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Fall 2010 · Vol. 39 No. 2 · pp. 282–288
Faith and Popular Culture: A Bibliographic Essay
Interest in popular culture1 has increased significantly among ministry workers and Christian academics in the last thirty-five years. It is not difficult to understand why. With the near-universal Christian acceptance of radio and television—and now the Internet and much popular entertainment—images, sounds, and ideas of questionable and tested provenance alike have unparalleled access to Christian hearts and minds. And if it is true, as Terry Eagleton suggests, that “in the modern age [culture] comes to substitute itself for a fading sense of divinity and transcendence,”2 then the challenge of distinguishing between harmful and beneficial spiritual influences in popular culture has never been greater.
It was H. Richard Niebuhr who, in his best-selling Christ and Culture (1951), defined five basic postures available to Christians in their relationship with “culture”: they could be against it, of it, above it, in a paradoxical relationship to it, or seek its transformation. The book received mostly glowing reviews but was brilliantly critiqued by John Howard Yoder in an essay originally written in 1958 but only recently published.3 Among Yoder’s criticisms is that Niebuhr insists on a monolithic conception of culture that can only fail to do justice to its many dimensions, some of which Christians might affirm and adopt; some, condemn; some, seek to transform. Yoder contended that a proper deportment towards “culture”—certainly, I would add, towards popular culture—requires that Christians exercise discernment.4
Such discernment, of course, demands careful study of the subject, and recent years have seen many works that represent extensive study of some aspect or other of North American popular culture—radio, television, film, music, entertainment, sports, leisure, literature, art, or the Internet. This essay will survey some of general and a few specialized works that will give readers an entry into this burgeoning field. Many of the resources referred to here assume a Christian perspective, but also included are works and critical appraisals not written from an explicitly Christian point of view but whose insights are instructive nevertheless.5
REFERENCE WORKS AND GUIDES
While no guide or encyclopedia of popular culture can remain comprehensive for long, the five-volume St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture (Detroit: St. James Press, 2000)—containing more than 2,700 entries by scholars in the field—makes a valiant effort and should remain a reliable guide to late twentieth-century North American pop culture. Ray Browne and Pat Browne’s Guide to United States Popular Culture (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2001), with more than 1,600 articles on a wide array of personalities and topics, complements the St. James. Wikipedia, granting the reliability issues of this volunteer driven online encyclopedia, can still be a wonderful resource for researching the many and various expressions of popular culture.
Students of theology will appreciate Kelton Cobb’s The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005) for its accessible discussion of theories of popular culture and its suggestive, if not completely compelling, proposal for a theology of popular culture. Those looking to conduct their own research would do well to consult Gordon Lynch’s Between Sacred and Profane: Researching Religion and Popular Culture (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007), which provides a fine overview of key issues and debates in this field. It builds on his earlier Understanding Theology and Popular Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005) in which he attempts to define the concept of popular culture and outline a theological approach to its study.
An intriguing resource is Bruce Demarest and Keith Matthews’ recently published Dictionary of Everyday Theology and Culture (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2009), which attempts to bring theological concepts “down to earth” by connecting them to elements of popular culture. In a similar vein is The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity: An A-to-Z Guide to Following Christ in Every Aspect of Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997). Though obviously dated, it is still useful as a register of late twentieth-century concerns, intelligently addressing such subjects as entertainment, shopping, movies, computer games, mass media, pleasure, and the Internet (the latter under “Information Superhighway”).
HISTORY OF POPULAR CULTURE
Among fine works on the history of North American popular culture is LeRoy Ashby’s With Amusement for All: A History of American Popular Culture since 1830 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), a weighty tome that traces the development of entertainment and amusement in America from before the Civil War to the present. Along the way, he takes time to examine Puritan resistance to that emerging culture, a resistance rooted in the belief that it diverted attention of the masses from the pursuit of virtue. Raymond F. Betts’s less ambitious book, A History of Popular Culture: More of Everything, Faster, and Brighter (New York: Routledge, 2004), only begins its history from the end of World War II. Concentrating on the dramatic changes in transportation, communication, and entertainment since 1945, Betts offers not merely a chronicle but an interpretation of the cultural ascendancy of the popular. William Romanowski’s Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996) provides a Christian perspective on the history of popular culture and its relation to American Christianity.
