How Pop Culture Makes the Church Stupid

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It’s that time of year again.

Summer is in full swing, the sun is blazing in all its effulgent glory, and churches turn to Hollywood to supply the spiritual content for their dwindling summer contingent. That’s right, it’s time for the dreaded At The Movies series that will be performed in some fashion or another at an ungodly number of churches at some point during the dog days of summer.

The basic idea is this: a church will take whatever blockbuster films are currently in vogue (or, more realistically, have already run the course of their cultural value) and try to find the “gospel” in the movie. That is, what spiritual meaning/lesson/reality/whatever can be extracted from what otherwise may have absolutely nothing to do with what is being drawn out of it?

Now, this may of course sound fairly contrived, and one might be forgiven for thinking exactly that. The more cynical among us might even see the entire enterprise as a desperate-yet-all-too-transparent attempt to bait-and-switch potential attendees into one’s church by piggybacking on whatever is currently the pop cultural soup du jour, this transparency laid bare by churches arguing that such series are their most popular ones.

Exactly what relation the appropriation of film clips or the like has with worshiping God is perhaps best not thought about too deeply.

What happens, of course, is that in embracing pop culture as worship evangelism we allow the Zeitgeist to form the content and direction of our worship. It may be argued that the message doesn’t change but the medium in which that message is expressed does, but the reality that perhaps too few churches are willing to come to grips with is how correct McLuhan was in noting that the medium is the message. In other words, the way in which the message is communicated forms to some extent or another (generally more than one realizes) the content of that message, both in terms of how it is delivered and how it is received.

Naturally, the invasion of pop culture into the church has had its vocal proponents, usually couched in terms of relevance and relate-ability, often accompanied by lamenting that the church seems to have less and less to say to the surrounding culture. The thought then is that if we use the idioms and cultural touchpoints that characterize pop culture right here and right now, we will suddenly have more to be able to say, or the world will be much more willing to listen. It is often argued (granted, without much exegetical fidelity) that there are biblical examples of bringing pop culture to bear upon the gospel, or vise-versa, thus providing us a roadmap of how to engage our current culture in relevant and meaningful ways.

After all, it is patently obvious that playing a few clips from a 3 month old movie is the deciding factor between the church’s cultural influence or lack thereof…

The absurdity of the church’s embrace of pop culture would perhaps be amusing if it weren’t so destructive, the destructive nature of which is often hidden under shoulder shrugging of “what’s the big deal” or more full-throated attempts to defend the use thereof. It might be argued that the church always needs to engage culture, and that is no doubt true. The equivocation, however, is found in rendering culture synonymous with pop-culture, and therein lies the distinction of why the latter makes the church so stupid.

Culture is an integral part of the human experience, forged in the interactions of people in space and time. While culture is influenced by custom, language, tradition, politics and the like, it primarily arises from the bottom-up. That is, the experience of people in society over time forges culture in an organic and generally decidedly non-manufactured way, which is why cultural idioms can be so powerful, and why cultural norms can persist so doggedly over generations and in the face of numerous competing obstacles and such.

Of course, culture is a human artifact, and thus takes upon itself all the nobility of our race’s better angels as well as all the depravity of our kind’s worst demons. Culture is not completely amoral, but much of it does have moral content, which is to be expected as it helps to form the moral norms of those who inhabit any particular culture.

Pop culture, on the other hand, is not merely “whatever culture happens to be the most significant right now” but is rather a very modern western phenomenon. In contrast to the bottom-up nature of culture, pop-culture is decidedly top-down, in that it is intentionally manufactured expressly for the consumption of the masses. It does not grow out of the experiences of the people in a culture and their interactions with each other over time, but is specifically designed for a specific moment in time, to capture a specific demographic or to appeal to a specific subset. It is crafted to cause one to think a certain way about X or to perceive Y in such a manner, all with the intent to consume the product being developed and marketed.

Indeed, pop-culture would have been completely ineffective in previous generations before marketing became a much more developed science and art and before industrialization came to define the way the masses interacted with products.

