Any serious thinking about popular culture must take into account the amount of time we have to spend in the sphere of modern culture. Steve Turner rightly concludes: “It’s hard to argue that the Bible is a source of guidance when dealing with such areas of life as money, marriage, family, relationships, work, worship and prayer but has nothing useful to say when it comes to culture” (Popcultured, 19).
In reality what we now call popular culture is the result of the increase of leisure time we have in Western society. We can decry this all we want but it is reality for all but the extremely poor and in the West most poor people consume television, and music, to some degree, if not to large degrees as never before in human society. Great Britain’s Office for National Statistics reported in 2010 that Britons were spending nine times as much on recreation and culture as they had only forty years earlier in 1970. There has been a huge shift from material goods to experience, as another survey revealed. These experiences are generally connected to our use of popular culture.
This can be illustrated by thinking about four generations in my family. My material grandfather was a rice farmer in Arkansas. he worked from before sun up to sun down six days a week. He had no time or ability to relate to what I am calling popular culture. The only “free” day he had, and it was not entirely free, was Sunday and my mother tells me he often fell asleep in church. No wonder. My dad was a dedicated dentist. He worked five and a half days a week from 10-12 hours a day. He often went to the office during the night for emergencies. He had some free time and would often take me to a baseball game or a college football game, which is where I got my love for these types of entertainment. I have more time and invest it in pursuits my dad would never have had the time for, such as fiction, a wide assortment of music, (more) sports and film. My two children have even more time and, perhaps, wider interests in some instances.
I can still remember listening to my first small transistor radio as a boy in the 1950s. I would sneak it under the covers at night and attempt to find a major league baseball game to listen to in my bed. Now I listen to games on my iPhone from anywhere in the U.S. and even watch games on the same device. I could go on but you get my point. As more time has been given to us, and more technology makes more culture available, we consume more than ever. Surely this modern context requires serious Christians to think about culture and theology.
In 2010 Rolling Stone magazine polled its readers and found that over one day per week was spent immersed in popular culture. Almost 95% of those polled said music was “extremely or very important” to their lives. When asked if they could have only one popular culture form of entertainment 64% said it would be music and only 17% said television.
If you do not think this all adds up to a significant part of our lives consider this – you are reading this post on a computer or internet connected device. In a few decades our world has been transformed and again our time is being invested in new ways never before imagined. This revolution is even changing how people relate to popular culture in places that have never been able to experience it.
I think one of the most important reasons to better understand popular culture is because it has become a (the) primary place for debate and thinking, or not thinking as is often the case, in our society. If our faith is a thinking and living faith then we must engage with people where they live and think. Consider Paul making a speech on the Areopagus, a small place where speakers and debaters gathered in ancient Greece. Why is this important? Because it was here that Paul went to hear the latest ideas and to present the Christian faith to those who would listen.
Finally, if we do not think about popular culture, and engage it theologically, we have little or no chance of impacting what people will hear and see and very little chance to reach them where they actually spend so much of their time.