TRADING PLACES: Religion and Popular Culture by the not-so-reverend bob

As I neared my high school graduation, I applied for admission to a Christian college in southern California.  My older brother was a student there, so I stayed with him when I went out to visit the school and interview in person.  One evening during this visit we went to the weekly movie night at the campus chapel.  The film was something from Disney.  This was a conservative school and while enrolled any students under 21 had to remain on campus and could not date members of the opposite sex unsupervised.  “Worldly” entertainments — such as contemporary films — were frowned upon.  I was pondering these restrictions as my brother and I walked in to the chapel that night, and I must have been discussing this with him in the context of the entire student population attending a film showing on campus.  His insightful summation of the seeming paradox was this:  “We cannot condone, but we can imitate”.  I have carried that thought in my mind ever since.

This was during a time when the American Christian population had not been identified as the lucrative second-tier market for media, music and entertainment that it now is.  Back then it was mostly crusades, Bibles and Christian books.  But the rising tide of popular culture was, it seems, such a distracting influence on “the young” that a certain relaxation of standards began to evidence itself.  Before long, electric guitars were working their way into Church “music ministries”, along with bass guitars and drums.  “Christian Rock” began to move into the mainstream of American Evangelicalism.  The process was gradual.  People needed time to adjust, after all, as the Christian Rock sounded an awful lot like secular rock with different words.  Which is precisely the point: the “worldly” culture’s tools of seduction were magically redeemed by Godly intention.  That intention alone (along with the inclusion of certain terms and phrases) suddenly meant that young Christians could rock, but only if Christians were playing the tune.

Eventually, the lag time between the appearance of a new form of popular music or entertainment and the creation of it’s holy doppelgänger shortened: Christian Rap, for example, took a very short time to follow its secular form into the Evangelical mainstream.  Now there exists a veritable industry that absorbs whatever is popular and remakes it, seasons it with just the right amount of religious aphorisms, packages it and ships it out to Christian bookstores.  My brother was right: They cannot condone, but they can imitate.

It was in the final year of my Christianity (while a missionary in Europe) that I finally began to see the ramifications of this dance between American Evangelicalism and popular culture.  In essence it is this:  The Bible commands the followers of Jesus to “Come out from the world, and be ye separate!”, which believers take to mean that we must follow the commands and teachings of Jesus, which are based upon the eternal truths of God and his righteousness.  In short, we are not to behave as the “world” does.  There are actually two counteracting forces that influence the working out of this in a believer’s life:  One: A belief that one is basing his or her life and behavior on eternal, unchanging precepts, and; Two: That popular culture is not bound by these precepts, and is free to follow after whatever fancy grabs its popular imagination.

Clearly there were times (at least as described in the Bible) where God’s followers saw a clear difference between their righteous behavior and that of the culture around them (Lot in Sodom, various prophets in Israel).  But, generally, good behavior is good behavior, and the need to be seen as different takes on a much larger importance.  Hence the Scottish Presbyterians prohibited music (even hymns) in their services at one time.  (Today it’s difficult to imagine a church service without hymns and music).  Where I’m going with this is this:  it is very easy to see a situation where the very ground the church has staked out as representing a holy life apart could — over time — be taken over and occupied by the popular culture around it as the fashions and tastes of that culture change.  The church would then be forced to assume a contradictory position to that of the popular culture to preserve the needed appearance of separateness.  Because popular culture is a moving target, religion also must move to keep from being absorbed into the very culture it is determined to redeem.  In short — the Church and culture are ever in motion: culture moving where it will and the Church moving to maintain its appearance of separate-ness.

Hence what modern Evangelicalism envisions as a more homogenous and God-fearing culture seems to be a fuzzy snapshot of America the 1950’s, or the late 19th Century (during the “Great Awakening” evangelical movements).  And yet the standards of behavior and the elements of popular culture absorbed or imitated by believers during those purer times would very likely shock believers from even earlier eras.  Think of it for a moment: would a respected Christian minister from 1955 hold on to his position were he to welcome his flock to a sunday service with a Christian heavy metal band?  Not bloody likely.

And so the dance continues, but at a pace (always relative to the popular culture) that doesn’t feel like a major shift (very important to a conservative population).  But major shifts occur.  In popular culture such shifts are primarily the concern of the marketing folks who have to sell whatever inventory they have on hand, and therefore keep an eye on what the next “hot” trend is going to be.  It is just such shifting and change that keeps commerce alive and healthy.  But the church must maintain the impression of stability, of an unchanging relationship to an unchanging God.  (There are groups like the Amish that take this to an extreme, yet even they have picked a specific time in popular culture and fixed it as a point beyond which they will not budge.  They draw the line at zippers, but wear pants and shoes that Jesus could not have imagined.  Their choice, though quaint, is in the end arbitrary).