Since culture (in its bottom-up sense) takes upon itself all the nobility and foibles of the humans who inhabit and create it, it will naturally have its moments of sublimity and utter banality. However, even the banal tends to brush up against a culture’s own self-critique, as culture arises from the experiences of those within it. Thus cultures can laugh at their own expense about their own self-perceived silliness, how they make of much importance things that are trifles, how they have certain vices or failings that others would not dream of indulging in, etc. Banality is never fully extricated, but neither does it form the essence of the cultural milieu. The peasants of the Middle Ages may have been uneducated and prone like all to the banal and the crude, but they could nevertheless appreciate the need for the grandeur of cathedrals in their towns, and sacrifice to make such things a reality.

At the very least they could perceive a distinction between the two impulses.

Pop culture, on the other hand, is entirely about manufactured banality, intended as it is to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It is not intended as a trifle among other cultural artifacts that is part and parcel of culture as a whole, but is specifically designed to be as banal and superficial as it can be, to bring out the basest impulses of the masses, to form the idioms and consumption of the culture to which it is marketed. In this manner it necessarily supplants culture by attempting to create its own, and must do so by leveling as many cultural norms, idiosyncrasies and distinctives as possible. 

It is this distinction which gives the lie to arguments that the Scriptures make the case for engagement with pop culture. It should hardly need mentioning, but the anachronism of the question itself is startling. After all, pop culture is a very modern phenomenon, something that would have been impossible in the time of Jesus or St. Paul. Jesus of course was conversant with cultural idioms, but to posit any synonymity between, say, an agricultural metaphor which expressed the long-standing relation of humankind to the earth and whatever mindless action film is highest grossing this summer borders on the absurd. Similarly for St. Paul, whose quotations of pagan thinkers of long-standing pedigree was not a case of cultural aggiornamento but rather a rhetorical cudgel with which to bludgeon his opponents.

It was noted earlier that the medium is the message, and nowhere is this more true than in pop culture. Its message is ultimately consumption, and large scale industrialized consumption at that. The various forms that pop culture can take are merely the aesthetic trappings of this raison d’etre.

Understood in this light, it is questionable exactly what value pop culture is supposed to bring to churches who engage with it. As the Latin has it: nemo dat quad non habet. That is, one cannot give what one does not have. As intentionally bereft of meaning as pop culture is manufactured to be, and as intentionally ephemeral as it is crafted to be, perhaps left unasked (and certainly unanswered) is exactly why we in our churches are so desperate to display our pop culture bona fides.

This is further exacerbated in that much of pop culture is created to be as hostile to what the church proclaims as possible. Its underlying values and presuppositions are often antithetical to a Christian understanding of the good, such that it is almost comical that we try and take it and employ it as we do in the name of “reaching” people, inherently placing our imprimatur on that which we ultimately claim to disdain, yet not enough to not consume it ourselves and recommend the consumption within our very worship, ostensibly in our desire to worship God and create experiences with God.

If it is objected that we are using pop culture to bring about some other good, it might be noticed that we tend to market our use of pop-culture in nearly precisely the same ways as it is marketed to us, and evaluate its effectiveness using nearly identical metrics. If we weren’t trying to play on the consumption angle of pop culture, why exactly do we use it at all or see it as a way to bring about our own end product?

Of course, things are perhaps rarely as high-stakes as this scenario might suggest. After all, a lot of pop culture is relatively benign, is it not, so what exactly is the big deal about using a smattering of it if it makes people feel more comfortable?

Never asked is whether the presupposition of worship being a “comfortable” thing is a valid one. Reading the scriptures and reflecting upon the nature of worship for even a moment, one might be forgiven for finding the concept laughable. In nearly every encounter with God or even angels in the scriptures, the person having the “experience” is generally convinced that they are about to die at any moment. Not exactly a comfortable experience.

Our faith and theology purports to understand God as the ground of all being, the Lord of the universe, the sovereign of all creation. We use phrases like consuming fire to describe God. We talk about him being in the crash of waterfalls and the rage of the oceans. We sing about how he puts the stars in place and is powerful beyond imagining.

But then we imagine that being in the presence of such a being is supposed to be a comfortable one.

