I. Popular Culture as Revelation and Religion

The Quandary of Christian Engagement with Popular Culture

The subject of popular culture is certainly not new to Christians. There has been a lot of ink spilled over how to evaluate it, its dangers, and its insights.5 Many concerned Evangelicals tend to reject much popular culture out of hand, seeing it as a source of moral or aesthetic decadence. For them, popular culture is either offensive to their moral standards or simply a cheap imitation of what culture was meant to be (namely, high culture).6 Such Christians believe that popular culture “represents a full scale revolt against cultural maturity.”7 Popular culture is simply bad for you, so it is best to stay away and pursue high culture. Abandon the Rolling Stones and turn to Rachmaninoff.

At the other extreme, many Christians simply consume popular culture without thoughtful criticism. In fact, this is probably much more typical of Christians than a posture of rejection.8 This attitude fits the postmodern tenor of the age, an age that prizes plurality and conversation without conclusion, without tiresome claims to Truth. One theologically sophisticated example of this is Bernard Brandon Scott’s book Hollywood Dreams and Biblical Stories.9 In laying out his methodology for a biblical engagement with several popular American movies from the late 1980s and early 1990s, he takes his cue from postmodern theologian David Tracy’s understanding of “conversation.” The conversation envisaged is one of complete mutuality and openness, and this has definite consequences for the way we define biblical authority.

Because we are engaging in a conversation, we can learn both to hear and to speak in different ways. Thus, as part of the rules of conversation, we outlaw the Bible’s standing in judgment on postmodern culture or our culture’s standing in judgment on the Bible.10

In other words, the Bible is forbidden authority lest the conversation be prematurely ended. While I am all for an open dialogue, God’s Word should never abdicate its position of authority on human lives and motives. To be fair, Scott does not carry
out this methodology consistently. Oftentimes the Bible does indeed have the last word (and a critical word against popular Hollywood mythologies at that). But at other points, his applications show a very different understanding of biblical authority than that to which Evangelicals usually subscribe. In Scott’s model, it seems that if one wants to listen to popular culture, one must first erode one’s
commitment to biblical authority.

Honestly, neither of these approaches to popular culture seems satisfactory. One rejects popular culture too quickly, citing biblical principles while failing to listen to what popular culture might have to say. Conversely, the other view is open to listening to popular culture, but at the price of denigrating biblical authority. In the remainder of this section, I will show how understanding popular culture in its revelational and religious context opens up a third way for engaging popular culture as a Christian, one that is specifically apologetical.

 

The Role of Revelation and Religion

The first concept to get clear is this: creation, according to the Bible, is absolutely soaked in revelation. God’s creation reveals God’s character and purposes in the world (Rom 1:18–21; Ps 19:1–4; Acts 14:17; 17:24–28). This revelation is not enough to understand God’s saving purposes in Christ, but it is enough to render all humans “without excuse.” They even know God, in a certain sense (Rom 1:20–21). Revelation is like the air we breathe and the water in which we are constantly swimming. In this sense, we really do “live and move and have our being” in God (Acts 17:28), that is, surrounded by creation-structures that serve as an in-built sound system broadcasting messages about the goodness and power of God, and his ownership of us all. That is what I mean by general revelation, or  creation-revelation.

Religion, then, is the heart-response to that creation-revelation in worship and service. Thus Adam and Eve’s activity in the garden (i.e., doing culture) was, at its root, religious. Culture is precisely a human appropriation and development of the structures of God’s creation-revelation, a “fleshing out” of what God has given to us. As originally conceived, it was to be done to God’s glory and in loving service to fellow creatures. Culture is therefore a fundamentally religious endeavor.

More than that, culture is also revelational. God announces that he will create human beings in his image, and immediately thereafter gives the “cultural mandate,” that they should fill and subdue the earth (Gn 1:26–28). Clearly, there is some connection between image and culture. I believe that it has to do with the way we, as culture-formers, image God. In our cultural creativity, we take our environment and make something beautiful and useful with it. So we mirror God’s creativity, the way he took his environment—the void, the chaos waters(tohu wabohu) of Genesis 1:2—and created something beautiful and useful with it. Cultural creativity images God’s original creativity in a creaturely mode. In this sense, our cultural activity itself is revelational: it images God. Furthermore, God speaks through our cultural activity, especially when we do culture according to the norms he has set out for us in creation and in his word.11 He can use culture to reveal aspects of his own nature and purposes. Human culture is therefore both a religious response to revelation (originally intended for worship and service to God) and an ongoing medium of general revelation itself (a source of knowledge about God’s character and purposes).

