The Common Good
June 2007

Pop Culture Christianity

by Laurel Rae Mathewson | June 2007

Since the box-office success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, there's been a lot of hoopla about the big, previously neglected "Christian audience" (and how to cash in on it).

Since the box-office success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, there's been a lot of hoopla about the big, previously neglected "Christian audience" (and how to cash in on it). But the strange truth is that most Christians—including evangelicals—are already quite comfortable with mainstream popular culture. Despite frequently denouncing the values of Hollywood, religious people are indistinguishable from nonreligious people when it comes to watching movies and television shows, according to a recent study. It seems we have assimilated—behaviorally, at least. Yet what lens (if any can be considered fundamentally "Christian") should we use to critique what we see, hear, and create?

In Eyes Wide Open, revised and expanded since its 2001 publication, Calvin College professor William Romanowski presents one approach, after first examining three other frameworks Christians often use to critique popular culture—frameworks he calls moralist, ideological, and theological.

It's not revelatory to read that Christian voices often denounce films because of isolated incidents of what they consider immorality (Schindler's List), or because the implied political or theological messages clash with their beliefs (The Cider House Rules), but Romanowski defines and illustrates well the limitations of these three approaches. While dismissive of the theological approach because he believes it's often forcefully imposed (Austin Powers as a meditation on Pauline freedom and restraint, anyone?), Romanowski is more thorough in his deconstruction of the other two. Usually, he contends, moralist and ideological approaches are piecemeal rather than holistic, and they're not consistently applied.

The "Christian framework" he proposes is very different. He calls us to evaluate cultural works based on the extent to which they represent—realistically—what it is like to live in God's "good but fallen world."

There are four main features to Romanowski's Christian cultural landscape: First, God is at work in the world (even if this is only implied through irony); second, people of faith are presented (even if their faith is idolatrous); third, human sin is real and evil exists; and, fourth, there is the presence (or possibility) of forgiveness and redemption. In many ways this framework is more demanding—and would reject more aspects of popular culture—than a strict moral and ideological legalism, in part because Romanowski takes numbers three and four very seriously.

With his penchant for realism, Romanowski is most irked by the tendency of Hollywood films in general, and "family friendly" films in particular, to portray a polarized morality in which people are either good or evil, and the good people prosper in the end. He reminds us that "victory" achieved through self-determination and individual perseverance (as in The Pursuit of Happyness or Cinderella Man) is not consistent with a Christian perspective, in which we are all fallen creatures redeemed by grace, not by our own virtue.

ALTHOUGH THERE IS no prescriptive answer, Romanowski's framework lacks a deeper exploration of "how much evil is too much?" He lauds real depictions of human sin, but says that violence fails our Christian framework when it is glamorized, exploitative, sanitized, excessive, or made to seem routine. Yet doesn't violence sometimes have these characteristics in reality? And how might a barrage of graphically "realistic" depictions of human evil reconcile with Paul's recommendation that we think on "true … honorable … commendable things," especially in light of studies that show how repeated exposure to violence desensitizes us to it?

One of the book's most aggravating weaknesses is a related contradiction. Romanowski criticizes those who use moral and ideological critiques for their implicit fear that popular culture will affect viewers' moral values or political positions. What happens as we engage with popular art "is less a matter of acquisition," he writes, "than a deepening of our understanding of our moral values, emotions, and the issues of life." If he doesn't believe we can acquire value systems from popular culture, however, then the second half of the book seems misspent, for he warns us that "cultural accommodation is real," and that we must "develop rigorous tools for analysis of popular art … in order to reduce the risk of cultural accommodation." In his enthusiasm to debunk alternate approaches, Romanowski attacks one of his fundamental premises.

That aside, it's worth noting that the book has been thoroughly updated since its first printing in 2001, and resources, including an index and study questions, have been added. Each chapter is infused with references to, and often significant treatment of, recent controversies and additions to the pop culture landscape. This includes films such as The Passion of the Christ and The Da Vinci Code but also general fare such as A History of Violence, Cinderella Man, and Desperate Housewives.

If one can take Romanowski's advice to look past incidental offenses and onto the larger context, there is much here to recommend. His nuanced and comprehensive treatment of the topic, though sometimes inconsistent and disorderly, provides plenty of rich fodder for a small group—and for all of us who consume culture like nobody's business (let alone Jesus').

Laurel Rae Mathewson is an editorial intern at Sojourners.

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