POPULAR CULTURE AS RELIGIOUS
Popular culture as the bearer of religious values is a frequent theme of critical studies. Malcolm Boyd’s Crisis in Communication: A Christian Examination of the Mass Media (New York: Doubleday, 1957) is one of the earliest. In Your God is Alive and Well and Appearing in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), another earlier work, John Wiley Nelson argues that it is in American popular culture that the true American religion is revealed. In a somewhat different manner, Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor’s A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003) and David Dark’s Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, the Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2005) look for divine disclosures in popular entertainment. William Romanowski’s Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2007 [rev. and expanded ed.]) does something similar. Religion and Popular Culture in America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005 [rev. ed.]), edited by Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, brings together over a dozen essays that likewise look critically at the religious dimensions of such pop phenomena as gangsta rap, Star Trek, Madonna, cyber-culture, and The Da Vinci Code. In a more negative key, Thomas Hibbs makes a compelling argument in Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from the Exorcist to Seinfeld (Dallas: Spence, 1999) that North American pop culture is premised on nihilism.6
CHRISTIAN POPULAR CULTURE
Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture (New York: Scribner, 2008) is Daniel Radosh’s humorous but not unsympathetic look at the sometimes strange world of Christian popular culture. It is akin in some ways to A. J. Jacobs’s The Year of Living Biblically (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), which chronicles the author’s year-long attempt to take the Bible as literally as possible. Jacobs does ridicule fundamentalists (Jewish as well as Christian), but his affection for the literalists he interviews and sometimes befriends manifests itself in a remarkably sensitive presentation of their views.
A more abrasively satirical treatment will be found in The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus: Dispatches from the Intersection of Christianity and Pop Culture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2008) by Tom Breen. In Christotainment: Selling Jesus Through Popular Culture (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2009), Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kincheloe assemble essays that critically examine the adoption by popular evangelicalism of media like movies, television, music, and video games which were once disdained. Richard Santana and Gregory Erickson likewise explore the impact of popular culture on popular Christianity in Religion and Popular Culture: Rescripting the Sacred (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2008).
CHRISTIAN CRITICISM OF CHRISTIAN POPULAR CULTURE
An analysis from a Christian point of view of the effect of popular culture on the North American church will be found in Shane Hipps’s Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), where he considers how technology has changed the way Christians think about Scripture, community, and worship. He also offer his thoughts as a pastor on how Christians might remain rooted firmly in their spiritual traditions while exploiting the possibilities offered by new communications technologies. An earlier book with a similar slant is Tex Sample’s The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World: Electronic Culture and the Gathered People of God (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998).
Quentin Schultze and Robert Woods, Jr.’s Understanding Evangelical Media: The Changing Face of Christian Communication (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008) is a collection of ten essays that carefully assess evangelical uses of radio, popular music, worship music and media, television, film, books, Internet, gaming, and other new media. The new Prophetically Incorrect: A Christian Introduction to Media Criticism by Robert Woods and Paul Patton (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2010), follows suit by offering guidelines for creating, critiquing, and using popular media that are deeply implicated in consumerism.
The recognition of the tightly knit relationship between popular culture and consumerism takes center stage in Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture by Vincent Miller (New York: Continuum, 2005). His book bemoans the negative ways in which religious belief and practice—theological method, doctrine, belief, community—have been transformed by our ravenous consumer culture and proposes strategies for resisting that transformation.
YOUTH AND POPULAR CULTURE
Most books on youth ministry cannot avoid reference, at least in passing, to the challenges of ministering to youth immersed in popular culture in one or another of its many manifestations. Three that explicitly name the challenge in their titles are Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), ed. by Quentin J. Schultze, in which various writers analyze the tight relationship between the popular entertainment industry and youth; Tim Gossett’s Keepin’ It Real: Christian Life in a Pop Culture World (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), a seven-session study series that aims to help youth maintain their Christian identity in a pop culture world; and Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture: Bridging Teen Worldviews and Christian Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), in which Walt Mueller (founder and president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding) writes to Boomer parents, youth workers, and Christian educators on how to connect with the tumultuous world of popular teen culture and then address it with the claims of the gospel.
EMBRACING POPULAR CULTURE
Rejecting a defensive posture toward popular culture, Dick Staub, in The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity-Lite (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007), argues that Christians should take the offensive and aggressively and confidently work to enrich popular culture both artistically and intellectually. C.S. Lewis is his model of creative engagement.
