These are works that search for culturally influential religious or theological themes based upon a cross-referencing of (with a few exceptions) multiple avenues of popular culture, for example, film, novels, television, advertising, music. Books that do the same kind of analysis but limit themselves to a single medium are listed separately. By "background theorists," an attempt is made to single out the thinkers these authors favor or are consciously in conversation with. This is intended to provide reference points about the scholarly commitments, method, etc. of each of these authors and their analyses. To whom, in other words, do they feel answerable - theologians, sociologists, historians of religion, philosophers, cultural theorists; whose style of analysis is offered as most productive of insight?
Beaudoin, Tom, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X
(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998). Based on surveys conducted with Generation Xers in the mid-1990s in combination with his own experience as a member of this cohort, Beaudoin's book begins with the premise that "popular culture is a major meaning-making system" that carries more weight for his generation than it has for any that precedes it. He writes: "We express our religious interests, dreams, fears, hopes, and desires through popular culture." Concentrating on three kinds of pop culture "texts" (music videos, cyberspace, fashion), he isolates four key themes of GenX religiosity: 1) suspicion of religious institutions, 2) stress on direct experience of the sacred, 3) preoccupation with suffering, and 4) comfort with ambiguity. He concludes that GenXers are irreverently reverent, given to expressing their religiosity through irony, and for this reason find Kierkegaard a particularly apt theologian for making sense of this generation. But, one wonders, is the "virtual religion" in which, according to Beaudoin, GenX feels most at home any more than Kierkegaard's aesthete who prefers pondering various quests to actually undertaking any. Still, this book contains wonderful thick descriptions of representative music videos, fashion trends like tattoos, piercings and Gothic black, and the touristic experience of dwelling in cybercommunities. Background theorists: Soren Kierkegaard, Jean Baudrillard, Douglas Rushkoff, Wade Clark Roof, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich
Burridge, Richard A., Faith Odyssey: A Journey through Lent (Grand Rapids,
MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000). A book of readings designed around Lent, with daily readings and a different theme for each week. Draws from fantasy and science fiction - films, television, and literature, e.g., Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix, C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Dune, The X-Files, Arthur C. Clarke's Space Odyssey series, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe. Also weaves in some classics, e.g., Homer's Odyssey, and John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Each daily reading begins with a passage from scripture. Weekly themes include "The Mess," "The Conflict," "Finding the Way," "Greater Love," and, for Easter week, "To Infinity and Beyond." Includes appendices covering questions for group discussion for each chapter, popular culture resources, and an index of Bible passages. Background theorists: Bible, Book of Common Prayer
Clark, Lynn Schofield, From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the
Supernatural (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Explores how adolescents draw on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, X-Files, Touched by an Angel, in their efforts to make meaning of their lives. This genre of shows emerged as the shadow side of the resurgence of Evangelicals into mainstream culture. Aware of their apocalyptic literature, media producers pulled together their own brand of supernatural tales, with angels, vampires, aliens, stories of good and evil. Clark bases her findings on extensive ethnographic research, interviewing teenagers about the use they make of these stories and characters. She develops a typology of consumer response to this material ranging from "Resisters," who resist organized religion but accept media supernaturalism uncritically, to "Traditionalists," who resist media super-naturalism and embrace their religious traditions. In the middle are "Mysticals," who can synthesize both sources. Clark teaches in the area of media, religion and culture at the University of Colorado School of Journalism. Her organizing theory is based in Pierre Bourdieu and Antonio Gramsci, so social practices and cultural populism inform her approach.
