Last week I asked a much-debated question raised by the patristic theologian Tertullian: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” I observed that Tertullian was primarily concerned about what role philosophy had in dealing with the Christian faith. The same question, as I showed previously, can be applied to popular culture. What place does Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue have with Christ?
I am persuaded that far too few Christians have a serious view of culture, especially of popular culture. From TV shows to modern fiction we range from the extreme of “total separation” all the way to “uncritical acceptance.” Without a carefully developed theology of culture it seems to me that wide pendulum swings will inevitably characterize the Christian’s engagement with popular culture. Reconciling one’s faith with art, for example, has troubled more than a few Christians that I have known over the years. In my early Christian experience I personally ranged from general confusion, into a brief period of separation and then toward a wide-scale (uncritical) acceptance. Because I did not dig into the content of how my theology related to this issue I was quite often ambivalent.
My Christian understanding now leads me to the conclusion that culture, including popular culture, is a great gift. For this reason we should take it seriously. Try to imagine a human society without culture. (Of course, you cannot do this if you think about it for long.) Such a society would not be truly human since one of the marks of something being distinctly human, a mark that distinguishes us from the animals, is how we express ourselves in the creation and the formation of culture. We could easily eat from paper plates and drink from styrofoam cups. But we embellish our eating and drinking with colors, shapes and texture. And we form the accounts of human events into great stories and films and turn sounds into music. We paint plain walls and create murals to add more texture and feeling. We dress differently and style our hair because we like how we look. This is all human culture.
Theologians began forming a response to culture by making an appeal to Genesis where God instructed Adam to reproduce, farm the land and name the animals. They call this the “cultural mandate.” The very word cultivate, which is commonly associated with plowing, weeding, sowing, pruning and harvesting has the same root as culture. Culture, at least as I am using the word here, refers to how humans do this work in ordinary daily life. Steve Turner is right when he says of this human work: “Culture should enhance our lives” (Turner, Popcultured, 2013, 17).
Popular culture, in particular, allows us a multi-textured context for human growth and debate. New ways of thinking and living are explored in this way. Music and literature do this very well. So do film and art. It is hard to understand what is happening in our society without reference to producers, directors and script writers.
The Scripture has many injunctions to glorify God in every aspect of our lives. St. Paul says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31. NRSV). Eating and drinking are two of the most basic aspects of daily life. Steve Turner astutely observes:
Eating and drinking are two of the most basic survival requirements. Other than in the cases of dietary laws, the avoidance of gluttony, the feeding of the hungry and the receiving of bread and wine in the Eucharist, there would seem to be no obvious connection between meals and religion. Yet Paul thought that consuming food and drink could be done in a glorifying way, and therefore, we must deduce, it has the potential of being done in a less than glorifying manner. If the “whatever you do” is broad enough to cover food and drink, it’s certainly broad enough to cover popular culture (Turner, Popcultured, 18).
The vast majority of us are bombarded by popular culture in many forms every single day of our lives. It stands to reason that serious theology has something to say that should influence our lives in this area quite powerfully. How do you watch the news, buy clothes, prepare food and enjoy entertainment with a God-centered view of all of life? Inevitably this is the very question that must lead you to more seriously ponder what Athens has to do with Jerusalem.