The Newest Pop Theology Member

It’s our pleasure to welcome new contributor Tony Mills to the Pop Theology team. Tony is a PhD graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and, well, I’ll just let him tell you more about himself in the questionnaire after the jump. Welcome Tony! I know everyone’s going to enjoy your contributions.

Pop Theology: Tell us about your attraction to popular culture and why you feel like it is a fitting/important conversation partner for doing theology/religion/spirituality/etc.

Tony: I grew up in a middle-class Midwestern home which was not very religious, so pop culture artifacts like movies, music, and TV were staples of my exposure to culture, and my parents rarely had any scruples about what I heard or viewed. This was already in the background when I became a Christian in high school, so it was natural for me to begin integrating what I already held dear with my new faith. The question is often posed as if religion/spirituality is a fixed thing with which we then negotiate how to interact with pop culture, but I think that for me the reverse was true. I also think this is how it works for most people, even if unconsciously so. So my attraction to pop culture is born chiefly out of the fact that it is my first love, so to speak.

As to why I think it is an important conversation partner for religion, one reason has already been suggested: precisely because it is such a formative phenomenon for countless people, albeit in infinitely expressive ways. Cultural “texts” are often said to function religiously, so it is important to consider the extent to which this is the case. If we add what I said above about the fact that culture lays in the background of faith commitment more than is realized, then the boundaries between religion and culture become incredibly blurred.

Another reason why I like pop culture is because it is so often transformative for so many people, eliciting emotional responses that I think are on par with those elicited by religious music or sermons or spiritually intense moments. Movies and television are also great at illustrating significant theological themes like love, sacrifice, forgiveness, grace, sin, and so on. For instance, I have sometimes told people that if they want to witness the kind of grace and acceptance of others which Christ exemplified, they should watch their way through the seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Pop Theology: Explain the American Monomyth for our readers and tell us about your dissertation on the subject.

Tony: The “American Monomyth” is a term invented by Robert Jewett and John Lawrence that refers to the dominant American heroic archetype. It plays on the worldwide heroic journey outlined by Joseph Campbell wherein a hero comes from a community, goes off alone to face dangerous odds, then returns to his community a new man or with new gifts to offer. Lawrence and Jewett suggest that in America’s version, the hero begins and ends in obscurity, ultimately isolated from any real relationships. Moreover, the community that the hero saves is an Edenic paradise that can do no wrong. The villains are thus unquestionably evil and must be completely destroyed or removed in order for the town in peril to be redeemed.

My dissertation argues that while the American monomyth is for the most part true of our hero stories, beginning in the 1960s with Stan Lee, Marvel Comics worked to subvert this dominant archetype by having heroes stay within communities, making them have flaws, writing villains more complexly and humanely, etc. Lee didn’t do this so much with an eye toward the monomyth proper as he did in consideration of other comic book stories, namely those of DC Comics, which he just didn’t regard as true to life. For him, the perfect hero and the stereotypical villain are hokey, childish, and unreal, although after a while he did become more intentional about offering his own philosophical views through his stories and characters; views which challenged, among other things, the human proclivity to violence and exclusion. So I try to stay within the realm of anthropology and consider chiefly what both Lee and the monomyth have to say about being human…and I side with Lee.

I also discuss a similar shift among Christian theologians and argue that there is a growing trend of understanding human nature in more relational and less individualistic ways. This has consequences for both epistemology and ethics, which I also consider. Ultimately it is about ways of human being, knowing, and acting that are informed by both Marvel and Lee and contemporary Christian theology.

Pop Theology: Why do you feel like Fuller and various other evangelical seminaries are so in tune with popular culture studies and religion when the subject only receives cursory treatment in liberal theological schools?

Tony: This is a fascinating question. In fact, I think it would be a great dissertation topic because I don’t think that anyone has studied this in detail, which means, of course, that neither have I, so my comments are best considered educated guesses. Two thoughts come to mind. First, the liberal schools are good at inter-religious dialogue, something that evangelical schools are typically not. Engagement with pop culture is the evangelical version of inter-religious dialogue. So, both liberal and evangelical theological schools are basically doing the same thing, but with different conversation partners. I think this divergence stems, secondly, from an association between evangelical and popular/pragmatic, on the one hand, and liberal and academic/scholarly/theoretical, on the other. Evangelicals engage low or pop art, and the liberals high art, if you will. In other words, to put it coarsely, pop culture is in some sense beneath or lower than the academic, scholarly rigor characteristic of the liberal schools, in my opinion. I don’t think this is actually true but I think it is how they perceive pop culture. They don’t consider it seriously.