Background theorists: Pierre Bourdieu, Antonio Gramsci
Dean, William, The American Spiritual Culture and the Invention of Jazz,
Football and the Movies (New York: Continuum, 2002). For Dean, "God is a living, historical reality" in the pragmatic sense that God is a social convention that takes hold in a society, provides a general sense of the whole, and has real historical effects residing as it does in the springs of a society's desires, compulsions, and capacities for self-criticism. Conversely, whatever functions in these ways in a society is its living God. Once this doctrine of God is established, Dean observes that in our free time we engage in activities that offer insight into who we really are and what we really believe, and that a culture's operative notion of God can be discerned in these activities. Three great American pastimes are jazz, football and movies. Dean analyzes what these three pastimes tell us about America's spiritual life, about our recommended regimens for enacting our religious lives - improvisation (jazz), "ambivalent negotiation with violence" (football), and "self-creation through fantasy" (movies). Each of these regimens is also a way of parsing an underlying mystery that is, in effect, the pragmatically-effective God evolving below the surfaces of our lives. Background theorists: William James, John Dewey, Paul Tillich, Alfred North Whitehead, Flannery O'Connor deChant, Dell, The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture
(Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2002). Drawing on an Eliadean account of religious phenomena, deChant analyzes the market economy as a "sacred canopy" under which we live out our lives, sorting out its cosmology, myths, rituals, shamans, sacraments, and disciplines. He examines the extent to which the cycle of acquisition-consumption-disposal has become the core of our self-definition in the West. DeChant digs down to the meta-myth of expanding prosperity that underlies our consumption, and discusses the secondary and tertiary myths and rituals that sustain it as a way of life. The book is about much more than Christmas, as the title implies, but the great potlatch of Christmas is one of the high holy days of the religion of consumerism, attended by ritualized acts of shopping, sacred texts (advertising inserts and mail order catalogues), feasting, etc. It has been appropriated from Christianity for the new religion - just as Christianity had appropriated the holiday from paganism centuries ago. In this sense, Santa Claus is a cultural deity, with powers of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence all in the service of our desires to consume. Background theorists: Jacques Ellul, Mircea Eliade, Jean Baudrillard, Eric Voegelin, Peter Berger
Detweiler, Craig and Barry Taylor, A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in
Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003). This book is comprehensive and offers tantalizing namedropping and hundreds of specimens, but it is too uncritically dazzled by popular culture, both by its reach into our lives, with which these authors seem to have no problem, and by its content - it's all great stuff and quite spiritual. The theology is light and, following the tone of the book (with a few exceptions), seems to suffer from attention deficit disorder. The authors try to get away with profound sounding commentary like: "Philosophy teachers would be wise to use Richard Linklater's animated film Waking Life (2001) as an introduction to Nietzsche, Schleiermacher, and Hegel" (21). But there is no follow up. The next sentence moves onto promoting Tupac Shakur as a poet. The entire book contains no further references to Schleiermacher or Hegel, and mentions Waking Life again only in several of the endless lists that make up much of the book. Many such connections are drawn, but too infrequently explained or justified. This finally amounts to a "once-born" religion of popular culture, with virtually no sustained theological reflection. The theological pivot point of the authors' assessment seems to float in midair, although they continue to insist that it is there. The single strength of the book is the spiritual biographies it offers of several producers of pop culture, such as musicians Nick Cave and Bono, filmmaker Paul Schrader, and artist Andy Warhol.
Background theorists: Neal Gabler, James Twitchell, Tom Beaudoin, Walter Brueggemann
Dyson, Michael Eric, Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); and Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
Both of these books are collections of articles Dyson has written for various journals and magazines in which he excavates the religious dimension of leading generators and expressions of African-American popular culture. He offers thoughtful interpretations of Michael Jordan, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Sam Cooke, hip-hop, gangsta rap, Bill Cosby, Toni Morrison, and the films of Spike Lee and John Singleton. Through each essay he offers what he describes as "an oppositional African-American cultural criticism" that takes Black culture seriously as internally diverse, representing a range of socio-economic interests, and laden with a frequently religiously driven creativity. He is good at making sense of elements of popular culture that can be alienating to mainstream audiences, and also at aiming internal criticisms when Black popular culture falls short of moral norms that Dyson articulates. Background theorists: Cornell West, James Cone
Elshtain, Jean Bethke, Who Are We? Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities
(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000). This book offers an analysis of contemporary literature, science fiction, film, advertising and public morality that finds American culture adrift because, as Elshtain puts it, "We are creatures who have forgotten what it means to be faithful to something other than ourselves." She parses this forgetfulness into the two traditional sins of pride and sloth - pride as the denial of dependence upon others, sloth as the unreflective acquiescence to the conventions of one's own time. The theological tradition is not exhausted, she argues, and can replenish us. But she also finds popular culture straining in hopeful ways with warnings and utopian longings that suggest it knows some of its errors.
