My sermons are often peppered with some element of popular culture. I speak of music and movies, social trends, and what I have seen in magazines. Often I speak about reality television. The congregation has grown accustomed to this. They often snicker when I mention what television show I have been watching. After a sermon a few weeks ago, a parishioner quipped, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” This comment was jovial in nature. It was not meant as a jeer or insult in any way. However, it donned on me that perhaps it would be prudent to write about why I take so much time to understand pop culture. Below are three reasons why I think it is important for the church to be able to think theologically about popular culture.
1. Pop culture is the world we live in. We can’t escape popular culture. It is implicit in movies, fashion, literature, art, architecture, and music. It is the scope by which the world is viewed, accepted and understood. It both reflects the culture around us, and creates it all at the same time. The fact is, popular culture is not random and meaningless, despite it looking that way sometime. Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor state in their book A Matrix of Meaning that popular culture ‘both reflects who we are as people and also helps shape us as people.’ We could say that popular culture shows the ‘ologies’ and ‘isms’ that defines the world. Theologically speaking, the spiritual struggles, reflections, and insights of the culture are mediated through popular culture. Popular music, movies, television, and art display the theology of the culture. For example, when crosses and Buddhist prayer beads become a mainstream fashion staple, the culture is saying something specific about the link between faith, commodification, and self-identity. When Tyler Durden, in the movie ‘Fight Club,’ laments “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?”, it is a deeply theological statement about a cultural experience a familial and spiritual exile. As the church, we must take seriously the questions, concerns and struggles that are voiced through the world of popular culture. To be unaware of the basic cries, values, and frustrations of our world and culture is to be unaware of the manner in which the gospel is able to breathe in life, healing and fulfillment.
2. Jesus lived in popular culture. Jesus lived his ministry in the midst of the popular culture of his day. He did not remain removed or separated from that which was common and known to the everyday person. His disciples were not the elites of the day. The places he visited were not the centers of thought and culture. He quoted stories and events that were common of the day. For example, In Matthew 11:17, when Jesus compares the generation to ‘children crying in the marketplace crying ‘We played a flute for you and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn’”, he quotes a lyric of contemporary rhyme. The phrase is more akin to a children’s rhyme or popular song than one of epic poetry. The point is that Jesus did not lock himself in academia nor did he limit himself to an aristocratic form of high culture. The message of the kingdom of God was brought to the low culture of everyday popular living. To go one step further, the very incarnation itself is God indwelling in the popular culture. After all, do we really think that a barn in the backwater hovel of a town is the centerpiece of high class? To be followers of Jesus then, I believe we need to take seriously the call to present the kingdom of God as something that interacts with backwater hovels of today’s popular culture. The kingdom of God does exist in Hollywood. The cry for peace and grace can be seen in the ranks of celebrity glam. As these places give voice to the spiritual yearnings of so many around us. Addressing these issues with the faithful and theological reflection helps us better live out the kingdom of God to those waiting for its revealing.
3. Pop Culture is already talking about spirituality. Again, Detweiler and Taylor write “There is a conversation about God going on in popular culture.” We simply can’t ignore the fact that popular culture has a lot to say about faith, God, Jesus and Spirituality. When God pops up in an episode of The Simpsons, it is part of the conversation about what God is ‘really like.’ When primetime television airs yet another show about brooding teenage vampires, it is a reflections of a cultural conversation regarding the meaning of life, death, faith, and the continual battle between Good and Evil. The church cannot turn a deaf ear and blind eye to that which so many around us are tuned into. Consider the fact that more people vote for their favorite contestant on a reality show than they do for the person who will run their own country. This says something about the values of our world, and the places that define meaning in people’s lives. We can bemoan this statistic all we wish, yet that gets us nowhere. It would be better for the church to look deeply into this, and see what the culture is saying about that which it finds important and meaningful. To quote a popular theologian named ‘Joe’ “Knowledge is half the battle”’ Our ministry in the world around us will only be more effective when we are informed about the spiritual conversations that are already taking place all around us. Because here’s the rub; If we fail to hear the questions being voiced out of popular culture, why would we expect the culture to hear and accept the good news coming from the church?
These are some of the reasons why I attempt to be knowledgeable about what is occurring in the popular culture. This is why I bought an Eminem album, even though I don’t like rap. This is the reason why I watch reality television, not as entertainment, but as a deep reflection into what is going on around me. This is the reason why I think celebrity gossip has more to say about the world we live in than the nightly news. And this is why I believe the church needs to think deeply and theologically about popular culture. If we firmly believe that Jesus is with us in this life, then we must entertain the possibility that he both sends us into popular culture, and speaks to us through it.
Where is the last place you have seen God reflected in Popular Culture?