The church and popular culture

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 never not 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.

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4 thoughts on “The church and popular culture”

  1. “ To often when churches [set out] 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.”

    That’s exactly what I had in mind — these words and the next paragraph seem to hit the point I care most about. As I said in the comments, I was thinking mostly about the trite sermons and the un-nuanced, portentous finger-wagging about what we ought to do. You (and Mary and Dylan) exemplify the best of the convergent interest in popular culture and theology; more often, I hear this cry from people who remind me more of the high school principal in Ferris Bueller than of Jack Black’s portrayal of Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. . . .

  2. Some of your observations Jordon converge with mine about cultural exegesis and comprehension. All too often what passes for profundity is nothing more than a sip of the foam-milk on the top of a cappuccino. Beneath the foam lies the depth in the beans, hot-water/milk, and the perceptive understanding, analysis and practical missional responses to that depth are sorely lacking. This is especially poignant with reference to the impact of non-Christian spiritualities that have not only appeared in postmodernity but given tremendous shape to postmodernity.

  3. Found your blog via Technorati. Thank you for a very thoughtful post.

    What are examples, to you, of the church engaging serious cultural issues? – Your example of songs degrading women and the implied study of psychology seems to say that how we regard, not merely treat women, is one issue that the Church might want to address. –

    I should say that I don’t think the church ultimately can engage issues on the level you speak of. This is not cynicism as much as this thought: the facile comparisons between the Lion King and the Gospel are being drawn because it is the Gospel’s Truth which matters most. If a theologically accurate point is made outside of Scripture, that may deepen one’s faith, but it might cause others to reconsider their faith. Scripture is about obedience, not the intellect.

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