Perhaps I need to state that there is no crime being committed here by American Evangelicalism (we’re social animals, we all want to fit in), but there is a self-deception at work.  For in essence what is most sought after is that delicate balance of just enough difference to appear above it all, but not so great a distance from the mainstream that the average secular person is simply, well, appalled at the backwardness of belief.  For each believer is commanded to be a “witness”, a walking advertisement for how following God makes you happier, healthier, wiser (humbler?) and, well, better than the average bear (or evolved primate).  So, “mega-church” Pastor Rick Warren re-packages modern popular psychology as a God-centered book and sells a gazillion copies, even as Evangelicalism decries that same modern psychology as anti-god secular humanism;  So-called Creation “Scientists” labor to cherry pick genuine scientific discoveries to bolster their young-earth hokum, while painting any opposing scientific claims as “the foolishness of man”.

There remain large swathes of western art history wherein the great works of art were those paid for by the Church.  Artists are, as a rule, “the property of the rich” (as the crass saying goes) and so it’s little wonder they gravitated to where the work was.  The same applies today, where second-tier artists and intellectuals, musicians and writers can (when mainstream popular culture has shunned them) yet find work and a living in the now fully-blossomed Evangelical Economy — the holy doppelgänger” of our nation’s economy at large. (The credentials aren’t hard to master and the vocabulary’s easy to learn, after which they can — like rock musicians that play country music because that’s where the current gigs are — keep on doing what they’ve always done).  There are now Christian theme parks where you can see Jesus crucified every afternoon, or visit the Creation Museum where a Bronze-age middle-eastern child plays near (what looks like) a late Cretaceous velociraptor (and you can, I’m sure,purchase all sorts of mementos from a fully-stocked gift shop the equal of any secular museum).

Part of the problem in all of this is a classic and longstanding one for us humans: our sociability brings us together, even as our tribalism clots us into small groups that need a clearly defined sense of “differentness” to maintain cohesion (in the absence, that is, of familial ties).  Basically, we want to be our own tribe while having everything that the other tribes have.  I have no real issue with this.  I am quite sympathetic to the mix of needs, desires and ideas that we human animals carry within us.  I only have issue with the occasions in which our tribalism threatens the safety or happiness of the species.  For instance, I doubt we’ll ever see a Model Railroading club turn into a terrorist cell that blows Amtrak trains off the rails because they displaced the older, way-cooler steam engines.  Hobbyists recognize the individuality of their interests: geek seeks geek.  But religion adds another element, where it is not enough to be another human being with a particular interest.  With religion one is promised something quite a few steps above that: a shared interest with the one, true God of the Universe.  If God were into model trains, toy stores around the world would soon be terrorist targets for selling models rockets or radio-controlled cars.

I was accepted to that Christian college, by the way, under the condition that I never speak aloud of my belief in the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” or “speaking in tongues” (I was a “Charismatic” Christian then but the college was Baptist).  The acceptance letter that gave me that mixed news broke my young believing heart.  Weren’t we all believers in the same God, in the same Jesus?  Well, yes and, well, no.  Even among believers in the same God, we crave separateness, specialness, and a sense of being a slightly better believer than the guy next to you, and religion accommodates.  Even within American Evangelicalism the dance to maintain the oppositional geometry continues.

It’s sort of a grown-up version of what we do as kids (if you’re from a large family of siblings like I am you’ll understand): we want what our brothers (or sisters) have, but stake out our own interests in order to establish our own identity.  In my family, we tended toward respecting each other’s boundaries of interest, as we tended to steer clear of each other’s girlfriends (the operative phrase here being “tended to”).  That’s natural behavioral stuff, pretty standard.  But then we weren’t trying to make a religious dogma out of it.

We humans are actually fairly predictable in our behavior, and most of us have a pretty good working knowledge of what to expect from each other.  Which makes it all the more puzzling that religion persists in successfully selling a hyper-tribal behavior as an enlightened pursuit of righteousness and God, that believers of all stripes fail to see the unholy dance of difference for what it is:  A posturing that locks them into forever keeping an eye on the whims and shifts in popular culture so that they can maintain the appearance of separateness.

I’m reminded of a chapter from the book “Strange Angel: The Gospel According to Benny Joe” by Ben Davis (see the review on this site), where the author (who grew up in a deeply Pentecostal culture in south Texas) struggles with his emerging homosexuality while in Bible college and eventually finds himself in gay bars where he’s shocked to recognize more than a few practicing evangelists cruising for some action.  He learns the sad truth often at work in Religion: the preacher presents the illusion, and it is left to the poor believer to figure out how to make it really work in their life.

And so the religious are no more anchored in an unchanging reality than the rest of us.  But in this (as in our other shared human behaviors — including popular culture) religion cannot risk giving the appearance of approval, and so they imitate what they can…and hide the rest.

the not-so-reverend bob

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One Response to “TRADING PLACES: Religion and Popular Culture by the not-so-reverend bob”

  1. dave putnam says:

    growing faiths or thought r growing from all form of sources, from outside and within. its normal, 2012, dec. 21 or whatever, is or not, if not, then what happen, if something, but not what groups of faith or not, what will they do. question, is what would happen if chiest did come. or God came. what would happen or would the faith really want it. for it means the truth not what people or groups think but truth?? i bet they wouldn’t want it. for they find their faith is not the truth at all!