Popular Culture, Apologetics, and the Discourse of Desire - Introduction

This article appeared originally in Cultural Encounters 8:2 (Nov. 2012): 25-46. Kind permission to reproduce it has been granted.

We’re in the transport business. We transport audiences from one place to another.
—Hollywood Producer Jerry Bruckheimer1


I think art can lead you to God. I think that’s the purpose of everything. If it’s not doing that, what’s it doing? It’s leading you the other way. It’s certainly not leading you nowhere.
—Bob Dylan2


Loss of faith in a given religion does not by any means imply the eradication of the religious instinct. It merely means that the instinct, temporarily repressed, will seek an object elsewhere.
—R. C. Zaehner, Oxford University, 19593

In the past few years, more Christians have begun paying attention to popular culture, and with good reason. For many, popular culture has drawing power; it can sweep us away (if only for a little while) and mold our desires. Popular culture holds a powerful sway over the imaginations and worldviews of those who breathe its atmosphere. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, an interviewer asked movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer whether Hollywood would change the way it made movies. His answer was telling: “We’re going to do what we’ve always done: take people on a two-hour magic carpet ride.” In times of war and in times of peace, that is what popular culture does. Yet, the question remains: Where is the carpet going? Where are we being “transported” to?

Asking such questions is an important part of Christian apologetics because the influence of popular culture in our culture and on our lives has a markedly religious coloration. The direction of the “ride” is best spelled out in terms of worldview, in terms of the deepest longings of the human heart. If we, as Christians, are to understand and respond appropriately to this alternative “religion,” popular culture and apologetics need to be seeing a lot more of each other than they do currently. A conversation needs to take place.
The aim here is to facilitate that dialogue, for popular culture and apologetics do indeed need and imply each other. On the one hand, if popular culture has this religious dimension, then we cannot really engage popular culture as Christians without it leading to a specifically apologetical engagement. Apologetics is the time-honored (and biblically sanctioned) means of engaging a rival religion persuasively.4 On the other hand, if we understand apologetics as persuasive dialogue, as conversation aimed at swaying human desire toward God, then a robust, relevant apologetics must include popular culture. On the silver screen, over the airwaves, the internet, in magazines, and in computer games, this is where the current landscape of desire is laid out for all to see (and for all to buy into). If we are truly to understand popular culture as Christians, we need an apologetical perspective. If we are truly to engage in apologetics, we cannot do
it without popular culture. There is a necessary, reciprocal relationship between the two. Both popular culture and apologetics operate on the same terrain: the discourse of human desire. They both deal in the currency of imagination, dreams, ultimate reality, and happiness.

This article explores the dialogue between popular culture and apologetics in three parts. Part I lays out a brief theological perspective of popular culture and its religious significance. It is a complex mixture of good and bad, common grace and idolatry, aimed at engaging human desire. For that reason, a Christian understanding of it must lead to an apologetical engagement with it. Understanding the nature of popular culture leads naturally to apologetics. Part II examines the nature of apologetics as persuasion. Apologetics is not primarily about neutral “facts” but rather about the relevance of the facts. The truth of Christianity concerns not only its rationality but also its beauty, goodness, and the overall existential “rightness” of Christianity for the human condition—that is, how Christianity connects with desire. Apologetics must relate the truth of the gospel to human desire. Since popular culture deals in desire, it can aid Christian apologetical understanding of the current configuration of desire. In this way, a
consideration of the nature of apologetics naturally leads back to popular culture,
and vice versa. Finally, Part III examines why apologetics and popular culture intersect in desire. Desire is not merely an emotional or biological urge that is routinely manipulated. It should be seen primarily as a medium of revelation, which I will call “eschatological desire.” Only then will the nature of apologetics and popular culture properly come into focus.

Notes:

1. Jerry Bruckheimer, Internet Movie Database at http://us.imdb.com/Bio?Bruckheimer,+Jerry.

2. Bob Dylan, quoted in Steve Turner, Hungry for Heaven: Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Search for Redemption, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 159.

3. R. C. Zaehner, quoted in Turner, Hungry for Heaven, 1.

4. This is not to foreclose genuine religious dialogue. One can have an open, respectful dialogue with someone of another religious view while also attempting to persuade that person of the truth of one’s own faith commitment. Whenever such persuasion is attempted, it is apologetics. See 1 Kgs 18:16–39; Acts 17:16–34; 2 Cor 10:35; and of course, 1 Pt 3:15. For more detail, see chapters 3 and 4 in William Edgar, Reasons of the Heart: Recovering Christian Persuasion (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996).

Comments

Missing footnotes

Just getting into Popologetics and loving it. I teach a worldview apologetics course and a little Bible college. Did you know that you are missing footnotes 10-18 in your Popular Culture, Apologetics, and the Discourse of Desire article? Chris

Yep - baaaad bloglord.

Hi Chris,

It doesn't surprise me. I still haven't fully uploaded the article yet. I keep getting distracted by other things (like the 2 books I'm working on!). I'll get those footnotes up ASAP. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

And I'm so glad you're enjoying Popologetics.

Ted