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Obsessing Over Coolness

Ok, I think that theological treatments of pop culture phenomena like movies, music, and such are fine as far as they go.  Some of them are quite good indeed.  However I’m a little annoyed about how ‘Theology and Popular Culture’ is becoming some sort of theological genre.  Frankly I think its the kind of obsessing about seeming cutting-edge and cool that only makes one look obsolete and silly within a couple of years.

I call to the stand Barry Taylor’s new book Entertainment Theology: New-Edge Spirituality in a Digital Democracy.  First of all, I have no idea what a “New-Edge Spirituality” might be and even less of an idea how something so described could ever be a good thing in any sense.  Anyways, sure, there is plenty of interesting cultural exegesis in the book, but that said it seems to just be waiting to become useless.  It’s already stopped being cool to talk about the theological/philosophical aspects of The Matrix, let alone Kevin Costner’s Waterworld.  He who marries the coolness of today is destined to become the dateless nerdlinger of tomorrow.

I’m not trying to bag on Taylor (though, the book’s dedication, “To everyone, everywhere, I have ever met” seems to me to be perhaps the most vacuous and lame platitude I have ever read).  What I’m irked by is the way in which so many of these sort of cutting-edge pop culture theologies seem to think that Christian dogmatics in and of itself is uninteresting.  For theology be be engaging, relevant, and authentic (which by the way may be my most unfavorite word to ever hear coming from Christian’s mouths) we now have to find the spiritual and theological center of the latest films, music, clothes, and technologies.  Certainly it isn’t bad to talk about these things as theologians, but lets not let the faddisness of these “The Gospel according to ______” enchant us too much. 

After all, would we even be reading Aquinas and Augustine today if all they wrote about was how ancient Mediterranean architecture actually had theological implications or how the latest performance of Homer’s plays have some sort of Christological undertone?  And does not finding God hidden within various cultural phenomena inevitably enshrine a new sort of natural theology?  Does it not make God necessary to the world rather than, as Jüngel would say, “more than necessary”?  Many of these theological engagements with contemporary cultural often seem to be little more than attempts to show how Jesus fits seamlessly into the spiritual longings and intuitions of our culture.  Any Jesus that could really fulfill this function would certainly be a false Christ.

Frankly, the constant attempts to engage contemporary culture seem to me to often simply become the pedantic attempts of insecure theologians to appear cool enough to be taken seriously by the college-populating hipsters of late-capitalist America.  And in so doing they actually debilitate much of the potential for theology to be a dynamic force in our world, questioning the very presuppositions of contemporary cultural forms rather than simply expostulating on them in some sort of suave way.  Give me John Howard Yoder any day.  Never could you meet a more socially awkward and relationally weird fellow than Yoder, and yet his Jesus, far from being something found at the center of the latest Wes Anderson movie is the intrusive apocalypse of God who calls into question rather than hides within the multifarious social constructions of humanity.  I don’t think it gets more culturally relevant than that.

15 Comments

  1. Craig Carter wrote:

    So . . . I’m not the only one who thinks this way! Maybe we should start a support group for people who feel inadequate because we can’t seem to be impressed by contemporary Western youth culture as the summit of human evolution to date.

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Jolly good idea! All we need is a name…

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  3. Steve Martin wrote:

    My sentiments exactly… about a certain kind of vacuous and trendy pop-culture-friendly-theology. Augustine is far more interesting that what these folks write (and my exhibit A would be Barry Taylor’s and Craig Detweiler’s A Matrix of Meanings, where they claim without a hint of irony that Hollywood celebrities are the saints of today).

    But here’s my problem: does this mean that (and I speak as someone who’s given papers on Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and who is working on Battlestar Galactica) my love of certain popular culture “texts” must be relegated to the status of a “guilty pleasure”? Or is there another way to engage culture theologically? I think about what Graham Ward has done with Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet” in True Religion, or Mike Figgis’ “Leaving Las Vegas” in Cities of God.

