I don’t often disagree with AKMA becasue despite us looking at the world from different theological traditions, I find him right far more than not. I read with interest his post on the church and popular culture.
Somewhere between “helpful” and “neurotic” lies the terrain on which people (very often church people) insist that the church’s leadership should immerse itself more fully in popular culture. On this suggestion, I wish to register a forceful dissent.
His dissent is this
When I hear this suggestion, context often suggests two more precise implications for the proposal. The less laudable reduces to the complaint that “the church doesn’t pay enough attention to the kind of popular culture I like.” So a homilist may scold me for not being sufficiently in touch with popular culture because I don’t watch TV or attend many movies — although I listen to rock’n’roll constantly, and spend recreational hours playing online games.
The more responsible version of the complaint entails (though I’ve
nevernot usually heard this point made explicitly) that the church’s engagement with popular culture rarely escapes a stupefying aye-or-nay binarism. For a while, I heard abundant sermons about The Lion King, none of which raised the theologically- and culturally-critical questions that the movie raised. Instead, as best I recall (and I did try to suppress these memories), they drew facile comparisons between the characters in the movie with characters in the gospels, and noted with facile satisfaction the similarity of the young lion’s spiritual journey to Jesus’ (or ours).
If the church were a more congenial ecology for learning and critical reflection, the “popular culture” topos might bring to the surface more interesting issues: what shall we say about earnest disciples of Jesus who enjoy listening to songs with persistently misogynistic themes, or how we should negotiate the complications of Christian involvement with technology. If you’re just going to bash or endorse an ill-defined glob of under-examined cultural phenomena, though, I’d rather turn my iPod on or go play Warcraft.
As someone who does believe that the church needs to pay more attention to popular culture, I suppose I should disagree with AKMA but he has a valid point in that when the church does engage in popular culture, it often does a really bad job. The greater point is not more sermons based on whatever marginally spiritual offering from Hollywood but being more immersed in popular culture allows the church to do what AKMA is asking and that is engage in the bigger issues of society (which this may be news to evangelicals, are larger than gay marriage and abortion). To do that, you need to be in touch with culture enough to realize that people in the church enjoy listening to songs with persistently misogynistic themes and then know the best way to address the issues. To often when churches to “engage in culture”, the desired result is to use culture to affirm church culture or to make church culture acceptable to the wider culture instead of any real engagement with it.
From my own experience, the very few churches who are actually involved in their local culture and context (not the watered down idea of culture that passes for a Friends episode) are also the ones that value theology, discipleship, and pursue truth with passion. I don’t know if it is a pursuit for truth that makes these communities more comfortable with dealing with the issues of culture (rather than the facial features on a lion) or if their engagement with culture leads them to pursue theology and discipleship but I take less offense with them than I do with the pursuit of culture as a way to boost attendance or to appear cool.