My Theology and My Engagement with Pop Culture

By Laura Buffington

Try as we might, we cannot escape pop culture. I could throw away my smartphone and move to a cabin in the woods, but Taylor Swift would still find me. I could try to ignore her and The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead. I could pretend Netflix never became a way of life and Twitter never became an official language. But it will all still be out there.

02_Life2_Buffington_JNWhether I open the door or not, pop culture will be around, shaping (or reflecting) the way people think, talk, and move. It is pervasive and powerful, sometimes troubling, occasionally beautiful. And while I may seek peace and quiet from all the cultural noise, running from pop culture could also mean missing some really good music.

I am convinced part of what it means to love God and serve the world is to pay attention to what has people’s attention. I need to know my world before I can serve it. I need to follow Jesus and get around a lot of tables with all kinds of people. I ought to follow Paul around Athens, learning the local gods and poems.

This is our calling as faithful people, to be present as the body of Christ wherever people are. If I’m in on that, pop culture matters. Songs and stories are where people are working out what it means to be people. If I put them through theological filters, I may find new ways of articulating what it means to be God’s people.

It may look like I’m just binge-watching The Great British Baking Show or air-banjo-playing along with Mumford and Sons, but I’m also asking these questions:

• What is this work saying about what it means to be human?

This question was at the core of my humanities courses in college and lodged in my head like the best pop songs do. To this day, whenever I take in art of any kind, or even the headlines of news stories, I ask this question.

On the surface, a movie might appear to be about robots destroying cities, or the girl finally meeting the guy, but is there an underlying narrative here about what life is? Sometimes the film reminds us that the human story is going somewhere beyond what we can see. If it’s a dark movie, with people behaving badly, with fear and violence as the soundtrack, is it a true reflection of life? Watching a movie or listening to a song that describes a life different from mine can grow my empathy and lead me in compassion.

Of course, this question is also deeply connected to what it means to be created, to be humans made by God. The more I know about us, the more I may know of the God whose image we bear.

• Why is this work resonating with people?

Whether or not we choose to pay for the movie tickets or download the songs, it’s worth it for us to consider the pieces of pop culture that capture people. I don’t have to watch the shows about zombies to engage them theologically and to wonder why they are beloved.

I may ask these questions directly. When we sit around talking about our favorite shows or movies, it’s worth it to talk about why we love them. We ought to ask each other good questions, not just about the lives we’re living, but the lives we imagine. We ought to be looking for themes in the stories we’re watching and the ones we’re living. We ought to slow down and pay attention to the words we’re repeating, whether they’re catchy song lyrics or deep-down truths. Pop culture can be a starting point for conversations that stretch far beyond a list of likes and dislikes.

Outside of personal conversations, listening in on what people love, and why, might also give us a chance to practice humility. As a person deeply invested in the life of the church, I may hear things in pop culture that are critical of the God and the big story I love. But if I want the world to listen and know this story, I need to hear theirs too. As the waves of culture crash against the things I’ve built, there is always a chance they will tear things down. But there is also the chance the waves will refine them.

In Luke 16:1-13, Jesus tells a strange story about a middle manager who uses his position to steal from his boss and gain the loyalty of customers. It’s weird for Jesus to hold up this criminal as someone to emulate. But in the commentary, Jesus clears things up: It’s a story about faithfulness. Use what you’ve got, he says. In the kingdom of God, every song, every story, even the wildest ones, can matter forever.

Laura Buffington serves as teaching pastor with SouthBrook Christian, Miamisburg, Ohio. She thinks everyone should listen to Josh Ritter, watch Gilmore Girls, and read Kevin Brockmeier. 

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2 Comments

  1. February 11, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    American “pop culture” is indeed inescapable, as Ms. Buffington said, so we don’t need to make any great effort to “pay attention to what has people’s attention.”
    Yes, Paul was able to quote a poet, but too many Christ-followers use that one verse to justify soaking in godless entertainment for 20 hours every week.
    This same Paul also instructed us, “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
    Are we allowing things that are not “pure” or “noble” to corrupt us?

    I think even “Christian entertainment” can be hurtful to the cause of Christ because of the vast number of hours we indulge in it, while saying we don’t have time to make disciples.

    Yes, we need to know a culture in order to effectively minister to it (a lesson I re-learned when we began our mission here in the Philippines), but we can know enough about culture by interacting with people.
    Real people, not images on a screen.
    When we consume tons of entertainment, we are influenced (often badly), but we don’t influence others.
    When we interact with people, we learn, & they learn.

    I’m a former music addict.
    Now, I couldn’t care less if I’m “missing some really good music” (whether secular or Christian), because hearing new converts giving glory to God is music to my ears. 🙂

  2. Justin Vest
    February 12, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    I think this could use a companion piece highlighting the dangers of pop culture consumption, its inferiority to the pop culture of the past, and what to do to counteract its effects.

    C.S. Lewis wrote that, for every “modern” book he read, he would read two significantly older ones. As Peter Falk’s character said to his grandson played by Fred Savage in The Princess Bride, “In my day, television was called BOOKS.”

    In other words, one must read and consume the products of our past to counteract today’s prevailing zeitgeist. For example, roughly fifty years ago The Crystals had a monstrous hit called “And Then He Kissed Me” (nearly everyone knows it, I think the main character sang it to the opening credits of Adventures in Babysitting). The innocence of the lyrics, representative of its time, lie in stark, condemning contrast to the banality and base sensuality of what passes for a hit today.

    This comment shows how fully immersed in pop culture I am, I realize, but one episode of The Walking Dead is enough to make me wonder how so many people could enjoy subjecting themselves to such oppressive hopelessness. Didn’t need to read beyond Book One of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series to wonder how such boring, pointless nihilism sold tens of millions of copies.

    Pop culture need not be altogether shunned, but it requires a high degree of caution for believers. Compatibility between Christianity and popular culture is an historical aberration, and I’m afraid that period ended sometime in the eighties. I wish it were not so.

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