturally enough for me (I’m a pretty rabid fan) than I do put them in deliberately.

    And you’re spot-on about how sloppily the term “pop culture” is often used. I cheered when I read that point in your post.

  4. You know, I have been putting some of my limited brain power to puzzle through this as well. I think that the tightrope is somewhere around what Dylan cops to when she refers to herself as a rabid fan of U2.

    It is one thing to employ every possible popular cliche (Whiskey for my friends…and wine for the congregation!?) in hopes to convince people that the church is “cool” or relevant (They are not the same…but it seems we want them to be…). It is another thing completely to share where one has encountered God. Then it is possible to talk about something popular/ist such as U2 or Kellogs brand cereal…or Johnny Bench. My grandfather loved bringing Johnny Bench into a sermon. Something about a baseball catcher and the Holy Spirit. His point was to share a connection he had made (as a rabid fan of baseball) between baseball and how one might be receptive to the Spirit. The intention was not to seem hip or up on his sports trivia.

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