Fall-out

This arrangement would have remained relatively straightforward had it not been for the Fall. It would have formed a fairly neat cyclical pattern: the revelation of God in creation encourages a worshipful and loving (religious) response, which is in turn revelational, which spurs others on to more love and good deeds, and so on. A virtuous circle, if you will.

But the disobedience of Adam and Eve brought a rupture into the cycle, a disconnect between revelation and the religious response. That religious response is now distorted, diverted towards idolatry rather than God. People now spend time worshipping and serving false gods: animistic fetishes, the almighty dollar, power, sex, reputation, family, or simply a “comfortable lifestyle.” Romans 1:21–23 explains the genesis of the rupture: faced with the overwhelming revelation of God in creation, rather than facing God’s wrath at disobedience, people suppress the knowledge of God and turn away. But they always turn to something, namely, a religious substitute for God. So in a sense, the original intent of culture endures: worship and service. To paraphrase the Bob Dylan quote at the outset of this essay, art (and culture) is always going somewhere, serving somebody. But worship is now misdirected toward an idol, and loving service more often than not is focused on self-service and self-love. The cultural consequences of this misdirection can be seen in the ugliness, brutality, triviality, and manipulation expressed in popular culture. Nevertheless, the religious nature of culture remains; it survives the Fall, albeit in a distorted form.

Traces of Grace

Were that the end of the story, we would have to say that those who reject popular culture are right, and those who enjoy popular culture are wrong. But that is not the end of the story; grace abides in the ruins. Theologians call it “common grace,”
the fact that God has not abandoned the world to suffer all of the consequences of its rebellion. Within human culture, there are signs of justice, goodness, and beauty, not because humans are inherently good, but because God actively preserves justice, goodness, and beauty on the earth. The image of God in humans is warped, but not destroyed. And by God’s grace, the cultural mandate was not destroyed. Glimpses of our cultural task restored to its original purpose and glory can be seen even in the works of those who rebel against God. These are traces of grace, and they point to God. Acts 14:17 calls these gifts from God “testimony” of his character, power, and purposes in the world.

God’s general revelation persists even within fallen culture, even in popular culture. There is much in popular culture that is trite, ugly, evil, and sub-standard. But there are also moments of joy, peace, goodness, depth, and breathtaking beauty. Such “fragments of grace” are part of the reason that popular culture is popular. The popularity of popular culture is not merely due to advertising or manipulation. (If it were, movie making would not be such a risky business, and every venture would succeed. The “Waterworlds” of Hollywood would be an unknown commodity.) Rather, popular culture is popular because people perceive and hunger for the traces of grace within it, the grace that connects with desire and imagination. When a blues singer truly connects with human suffering, or when a basketball player moves towards the basket with a display of strength and dexterity that simply shines, or when the television detective catches the “perp” and saves the little girl so that, at least today and in this place, justice and safety reign—all of these are hints of grace in the popular cultural mode. They all point to something more profound. For example, in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), wounded war veteran Jake Scully discovers the wonders of nature and spirituality and ends up fighting for justice for a native people on another planet. The moon Pandora is depicted as alive with a Gaia-like divine consciousness called Eywa. Many Christians have rightly objected to the movie’s neopagan nature worship. But its visual effects create a fascinating, multi-color environment filled with sublime beauty and fragile interconnection. The film serves to heighten the audience’s sensitivity to the beauty and fragility of our own planet’s environment at a time when such sensitivity is sorely needed.

Avatar also explores identity as Scully loses touch with his old life, where he served commercial and military interests, and begins to find a home among the natives, fighting for them as for family. For an audience whose culture often leaves them feeling homeless, rootless, disconnected from nature, anxious about climate change and oil spills, these traces of grace go straight to their heart’s desire. In Avatar, popular culture points to what is true: the awesome beauty of nature and of the possibility of finding a home when you feel rootless. Dismissing the movie because it contains offensive elements or idolatry overlooks the streams of light that also flow there.12 Because of the reality of common grace, popular culture will always be a mixture of light and dark, grace and idolatry. It is, like all idolatrous religion, a mixture of truth and lies.