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    As I say in the post I do think that theological engagements of culture are good things, or at least that they can be. And I think its fairly easy to sniff out what is faddish nonsense and what is substantive engagement with culture.

    What I think is imporant is that we never lose the ability as the church to spit in the eye of the contemporary zeitgeist. That’s what I think many of these types of pop culture books really fail to do.

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    That is possibly the most egregious theology book title I’ve ever seen. Did he mean New Age? What the hell is New Edge? I can’t even speculate about what that might mean.

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 3:14 pm | Permalink
  6. dan wrote:

    I’m with you on this one, Halden. Personally, I’m way too cool to bother with these cool-seekering wannabes. ;)

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  7. So very true.

    I’m sick of a Christ that fits into my lifestyle, I need a lifestyle that reflects Christ.

    Amen.

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  8. Steve Martin wrote:

    I don’t have much difficulty sniffing out faddish nonsense either (even when it’s published by otherwise decent publishers). What I’m asking is, is there a discernable methodology for doing responsible, analytically thick theological-cultural engagement, perhaps in a way different from the simplistic “culture asks the questions and theology provides the answers” correlation? (I think Kelton Cobb’s work for example, while more serious than the one you mention, is hampered by such Tillichian hangovers). I think what we see in the “Matrix of Meanings” type books is the lunatic fringe of correlation.
    So we agree that these aberrations don’t exhaust the possibilities for robust theological engagement of the secular via its pop-artifacts.
    Great blog site, by the way!

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    I think I’d point to one example of responsible and thick cultural engagement in the work of Lesslie Newbigin. One of the great points he makes throughout his work is that there can be no absolute methodological starting points in dealing with theology and culture because of the inherent plurality of culture. Operating with a monolithic understanding of culture is one of the lame Neibuhrian hangovers we are still contending with, and in fact I think that works like those by Taylore and Detweiler are part of the fallout.

    Ultimately I don’t think we can have any absolute methodologies, but rather engage culture in its plurality from a self-consciously ecclesial frame of reference.

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  10. Ben Sternke wrote:

    The difference between the “faddish” stuff and the “thick” stuff might fit into some of Bonhoeffer’s categories… he wrote somewhere (and I think I read this second-hand, maybe in a Stephen Fowl book) that in our engagement with culture we have to balance the incarnation (acceptance, embracing the world), the crucifixion (judgment, rejection of the world), and the resurrection (bold creativity and new life). Theologies that lean too much into “incarnation” tend to end in secularization and compromise, while theologies that lean too far in one of the other two directions can become separatist and aloof.

    Perhaps Bonhoeffer would say that the more fluffy books out there are too incarnational – trying to find God hidden in every movie, when they need to be more “crucifixional” – able to “spit in the eye of the contemporary zeigeist.” It’s interesting to me that it seems Bonhoeffer noticed some of these things, albeit in a more sober context.

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 8:57 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    That’s a great connection, Ben. I wonder how Bonhoeffer’s critique of the deus ex machina (the God of the gaps) might also fit into this discussion.

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 9:51 pm | Permalink
  12. ericroorback wrote:

    Wow, that was quite the rant, Halden! In your defense, as one who has read Taylor’s new book (and I’m, nonetheless, still unclear on what he means exactly by “new-edge spirituality”), it does seem to contain more fluff than substance. I was quite frustrated when I finished the book because Taylor, for whatever interesting cultural insights he does offer, really says nothing of any real significance toward theologically engaging culture, despite his apparent self-perception of being cutting-edge in his methodology.

    For me, many of the books that attempt to pursue some sort of cultural engagement do serve as a guilty pleasure, and offer little more than a fleeting titillation. In my mind I often compare them to the trashy romance novels that so excite many middle-aged, middle-class, white, suburban house wives. The books are quickly snatched up by eager readers, they are read w/ great excitement as they satisfy some internal need, and then are thrown away and forgotten. Their value lasts only as long as it takes for a new one to be published.

