Popular Culture

When the movie Amadeus was released, a funny thing happened. The film drew huge audiences, including large teenage audiences (probably due in large part to Tom Hulce's brilliant and hilarious portrayal of Mozart). Many of those teens were ignorant of Classical-style music, and listening to the film's score drawn from the works of the greatest composer of all time they were struck with the utter beauty of it. Reports were rampant that large numbers of them left theaters in tears, overwhelmed.

Amadeus is truly a great film. The cinematography is gorgeous, the acting is superb, Peter Shaffer's script is brilliant, there are deep psychological and philosophical themes, and of course the music is of the best quality. But by definition the movie is part of what we call popular culture, both because of its medium and because of its widespread appeal. So here was this piece of popular culture that was also great art in its own right and was responsible for a partial renaissance of interest in Classical music.

Far, far too often, Christians prefer to react to popular culture rather than to thoughtfully engage it. They dismiss any number of songs, movies, books, comics, games, etc. as "disposable" or "irrelevant." They believe only "high culture" is worth their time and attention, that Shakespeare is automatically better than Stephen King, Schumann is intrinsically superior to Sting and the Police, and Rembrandt is unquestionably preferable to Herge.

Some make the argument against popular culture from a moral standpoint. A movie like Amadeus should be entirely avoided due to language and (very) brief nudity, etc. Some arguments are even more bizarre—don't listen to rock music because it has a devil jungle witchcraft beat. Besides being racially offensive, this argument is just plain silly. Mozart implements syncopation more often than many popular rock bands.

Others (and this group is growing) simply embrace all pop culture as significant and meaningful, whether it be an Alan Moore comic book or the Tamagotchi phenomenon. These Christians are generally influenced far too much by postmodernism, and seem to think that God is speaking to us directly through human artistic and cultural endeavor. They've traded the Bible for David Foster Wallace, and don't seem very concerned about it.

The fact is, our approach to popular culture should be the same as our approach to anything else—as Christians, we are to take every thought captive to Jesus Christ, to judge all things to see whether they are good, true, right, and pure. And just as often in popular culture as in what is called high culture, we'll find those things....side by side with sinful, deviant, and wicked attitudes and perspectives. Popular culture is a mixed bag, just as any other kind of culture, be it high, low, folk, or bacterial.

Movies like Amadeus in particular demonstrate this. Not only did a pop culture text (any single product of pop culture, from songs to films, is called a text) usher in renewed interest in high culture, it brought many elements of serious art directly to its receptive audiences. Director Milos Forman wasn't interested only in entertaining people (that was certainly part of it, and that's not intrinsically bad), he also wanted to get them to appreciate, to think, and to be changed.

Where do we draw the line, anyway? In his day, Mozart was largely a pop culture icon, but now his music is considered pseudo-sacred serious art. Who's to say Pink Floyd isn't the Classical music of our day? Who says Firefly won't be preserved in video libraries for centuries to come? If we still read Dickens (a popular writer in his day), how can we definitively say that future generations won't be reading Vonnegut and Heinlein?

Sometimes, pop culture is actually far more meaningful than its high art counterpart. For instance, Jackson Pollock would have to be considered a serious painter by the high culturalist standards, but his splattered canvases are only accessible to those who understand his underlying philosophy. The comic book art of Art Spiegelman, on the other hand, is definitely pop culture and definitely able to tell us a lot about ourselves and our society (if you haven't read Maus, read it now).

All this talk about receiving pop culture (or any other kind) might give the impression we think the only duty of Christians is to criticize and comment on culture. Far from it. While that is definitely part of our duty, using our analysis to speak the Gospel into the lives and contexts of those around us, we are also called to create culture of our own. This is part of the Creation instructions God gave us—to subdue the earth, tend the garden, and be fruitful and multiply are all intrinsically cultural activities.

Should we eschew all pop culture, refuse to engage it, and refuse to make it? Absolutely not! What we should do is seek to do all things to God's glory, to submit all things to Christ, and to live consciously in the culture around us and which none of us can escape. Culture is a gift from God, albeit a mixed blessing due to the fall, and we should not remain aloof in cultural snobbery, or wallow in it uncritically—we should be in the culture but not of it, humble servants of God and our fellow humankind.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.


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