On the other hand, most evangelical schools are, in my opinion, not very academically intensive because they put the practical/ministerial matters of faith in the forefront. To the extent this is true, it makes engagement with pop culture more understandable. Most people in evangelical pews, those whom their ministers are going to serve, won’t be as confronted with or concerned about the non-Christian other as their liberal brothers and sisters. They are also not as interested in the weighty philosophical matters of faith and reason or issues of modern science, etc. They do, however, watch football and go to the movies and are thus more affected by those phenomena on a conscious everyday level. In this way it only makes sense for evangelicals to think theologically about what is important to them and the laypeople they will serve.

Pop Theology: How did your time at Fuller affect (positively, negatively, neutrally) your theology and theological approach to popular culture?

Tony: My gut reaction is to say that Fuller didn’t really affect my approach to pop culture all that much. I went into the Ph.D. program there already with the conviction that pop culture artifacts are important for my faith and need to be taken seriously. Moreover, much of my theological method and ideas are influenced by theologians like Wolfhart Pannenberg, Robert W. Jenson, and LeRon Shults, all of whom tend to eschew the dichotomies which pervade the Reformed categories characteristic of Fuller’s engagement with culture. Of course, not everyone at Fuller thinks in terms of spirit vs. matter or general vs. special revelation, but most of the time when I spoke I was misunderstood.

That being said, Fuller is an excellent place for the theological study and interaction with pop culture. I found it to be very encouraging of the convictions I already had going in, and was often challenged by the talent, drive, and artistry of my fellow students. One should be aware that Fuller is in Pasadena in Los Angeles county, only about 10-20 minutes from Hollywood, downtown, and the major studios, so the cultural ethos itself is very movie-friendly. I will also say that writing the dissertation I did may have been much more difficult at another school. I was fortunate enough to have a Ph.D. advisor, Rob Johnston, who believed in my project from the first time I proposed it in 2006 and has offered critical commentary along the way to hone it.

Pop Theology: What are some of your favorite pop culture creations (books, television, film, music, etc.)?

Tony: Without getting into the myriad reasons why I like all of these things, let me just give you a list. I’m not much of a fiction reader, but I like most of Tolkien’s stuff. I really loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’ve made it a point to try to read a horror or mystery novel each fall since the changing of the colors and temperature outside adds a certain dark mystique to the experience. I read Frankenstein last year, so I’m looking for recommendations for this year! It would seem that I’m an avid comics fan, but I rarely read them. I did not read them as a kid, so I approached the material for the dissertation definitely as a novice. I think there is great material there, but I’m not a regular reader.

As for television, the only thing I’m watching that is currently running is Fringe and I’m glad to hear it got picked up for a fourth season. I’m also a huge fan of Firefly, Buffy, Angel, X-Files, and am working my way through Star Trek. For comedies, my favorites are British: Red Dwarf, Spaced, Are You Being Served?, and Waiting for God, although Monty Python is a classic too.

My music and movie interests are way too broad, but a few of my favorite movies include Star Wars and Lord of the Rings; zombie movies like Shaun of the Dead and Return of the Living Dead; superhero movies like Superman, Spider-Man, and Hulk; comedies like Airplane, Young Frankenstein, and Office Space; Halloween (1978) is my favorite horror flick and for obscure foreign filmmakers I love Robert Bresson.

For music I love Celtic, folk, rock, hip-hop, and classical mostly, so Loreena McKennitt, Beethoven, Trampled by Turtles, Mumford and Sons, AC/DC, System of a Down, Beastie Boys, MIA, and lots more. And who doesn’t have a soft spot for Lady Gaga?

Pop Theology: What are you looking forward to working on/writing about through Pop Theology?

Tony: As you can tell, I’m a huge geek, so anything geek-friendly, like superheroes, zombies, Star Trek, Star Wars, LotR, Buffy, etc. I also play old school table RPG’s and sometimes video games so it would be fun to share my thoughts on those often neglected aspects of pop culture. I’ve also done a lot of reading and research on science, especially psychology, evolution, and cognitive science, so it would be interesting to see how engagement with pop culture may be enhanced by consideration of contemporary science. Such an approach is very much needed and is thankfully being done by a few scholars, but the number is limited and the conversation is still very young. I hope to contribute to that conversation from a theological/religious angle in my academic work, so hopefully some of that will spill over to Pop Theology.