Except for political debate, popular culture may elicit as many responses, both pro and con, as any current subject discussed by Christians. There is a range of views in our ranks about culture. This range goes from one end of a spectrum – an end which says, “stay away, stay entirely away” – to another – which says “enjoy it without serious thoughtful consideration.” I have previously admitted that I embraced one side of this debate in my early years and then the other side (or extreme) in my thirties. I now embrace a third view, one that is hopefully a bit more theologically reflective. (One must be careful here since you should know that you always tend to favor your present view as your more mature and correct view!)
So why do I think engaging with popular culture is so important? To ask this question another way I put it this way: “Why should I write blogs about movies, books, art and music?” Or, to put this even more precisely: “Why should I engage with news events and popular opinion pieces if my purpose is really the unity of the church in Christ’s mission?”
I believe that popular culture is quite often an extremely useful indicator of the “spirit of the times.” The German word for this is the Zeitgeist. I believe a faithful Christian should live in the times without being tossed about by those times. We should pay attention to the “clouds” as Jesus taught us. This means that we should learn how to “read the times” in the light of God’s revealed truth. This requires us, as the great theologian Karl Barth once advised, to read our newspaper and the Bible together. We must be alert to changing attitudes and trends in the beliefs that surround us like the ocean surrounds marine life. We can too easily assume that what we believe is always right unless we understand that the times, and our culture broadly speaking, have a great impact upon how we think. Let me explain my point clearly.
Many fundamentalists embrace a kind of certitude about what they believe the Bible teaches. This kind of certitude is most often unwarranted. It is terribly difficult to dispossess such persons of their “strong opinions” so long as they embrace and use (knowingly or unknowingly) modern (individualistic) forms of philosophical certitude.
On the other side of this equation more progressive Christians have the same problem but with a different set of modern assumptions. They tend to doubt anything that requires them to suspend their scientific and critical approach to understanding faith and the supernatural. If some aspect of the faith seems to be in conflict with their more secular assumptions then they reject the miraculous elements of the biblical storyline as incredulous.
The cultural studies pioneer Stuart Hall said that popular culture is a site where “collective social understandings are created” (cited by Steve Turner, Popcultured, 20). And fashion designer Alexander McQueen once said about his own work, “I’m making points about my time, about the times we live in. My work is a social document about the world today” (Turner, 20).
No one understood this problem better than the late Canadian communications writer Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan recognized in the 1940s that the mass culture of the day provided unique insights into the collective consciousness of the times. He engaged deeply with the assumptions behind advertisements, newspaper accounts, cartoons and other cultural icons like Tarzan, Superman and Coca-Cola. Wrote McLuhan:
Our hit parade tunes and our jazz are quite as representative of our inner lives as any old ballad is of a past way of life. As such, these popular expressions, even though produced by skillful technicians, are a valuable means of taking stock of our success or failure in developing a balanced existence (cited by Turner, 21).
I think the cartoonist Jules Feiffer said it better than anyone else: “To know the true temper of a nation’s people, turn not to its sociologists; turn to its junk” (cited by Turner, 21). The late novelist Tom Wolfe understood this as well as any modern American writer and underscored routinely the cultural twists and turns of American life for decades with alacrity and blazing insight. He believed the most significant social changes in America were first seen in popular culture. Studies have even revealed how the stock market experiences ups and downs that are deeply rooted in our popular culture!
Question: “What if the church had better understood the post-World War II culture of the 1950s?” Would we have been better prepared to deal with the radicalism of the 1960s? What if we had paid more attention to the songs on our jukeboxes and the jazz cellars of Paris, London, New York and San Francisco? Paul Simon rightly said, in the popular song, “The Sound of Silence,” that a primary place to look for prophetic utterances is on the walls of subways and tenements. I think he is far more right than most of us realize.
I return to words Jesus taught in his time, words that speak directly to this issue in our times. “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky but you cannot interpret the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3). If we are to better learn how to “interpret” the signs of our times we must learn how to understand our culture much, much better. Popular culture is so pervasive that running from it will only make our task harder while embracing it uncritically will strip away the very power of our witness to this present age. Popular culture has more to do with mission than I think most of us realize.