The Messy Relationship Between Grace and Idolatry

Furthermore, there is an interesting dynamic in popular culture between common grace and idolatry: dependence. Idolatry depends upon common grace. Why? Because Satan is no Creator, but rather a distorter of creation. As Augustine said, creation is primarily good, and evil is a privatio boni (an absence of the good).13 Idolatry has no appeal in and of itself except as it draws it from something good in creation and uses that to entrap the “worshipper” the way honey traps flies. Idolatry uses the good from creation by abstracting it, removing it from the context wherein it has its real meaning: a gift given by a loving God to be used as he prescribes. Instead, idolatry lies about the meaning of the gift and uses it as bait to trap and destroy.

Take Playboy magazine, an obvious snare for idolatry. But note how it ensnares men: it uses God-given gifts (physical beauty and sexual pleasure) and decontextualizes them, lies about where they come from and how they are to be used. It says, “These are not real women created in God’s likeness, not human beings, but mere images, objects for your pleasure, because pleasure is your right, and it is available all the time for you.” Thus idolatry twists and distorts common grace. Without these hijacked elements of common grace, these gifts from God, idolatry would be utterly unappealing. Idolatry is a religious response to God’s common grace, a parasite on God’s good gifts.

To put it in terms of revelation, popular culture is a fascinating mix of revelation and counter-revelation, an ongoing struggle between God’s voice in creation and other voices and static trying to drown it out.14 Interpreting popular culture from a Christian perspective is like trying to listen to a radio that has been tuned between two stations (with the second station deliberately using the good stuff from the first station to drown the first station out).15 The goal of both common grace and its parasite is the same: to reach desire, to capture the heart and imagination. This is the heart of popular cultural religion. It calls for an apologetical response, some way to untangle the messy mixture of grace and idolatry.

Putting the “Pop” in Popular

Up until now, we have been exploring dynamics that could apply to any cultural work, high or low. What makes popular culture different? It has to do with its context of reception and its roots. Popular culture has always been around in one form or another as culture meant to appeal to the people, to speak especially to (and for) them; hence the name popular. This would have included all sorts of folk cultural works, as opposed to the cultural works of the elites. Popular culture lived in pubs and bawdy music halls rather than the court or symphony hall. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution and late-nineteenth-century immigration, traditional communities and hierarchies were rearranged as many of the poor migrated to cities in search of employment. It was in these cities during the Victorian era that popular culture as we know it today (as mass entertainment) was born.16 Popular culture has always sought to maintain this tie to the common people, if for no other reason than the profit motive. It has been forced to pursue a wide appeal (or a wide plurality of niche markets and fandoms) rather than the restricted appeal of elite “high” culture. In the past few decades, with the emergence of postmodernism as a cultural force, popular culture has become more self-conscious about eroding even these barriers between “high” and “low” culture, refusing to acquiesce to the customary boundaries set by cultural elites (thereby widening its appeal further).

So when I talk about this messy mix of grace and idolatry, it must be understood to be a mess in the popular mode, in the vox populi. This can be both good and bad, for sometimes the mixture lacks depth as it strives for broad appeal. But when
one does find depth in popular culture, it is important to take note, for there the deep desires of the many coalesce. When one sees idolatry in popular culture, one catches a view of a society’s widespread affliction and affection, of the tempting and terrible effects of the Fall played out culture-wide. When one sees grace, one catches a glimpse—if only for a brief moment—of that culture healed and

cleansed, of God speaking his truth to the people, of popular culture the way it was meant to be. That is why I believe it important to listen to popular culture. In popular culture, we see popular desire laid bare. And it needs a Christian response.

How to Deal with a Big Mess

If I have given an accurate picture of the dynamics of popular culture in a fallen world, then the two most common Christian options for dealing with popular culture that I mentioned are both equally flawed.17 On the one hand, it is irresponsible to simply reject popular culture out of hand, because with it we reject that which God has also made beautiful and preserved by his grace. And we fail to understand the real power of popular culture’s influence on the human heart. On the other hand, it is equally irresponsible simply to open ourselves up for dialogue, to abdicate a biblically grounded judgment, because then we overlook the pervasive deception of idolatry at work within popular culture.

