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Faith and Pop Culture

We could argue for a long time about the poorly-conceived efforts of self-proclaimed Christians to “take back the culture for Jesus” in a militaristic us-vs.-them mentality. See some of my thoughts on the matter here and here.  I think occasionally of a flip side of this question though – what it might look like for people of faith to speak into and contribute to pop culture in a way that is neither propagandist nor disingenuous to their journey of faith. It is perhaps easy to just back away from the question, to assume that pop culture is inherently opposed to the point of view of Christian faith and the authentic voices of faith will be by and large silenced or edited down to neutrality. But what if the goal isn’t necessarily to influence or change pop culture, but to be conversant with it and perhaps have something to say on its own terms? After all, I don’t think it can be denied that pop culture influences how we view ourselves and the world around us.

watchingtv1950ent1-767606With the visual art media for example – film, TV and the like (probably stage also although I can’t count myself among the twelve people who have gone to the theater in the last decade) – what people see can be extraordinarily effective in influencing their perception of things. Think for example of the holocaust. I can’t form a visual picture of it without referencing Schindler’s List. Or World War II – Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, and Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima movies all come pretty quickly to mind. The way I perceive these events has been pretty significantly affected by these films.

These are fairly iconic examples, but I think this applies to more subtle life situations as well. Romance and gender relations, friendship, parenting, and even faith are all modeled for us, for better or worse, in pop culture. (I can count on one hand I think the films I have seen with a character demonstrating faith in a redeeming fashion. Signs…Chariots of Fire…that’s all I can think of. Not counting movies based on the Bible of course.)

Anyhow, my thought here is that what we see and experience in pop culture on some level influences our perception of people and circumstances, if ever so subtly, and even though in engaging in pop culture we generally don’t set out to discover and adopt these ways of living. I remember a friend suggesting once that America’s rampant obesity might be tied to our cultural obsession with skinniness by way of the skinny people we see on TV and in movies. Perhaps so.

I certainly think that people of faith contributing to what our culture as a whole ingests as entertainment or art is worth pursuing. I don’t think it’s a matter of “taking back our culture for Jesus” or any of that crap; it’s more that I don’t see many examples of artists of faith expressing their creativity in a way that is not disingenuous to their own faith journey. This I think would be pretty remarkable to observe.

megaphoneAll this said, I think there is a difference between a call to the arts and a call to influence pop culture. Any person of faith with an awareness of an artistic gifting I think should reckon with a call to the arts; a call to influence pop culture I think is much more rare when it actually occurs (as opposed to people in the first category who also artificially presume the second).

It doesn’t seem appropriate to expect (or even hold out much hope) that a person of faith’s efforts toward the arts will be of the missional sort, having the kind of impact on other people that brings more love, hope and other God-things into their lives. This is perhaps a grossly under-thought statement, but I lump pop culture in general in with other expressions and institutions of the world as a whole, like politics and the economy, in the sense that a person who orients their life around their faith in God should be conversant with it and contribute to it as appropriate, but will likely meet with immense frustration if they make it a primary venue of their expression of faith.

And not to entirely contradict myself, but for folks who do consider themselves as having a call to the arts, pop culture can and in ways perhaps should be a great place to express that call, especially for those who appreciate pop culture, enjoy it and perhaps have something to say on its terms. That said, for the rest of us I’m sure there is no shame if our art never goes beyond, say, a small local production, or a modest circulation among friends. In the end, while the artist certainly should have something to say, I don’t think the process of creating art can incorporate the art’s expected impact too much before it begins to cross the line into propaganda.

People don’t particularly look to art for answers or for a right view of the world. As a friend of mine  said recently, “the reason I watch anything and everything is to find moments of magic.” I think this is perhaps a better expression of what a call to the arts should mean than whether or not it is relevant or influential on pop culture’s terms.

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  1. February 4, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    I completely agree with the spirit of this post. Pop-culture is our culture and I think we can work with it and through it instead of fighting it.

    We look at the state of marriage in America and I think a lot of the failures can be linked to our pop-cultures/media portrayal (or lack of portrayal) of marriages. So often films are about the chase and not the struggle to make it work meaning that society is not really enabling dialogue on that subject.

    That being said there are a lot of great films with positive messages. They may not call themselves “Christian” or “Religious” films, but still exhibit the positive qualities as such. You’ve mentioned a few, and I am trying to create a dialogue on my blog to help tease out the positive, spiritual, and ethical in film. I also try to promote projects of individuals who are trying to make a difference with their film.

    By engaging in the dominant culture we can change the conversation in a positive way, rather than an aggressive “culture war” way like you mentioned.

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