The “what’s the big deal” argument shows its true colors here and exposes its real danger, in precisely that often it’s really not a big deal. But what that ultimately says about us is that we have so tamed God and our experience of him that the things we do in worship ultimately don’t matter. It says that we can bring trifles into our worship that aren’t a big deal, and that’s ok because it’s not a big deal. We ultimately say that God isn’t worth the laying aside of our trifles.

In an earlier post I mentioned the story of how one Sunday at Mass the priest took time to show us his Star Wars socks. It was of course when one of the newer Star Wars movies was in theaters, and of course it got some laughs and applause. All in all a fairly trivial and light-hearted moment. Nothing about it was a big deal.

Which, of course, was precisely the problem. Most of our lives are consumed by our consumption, and in the modern world pop culture tends to dominate or at least largely inform that consumption. It shapes how we think, what we think, and often how we perceive things. Yet here in this one paltry hour set aside to worship God that is ostensibly supposed to be for God and for God alone, pop culture still has to rear its ugly head. I mentioned earlier how it must necessarily supplant culture, and here more than anywhere else this was perfectly evident.

It was a lighthearted moment that wasn’t a big deal. Yet that moment ceased completely to be about God at all and became completely about a manufactured pop cultural item. Its all-encompassing consumption breached the walls of the church, and its impact and its utter banality ceased to be limited to the theaters or the television, but became a part of the sacred, precisely by displacing it entirely. The moment itself which wasn’t a big deal actually became simply another commercial for the pop cultural item, another chance for its enticement to consumption to be felt by as much of the masses as possible.

The terrifying thing about this whole scenario was how innocuous and trivial it was. Neither did it require untoward motives, nor need any be presumed. Rather, its insidious nature thrives on its very banality and ubiquity, as it can worm its way into anything without much resistance, and often without even the slightest realization of what happens.

And since the medium is the message, by employing pop culture as the vernacular through which the gospel is mediated, pop culture comes to define (to whatever extent it is used) the imagination with which the gospel is heard and understood, and thereby its presuppositions, values and the like come to form the framework in which the gospel ultimately takes its meaning or at least uses as its launching point.

Our churches become stupid; we get shallower in our theology and more inarticulate in our doctrine. St. Paul warned that bad company corrupts good character, and this is not simply an interpersonal challenge. The more we fasten our message to the banal and the shallow and the ephemeral, the more it becomes indistinguishable from those things, and taking on only as much meaning, substance and durability as the pop cultural artifacts we tie it to. It becomes more and more difficult for us to communicate the gospel outside of the pop cultural vernacular, and it ever so subtly yet inevitably takes on pop culture’s accent. Eventually we talk ourselves into believing that this is the only way to communicate our faith, and the metaphors that pop culture as a whole supplies for us form our religious imagination, until it eventually stops being terribly religious at all.

The sacred and the secular become ultimately interchangeable, and half of the time we don’t notice or even encourage such things.

Thus the great mystery of faith gets banalized because of how it is communicated, and often so we can have something that is “relevant” or “fun,” and the seeming success of its usage spurs us onward in it. Yet do we actually understand that we are merely providing more commercials for the consumption that pop culture as a product markets incessantly?

And why exactly do we find it so difficult to tear ourselves away from pop culture’s manufactured banality for even an hour? We use its images, we broadcast its noise, we speak its language, we appropriate its values. We flatten out anything that might possibly make our faith or religion stand out, that might make it potentially difficult to accept or understand. We remake the gospel into yet another manufactured banality, specially crafted to be mass consumed, and our worship turns into just another commercial.

Are we so unconvinced of what we have to offer that we have to clothe it in the latest ephemera from the bowels of consumer culture? Do we so despise the beauty and mystery of our faith that we must lace it with whatever absurdity is manufactured for mass consumption? Are we actually capable any more of articulating the precepts of our faith without recourse to the trivial or the banal or the popular?

If the church doesn’t have much to say to the world anymore, could it perhaps be because in most ways it is saying the exact same things that the world does? 

  

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By deviantmonk

Jason Watson

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