Theology & Pop Culture 1: Why?
I’ve written a good deal about the intersection between theology and pop culture lately. (See this on Christan Bale and sin, this on P. Diddy and evangelism, or this or this on Lady Gaga’s “Judas”) This seems trivial at first. It’s certainly fun. However, I think it’s also very important.
If you want to understand people, studying popular media is not a bad way to start. On top of affecting the culture around us, pop culture is shaped by the world around it. Further, most pop artists interpret their lives using the same worldview as most of the other people in their society. Pop culture shapes the world shapes pop culture.
Theology is a constant struggle to contextualize eternal truths. Most Christians don’t think of it this way, but consider the following. Many American Christians understand salvation as functioning like a court: God stands in judgment, we are the accused, and (maybe) the devil accuses us. In a surprise twist, after conviction Jesus requests to accept our punishment. Now, there is some truth to this, but it is a metaphor, not the truth itself.
Ask yourself, how did people understand salvation before courts worked like this? How do people who live in societies where courts to do not work like this understand salvation? Latin America is just now shedding the old Spanish court system, where arguments are submitted in writing, and a panel of multiple judges meet privately. They release a verdict when they feel ready. There is no real trial. How can people who grew up thinking of court like this understand the court metaphor? It doesn’t work. You can probably imagine a way to rework it, sure. The point is, though, that the way you understand things is contextualized for your society: the gospel has been translated for modern Americans. If this is true of salvation, you can be sure many other Christian ideas are similarly shaped by your culture.
Some object that modern American society is too vulgar to engage with. Now, many people wouldn’t say it this way, but they’re thinking it. I would remind them that most generations in human history thought the society they lived in was horribly evil. If those people thought society too vulgar to engage with, no one would have ever communicated with the world around them. Luther’s hymns, those great hymns of Christianity, like “Rock of Ages,” were bar songs with adjusted lyrics. Were Luther alive today, he would rewrite Ke$ha with Christian lyrics. Sounds vulgar, I know, but the reader needs to understand the significance of this. It is absolutely true, and so we absolutely cannot ignore pop culture.
“Ok, ok: engaging with society is one thing, but with commercial radio or movies, no way. They’re just products! It’s trash designed for mass consumption!” I reject this argument, mostly. One, it doesn’t much matter if it’s good or not, it’s what people are thinking about and listening to and watching. If you want to connect to people, you’re going to have to engage with the “texts (written or unwritten)” they engage with. Two, this is a quick way to disparage pop art, but it’s a lie. Artists have always had benefactors, and so they have always worked with limited freedom. Many of the great painters would have done much different work were it not for their need to please their employers. Much pop art is the same: artists produce what they want, but studios must also be pleased. Very little pop is literally created solely to be a product. Disparaging pop is just a modern way to reject “low art” as somehow less worthy than the “high arts.” This elitist distinction does more harm than good.
For all of these reasons, a Christian who intends to engage with the secular world around them cannot ignore pop culture, and they can’t just write it off as “that evil Hollywood.”