Understanding Theology and Popular Culture: A Review

elib28.gifMost people give me a funny look when I tell them my area of study. Their questions echo Nathanael’s comment to Phillip in John 1:46, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth” but take on a decidedly more modern flare. “Can anything good come out of Hollywood or our television sets?” I often respond like Phillip, “Come and see.” More than likely, my response is, “You should go see….” Thankfully, in recent years, there has also been an increase in theological texts that engage specific elements popular culture (mainly film), and along with them, numerous works that engage the general relationship itself rather than specific texts. One such book is Gordon Lynch’s Understanding Theology and Popular Culture.  Lynch would also respond like Phillip and emphasizes that our ability to relate theology and popular culture depends heavily on an active intake of popular cultural texts and the particular questions we bring to the conversation.  Lynch also has specific ideas of what does or does not constitue “the good” in popular culture, ideas that often run contrary to more accepted ideas of what is “good” or “bad” for us.

Understanding Theology and Popular Culture ultimately proves to be a great introduction to the relationship between these two general phenomena and a more than adequate starting point for further research into more specific areas such as theology and film or theology and contemporary music for example.  Much of Lynch’s text feels as if it backtracks in order to define “popular culture,” “theology,” and various methods of cultural criticism.  In the second half of the book, Lynch finally arrives at an application of specific critical methods and concludes his text with a brief chapter entitled “Taking Steps Towards a Theological Aesthetics of Popular Culture.”  This is somewhat frustrating because it has the potential to be the strongest part of his book, and is certainly an area of much needed research in theological studies, as Lynch does argue; however, he seems to get sidetracked even here in defining “aesthetics” and, as a result, only devotes a few pages to the definition of his theological aesthetics of popular culture.  While Lynch does make contributions to the field of theology and popular culture, much of his text falls in line with other current scholarship in this area and only separates itself with his desire for a specific theological aesthetic of popular culture.

Lynch is quick to point out that theological engagements with popular culture must involve evaluation, “a rigorous analysis of the truthfulness, meaningfulness, goodness, justice, and beauty of popular cultural texts and practices […in which] theological traditions and methods have a distinctive role to play” (ix).  However, he is also quick to caution his audience by borrowing the phrase “ethical patience” from Michael Dyson which describes the necessary ability of hearing and understanding popular culture on its own terms before seeking to critique it (ix).  Obviously, this does not result in an “anything goes” mentality, but it does allow for more intelligent critique and mature conversation to take place, as Lynch’s author-focused critique of Eminem’s lyrics shows in his chapter “Eminem and the Redemption of Violence.”

Lynch gives a broad definition of theology as “the process of seeking normative answers to questions of truth, goodness, evil, suffering, redemption, and beauty in the context of particular social and cultural situations” (36).  So why should theology be concerned with popular culture?  Because it is one of these particular social and cultural situations, and, moreover, it is a context in which discussions or definitions of truth, goodness, evil, etc. are already taking place.  Here, a theological aesthetics of popular culture can determine/evaluate whether or not popular cultural texts are working for the good, which for Lynch involves three components:  1) the ontological (what accounts do they give of existence in light of the absolute reference point for life/God), 2) the ethical/liberationist (do they promote human well-being and just relationships), and 3) the aesthetic/spiritual (do they offer constructive experiences of pleasure, beauty, and transcendence) (98).

Lynch adopts a “revised correlational method” of engaging popular culture.  Working through Niebuhr, Tillich, Tracy, and Browning, this approach, “rather than seeing theology as a process of correlating questions raised by culture to answers offered by religious tradition, […] envisages a more complex conversation involving questions and answers from both culture and tradition” (103).  With this approach, he then enters into conversation with other long-standing methodologies to engage specific elements of popular culture.  The three he chooses are 1) an author-focused approach to the lyrics of Eminem, 2) a text-based approach to an episode of The Simpsons, “Homer the Heretic,” and 3) an ethnographic-based (response-focused) approach to the religious significance of club culture.  Each of these chapters is a wonderful example of mature, patient, intellectual engagement with popular culture.

Again, Lynch concludes with his brief discussion of a theological aesthetics of popular culture.  Perhaps he could have placed this discussion earlier in his text (before his examples of application) so that we may have seen his ethical/aesthetic criteria at work in greater detail.  Nevertheless, the questions that he poses are valuable for any engagement with popular culture.  Lynch is quick to note that these are not exhaustive and that no element of popular culture will address all of them; however, the more criteria a popular cultural text meets, the better.  I will conclude with this range of criteria that will help us “form aesthetic judgments” of popular culture.

  1. Does the popular cultural text or practice demonstrate an impressive level of technical skill?
  2. Does it exemplify originality, imagination, or creativity?
  3. Does it offer a satisfying reflection of human experience, and/or provide a means for empathizing with a range of different experiences?
  4. Does it offer a valuable vision of the meaning of our lives?
  5. Does it provide us with genuinely pleasurable experiences?
  6. Does it encourage constructive relationships?
  7. Does it make possible a sense of encounter with God, the transcendent, or the numinous?
  8. Does it successfully serve the functions for which it has been created?
  9. Is it authentic?  (Lynch, 190-191)