Mark Roncace and Patrick Gray, in their book, Teaching the Bible Through Popular Culture and the Arts (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), briefly survey hundreds of examples of art, film, literature, music, and other media and suggest how they might be used to engage students in the study of the Bible. Though intended for college and university classes, the book could be useful in non-academic settings like youth meetings and adult Sunday school as well.
In his contentious study of the spirituality of “Generation X” (Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X [San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998]), lay preacher Tom Beaudoin argues that the impieties of “Generation X”—nurtured in the bosom of popular culture—are evidence of authentic spiritual longing. Striking a concordant note, Barry Taylor exults in the democratization of spirit and the global conversation about God that digital popular culture enables in his Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008). He goes on to call for “an end to the present form of Christianity” in favor of “Christian spiritualities,” which fit so much better with the digital age and its supposed affinity for pluralism. Of course, this is a controversial appeal, and readers will find his wide-ranging discussion, though sprinkled with keen insights, either frustrating or exhilarating—or perhaps both.
The scope of literature on the subject of “faith and popular culture” is much wider than this brief essay indicates. I have focused attention on a select few reference works, monographs, and essay collections, most published in the last ten years or so, and not at all on online resources. (I am prepared to argue that detailed and extended discussion and argument still requires a book, or a longer essay at least.) Moreover, works in such specialty areas as faith and television, film,7 literature, music, art, leisure, sport, and—an area of which no parent will be ignorant—video gaming8 have been ignored only to keep the size of this essay down; their inclusion would have greatly increased the number of its pages. But interested readers should note that such works are many and for the most part easy to find.9
What should be clear in any case is that critical reflection—discernment—continues apace with no signs of abating. Constant changes and new developments in popular culture will guarantee that new data requiring interpretation and evaluation will not soon be in short supply. And assuming that conflicting interpretations will arise, Christian readers will not be spared the critical task themselves of discerning the relative merits of rival explanations of the same phenomena.
Of course, this can all be very discouraging for anyone who just wants enough clarity and wisdom to respond with a confident “Yes” or “No” to some aspect of the perpetually changing pop culture scene. This is especially so for those charged with responsibility for souls that might be harmed by it. Perhaps some of the works cited in this essay will help stimulate a conversation among pastors, youth workers, and others and thus make the determination of what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable a less lonely and overwhelming task.
- I will leave the term “popular culture” undefined since I don’t have confidence that I can succeed where serious scholars of culture have failed, viz., in defining the term to everyone’s satisfaction. Wikipedia’s definition at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popular_culture is as useful as any I have seen. A simpler one is Gordon Lynch’s definition: “the shared environment, practices, and resources of everyday life in a given society,” in his Understanding Theology and Popular Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 14.
- Terry Eagleton, The Idea of Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell), 2.
- The review was published for the first time in Stassen, Yeager, and Yoder’s Authentic Transformation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996) as “How H. Richard Niebuhr Reasoned: A Critique of Christ and Culture,” (pp. 31–89).
- Warnings against popular amusements or habits have been around since the Bible. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians warns his readers against the popular culture of the Gentiles (4:17–20). Later, Tertullian and Augustine, among others, denounced popular Roman entertainments and discouraged Christian participation. And Puritans were less than restrained in expressing their antipathy toward the popular pastimes of their day.
- I have listed none of the advanced theoretical works that underpin much scholarly research into popular culture. Those interested in an introduction to those would do well to begin with Kelton Cobb’s discussions of the Frankfurt School and the Cultural Studies approach connected with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (University of Birmingham, Britain) in The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 29–71.
- Hibbs has followed up this argument with a book on redemption in the American noir film genre—Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption (Dallas: Spence, 2008).
- Gordon Matties’ “Film, Faith And Popular Culture: A Selected List of Library and Information Resources” is a useful bibliography in this area. It can be accessed at http://www.cmu.ca/faculty/gmatties/Religion%20and%20Film%20Bibliography.htm.
- An interesting new collection of essays on this topic is Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
- Amazon, the online bookstore, is a wonderful resource for locating new and out-of-print books. Almost all North American academic and seminary libraries have catalogs searchable via the Internet. Google Books can also be very useful for finding older, nearly-forgotten books, and often makes the full-text of books whose copyright has run out available for viewing.