    Thursday, April 24, 2008 at 10:03 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I think the way that certain authors’ self-perceptions ooze off the pages of their books is a big part of what makes for terrible writing.

    Friday, April 25, 2008 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  14. adamsteward wrote:

    omfg I can’t agree more. Flip through an issue of Relevant magazine for nice examination. Absolutely nothing about the magazine is actually relevant, because everything in it is simply a parroting of something they’ve seen somewhere else (this is clear enough by the fact that they get all their photos from IStock). The whole purpose of the book is to assure you that you can feel good about being a christian because Moby went to youth group once and still maybe thinks Jesus is nice. This whole line of cultural engagement stemming from Tillich’s correlationism is just so worthless, kneeling before culture as it does, begging like us, oh please oh please like us.

    Saturday, April 26, 2008 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  15. Eric Flett wrote:

    I am late to the conversation, but quite glad that it is taking place. I share many of the sentiments expressed here, and am as frustrated as Craig when I tell people that my area of interest is theology of culture and they immediately assume I am a hip pop culture bloke who prefers cultural texts over theological ones. I like pop culture as much as the next guy or gal, I just don’t think it is particularly revelatory…at least in a constructive sense. The narcotic/theologian comparison got me here, but the category of theology and culture will keep me coming back!

    However, before we can theologically critique the theology of (pop) culture movement, I think we need a more clearly articulated and thick description of culture suggested above. But where to go to construct such a framework? Newbigin is a good suggestion and starting point methinks…but something even thicker with more comprehensive categories and detailed development seems necessary in order to keep up with the increasingly refined conversations taking place among the pop-culture folks. I also think any theological response needs to be able to develop a framework that utilizes the disciplines of sociology, anthropology and cultural theory in a way more and more pop-culture folks are doing, but without allowing those categories and methodologies to trump the theological.

    I find much of Yoder’s work interesting and very helpful towards this end, but something is missing in the ‘culture-affirming’ department that I have not yet gotten to the bottom of. I know that is so stereotypical post-Niebuhr but, for me, is still there, and why my thoughts have tended to move in the direction of reflection done within the Reformed tradition. It also seems that the Yoderian trajectory has been less able, or willing, to utilize other disciplines in its analysis, critique and transformation of culture, at least in a way I have found to be less true among Reformed thinkers.

    I have personally found the thought of TF Torrance to be very helpful towards a couple of these goals, both his work as a philosopher of science, his engagement with Western scientific culture and his rejection of dualism, and the rigorous trinitarian dogmatics he spent more time on toward the end of his career. We have the resources in Torrance for the prophetic cultural critique offered in Barth and Yoder in addition to a deep theological engagement with key disciplines that have shaped and continued to transform Western culture…all grounded in an explicit trinitarian incarnational Christology.

    Torrance’s work is largely congruent with that of Newbigin, but a definite step beyond him in terms of depth and breadth of articulation and diversity of conversation partners. I have also found Volf’s work on a theology of work and his more recent thoughts in Exclusion and Embrace helpful for the same reasons. Timothy Gorringe also looks promising, in that he is more aware than Torrance of the relationships between theology and culture as they are taking root in the Southern hemisphere in the form of various contextual theologies and the theology of mission (an area that can also help us toward a thick theology of culture). We also have the work of Jeremy Begbie if we want to push this theological model explicitly into engagement with music and the arts. FInally, a sociologist that I have found very useful and whose work is quite congruent with some of these themes is Christian Smith, now at Notre Dame.

    Well, I am new to blogdom, and have probably gone on too long, but I am very interested in this conversation and will keep checking back.

    By the way, Torrance is like speed: he makes it possible to cover allot of ground in a small amount of time, but when it’s all over, you’re left wondering how you got there.

    Wednesday, April 30, 2008 at 5:19 am | Permalink

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