Let me give a brief illustration. In 1984, Janice Radway released her landmark study of romance novels and their readers.18 Through questionnaires and in-depth interviews, she studied a group of middle-aged women who all bought romance novels at a certain bookstore in a city in the Midwestern United States. These women were often deeply dissatisfied with their lives, felt emotionally drained by the demands of children and husbands (husbands who often failed to return any emotional support or nurture). They saw the books as an escape. Through identifying with the heroine of the story, these women found themselves drawn into a world of adventure and romance, moving toward a climax of undying love and respect in the arms of a worthy hero. Vicariously, they were being affirmed and nurtured by these stories. Condemning these women’s “trashy novels” completely misses the point and the power of this form of popular culture. Conversely, simply and uncritically enjoying these novels is just as wrongheaded. Both approaches miss the complexity and depth, the subtle interweaving of common grace and idolatry, the power of romance novels as a kind of religious experience wherein these women find an imaginary “salvation.” By identifying with the heroine, they vicariously find the adventure of relationship, the keen tension and jeopardy that in the end blossoms into a trusting love where they are appreciated as unique and worthy human beings, their brokenness mended in a passionate embrace and lifelong commitment. Is this not both a grace bestowed and an idolatrous reflection of what Jesus gives us in relationship to him, “Jesus, lover of my soul,”19 who heals our brokenness?

What is needed is neither condemnation nor uncritical openness. We need somehow to combine what is good in both approaches: a biblically grounded critique that also listens and a persuasive but respectful engagement in dialogue. This is the heart of apologetics: a dialogue in which the apologist endeavors “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pt 3:15) to persuade his or her partner of the Truth and the beauty of the Truth, to show how the Truth relates to the desires of the heart. So, purely from an exploration of the dynamics of popular culture as a mixture of revelation and religion, a messy mixture of grace and idolatry in desire, we have arrived at the need for apologetics. For Christians, if we truly want to engage popular culture, we must engage it apologetically.

The next area to explore, then, is apologetics and how it interacts with desire.

Notes

5. Some representative titles spanning a range of Evangelical opinion would include Robert G. DeMoss, Jr., Learn to Discern (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997); Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor, A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003); Brian Godawa, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009); T. M. Moore, Redeeming Popular Culture: A Kingdom Approach (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003); Kenneth A. Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1989); William D. Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture, rev. and exp. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007); and Turner, Hungry for Heaven.

6. For a fuller treatment of Evangelical attitudes toward popular culture, see Turnau, Popologetics, chs. 5–9.

7. Douglas Wilson, “Got to be Good Looking Cause He’s so Hard to See,” Credenda Agenda 12, no. 3:5.

8. So argues Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open, 38–40.

9. Bernard Brandon Scott, Hollywood Dreams and Biblical Stories (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press,1994).

10. Scott, Hollywood Dreams, 14. Similar problems regarding biblical authority plague Detweiler and Taylor’s A Matrix of Meanings.

11. On doing culture according to God’s norms, see Calvin Seerveld, “Obedient Aesthetic Life,” in Rainbows for the Fallen World (Toronto, ON: Toronto Tuppence Press, 1980), 42–77.

12. That is not to say that all movies are appropriate for all ages. We must exercise wisdom in what to show our children (and ourselves!).

13. See Augustine, Enchiridion: Being Addressed to Laurentius; Being a Treatise on Faith, Hope and Love (London: Unwin Brothers, n.d.), sec. XI, p. 22; http://www.archive.org/details/theenchiridionof00auguuoft (accessed April 24, 2010).

14. For a more detailed discussion of general revelation and counter-revelation in popular culture, see Turnau, “Reflecting Theologically on Popular Culture,” Calvin Theological Journal 37 (2002):
290–295.

15. Counter-revelation never completely drowns out the voice of revelation. If it did, Paul could not claim that unbelievers know God in Rom 1:21.

16. For a more detailed history of the emergence of modern popular culture in America, see William D. Romanowski, Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996).

17. See the sub-section above, “The Quandary of Christian Engagement with Popular Culture.”

18. Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991). For a more sustained theological analysis of romance reading, see Theodore Turnau, “Popular Cultural ‘Worlds’ as Alternative Religions,” Christian Scholar’s Review 37 (2008): 326–338.