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Mirrors and Shapers of Images
Popular culturethe music, movies, and stories that we hear and see in the mass media every day of our livesplays an important role in American social life. Many of the words and images generated and marketed by the “pop culture” industry attempt to reflect the realities of American life and frequently help shape those realities. In some cases, images and sounds from pop culture are relevant to the way we see and think about government and politics.
For example, over the past 85 years, Hollywood has produced many films that use conspiracies as a central plotline. Spies and spy rings were the focus of some early conspiracy-based films. Alfred Hitchcock, later best known for such suspense thrillers as Psycho and The Birds, began his career by directing spy movies such as The Man Who Knew Too Much and 39 Steps in the 1930s. By the 1950s, film conspiracies took the form of alien invasions from outer space (e.g., the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and a decade later the focus turned to government conspiracies. The plot for Seven Days in May (1964) centered on a conspiracy by military leaders to take over the U.S. government, and the 1967 spy spoof The President’s Analyst featured a similar plot undertaken by the telephone company. The conspiracy thriller genre took a more serious turn in the 1970s with the release of films like All the President’s Men (1976), an examination of the real-life conspiracy behind Nixon’s cover-up of the Watergate break-in.
In the 1990s, Oliver Stone carried on the legacy of conspiracy films with his controversial JFK (1991) and the 1995 release Nixon. Formulaic action films like Mission Impossible (1996) and thrillers like A Few Good Men (1992) featured plotlines based on government conspiracies and cover-ups. The 2005 film Syriana explored the covert ties between the government and oil companies doing business in the Middle East, and many of the “superhero” films of recent years, such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) have a conspiracy as plot drivers. Conspiracies were also central to several popular television shows of the 1990s and 2000s such as X-Files, Babylon 5, 24, and Prison Break
Popular music has also mirrored the politics of the dayand at times has actually taken the lead in trying to influence and shape political action. In 1939, jazz and blues singer Billie Holiday released “Strange Fruit,” which put to music a poem about the horrors of racist lynchings in the South. Woody Guthrie’s tunes from the 1930s such as “This Land Is Your Land” and songs by Pete Seeger such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” became anthems for the protest movements of the 1960s. Both of these songs made it to the top of the Billboard charts in 1962, and Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” sold millions of copies. The music itself became a political force as these and other popular “hits”from the Plastic Ono Band’s “Give Peace a Chance” to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio”were heard again and again at civil rights and antiwar rallies over the next decade.
In the aftermath of 9/11, popular music emerged as one of the major vehicles through which Americans were able to deal with the emotional scars left by the attacks. Some songs, like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American),” gave expression to the renewed sense of patriotism that came to the surface immediately after the tragic events. Other releases, like Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll,” celebrated the heroism of some of those who lost their lives in the attacks, and Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 song “Empty Sky” alluded to the personal feelings of loss and anger felt by many. More recently, a number of political songs have been released in response to the controversies related to the War on Terror, and several of themincluding Pearl Jam’s “Worldwide Suicide,” Green Day’s “Holiday,” Rise Against’s “Audience of One,” and John Mayer’s Grammy-winning “Waiting for the World to Change”have received considerable airplay.
Music also played a role in the Occupy movement of 2011. Launched as Occupy Wall Street in September 2011, the movement spread quickly using “We are the 99%” as its slogan. The general theme of the protests was to focus attention on growing inequality and the need to reduce the influence of corporations in American (and global) politics and society. For its “soundtrack,” however, the movement relied on music drawn from previous protests and with a few exceptions (e.g., Makana’s “We Are the Many,” Ry Cooder’s “No Banker Left Behind,” and Everlast’s “I Get By”) did not develop an identifiable “melody.”*
As we will demonstrate in similar feature boxes for all other chapters, popular culture has always played a major role in reflecting and shaping public opinion, political activity, and even the development of governmental institutions in our nation. It is important that we recognize the role that popular culture plays in our political lives; today, the music, movies, and words we see or hear are major sources of the images and myths we have about government and politics.
*See James C. McKinley, Jr., “At the Protests, the Message Lacks a Melody, New York Times, October 19, 2011, p. C1. For a general overview of the role popular music has played in protests, see Dorian Lynskey, 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day (New York: Ecco, 2011).