Background theorists: Augustine, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Paul II, Hannah Arendt
Forbes, Bruce David and Jeffrey H. Mahan (eds.), Religion and Popular Culture in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). The editors of this compilation have been active in the American Academy of Religion for years, creating forums where scholars with twin interests in religion and popular culture may explore the seam where these two are knitted together and ponder which interpretive methods best illuminate it. This book is the fruit of that activity. In the introduction, Forbes sketches out what he finds along this seam: "Religion may be present in discussions of the roles superheroes play as deliverers, or reflections on the struggles of life, or in devotional acts to a celebrity, or in ritual patterns of television viewers." He goes on to describe the diverse ways in which the contributors to this volume identify the religious dimension of popular culture - for some it is beliefs that are being carried in popular culture, for others it is the forms ordinarily identified with religion that crop up in popular culture (i.e., myths, symbols, rituals, icons), and for yet others it is the way that religion typically functions, providing people with encompassing systems of meaning to orient them in the universe, that popular culture appears to have appropriated. Highlights among the contributions include Gregor Goethals' argument that television advertising pulls all the levers once pulled by evangelists to promote salvation through their product, Michelle Lelwica's contention that traditional beliefs in human perfectibility now have a home in the fitness craze of what she calls "Culture Lite," and Joseph Price's delineation of the many ritual aspects of religion that have been inherited by professional sports. Background theorists: Emile Durkheim, Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, Catherine Albanese
Fox, Matthew, An Inquiry into Religion and Culture by way of TIME Magazine
(East Dubuque, IL: Listening Press, 1971). A real gem, this book begins with the suggestion that TIME Magazine is the Chartres Cathedral of the twentieth century, in that, like the prolific works of art that fill Chartres, it contains "the entire panorama of life" for a period - "from humor to superstition and horoscopes to politics... to advertising ... to religious worship and spiritual aspirations." TIME Magazine is a distillation of American culture. Fox read every issue of TIME from 1958 and offers through what he finds in that slice an interpretation of the religious and spiritual aspirations that are expressed through political and economic affairs, professional pursuits, the arts and religion. He identifies a recurring tension between "living religion" and "dying religion" that is in keeping with Harvey Cox's conclusions in The Secular City, i.e., that religion is living wherever the struggle for justice is occurring, where freedom is valued and people are willing to question society honestly regardless of the risk, where artists are exuberant in their celebration of life's colors and tones. Religion's enemies are the over-industrialization and automation of life, war mongering, and the unbridled desire for consumer goods. This is a thick and thorough threshing of the newsmagazine as a religious artifact. Background theorists: Paul Tillich, Mircea Eliade, Harvey Cox
Gardella, Peter, Domestic Religion: Work, Food, Sex and Other Commitments
(Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1998). This book offers an intriguing argument. Leaning on sociological definitions of religion and the emerging theorists who favor practice over ideas as to what constitutes the most salient feature of religions, Gardella argues that human beings have always practiced a kind of two-tiered religion. At the deepest level (where it matters most) is religion of daily concerns; closer to the surface is traditional religion with its explicit myths, rituals of worship, moral code and beliefs. Gardella calls the religion of daily concerns "domestic religion." Religion in this sense consists of all the routine practices that hold our lives together. In the context of the US, it is found in the "rituals and values [people] live by at home: the holiday things that absolutely have to be done; the kinds of success for which no sacrifice or effort would be too much; the sports events that connect with the whole struggle of life; the songs that stand for transcendent love, sadness, and joy; the television shows that express exactly how life is, or should be; and the foods and drinks that can yield the last happiness of old age." Domestic religion is an aquifer that traditional religions draw from, and always have. What is new is that domestic religion, which used to be a universal phenomenon with highly localized elements, is being homogenized through mass media and popular culture. Gardella's book explores the domestic religion that is congealing in the US under the influence of popular culture.
Background theorists: Emile Durkheim, William James, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, Robert Bellah, Colleen McDannell
Greeley, Andrew, God in Popular Culture (Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1988). This is a collection of essays on artifacts of 1980s' popular culture framed by a theory of the religious imagination. The basic idea here is that, according to Greeley, there is a "Catholic sensibility" that has always paid attention to the fears, loves, and aspirations of ordinary folk and "appropriated to Catholic worship and practice everything that was good, true, and beautiful in the pagan world around it." From this borrowing have come many of the most enduring symbols of God and faith. Attention to such popular culture forces as Madonna, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, Bill Cosby and Stephen King (among Greeley's favorites) is thus a form of "bottom up" theology, a version of liberation theology and a strong affirmation of the sacramentality of life. Some of popular culture, Greeley insists, "contains signals of the transcendent, the presence of grace, rumors of angels." The early chapters offer an account of the "religious imagination," drawing on the work of Catholic theologians Bernard Lonergan and David Tracy, but most of the chapters are examinations of particular artists and artifacts, written in a tone that is part journalistic review, part homily. Background theorists: Bernard Lonergan, David Tracy, Northrop Frye
Hibbs, Thomas S., Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from the
Exorcist to Seinfeld (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 1999). This is a sustained examination of how the "dark God" of nihilism has evolved in popular culture over the last several decades, traced through film and television. After developing the idea of a universe bereft of providence, drawing on the work of David Hume, Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Nietzsche, Hibbs identifies three stages in recent popular culture that track how this idea of "anti-providence" and the powers that desensitize us toward good and evil have become assumptions that pervade our culture. Hollywood, in effect, has come to "promote a debased, Nietzschean culture," a world in which there is no providence working behind the scenes to bring good out of evil. Far from being the standard rant against popular culture, this is a fresh and thoughtful reflection on our gradual desensitization to a benevolent universe and our embrace of an arbitrary universe that we, for whatever reason, actually seem to relish and demand. From horror films that dwell on the aesthetics of evil (The Exorcist, Silence of the Lambs), through light bemusement with evil (Forrest Gump), to an ironic acceptance of the meaninglessness of life as hip and comic (Seinfeld), we gravitate to stories that deconstruct the grand narratives of divine providence that once preferred good over evil. Along the way, Hibbs offers incisive interpretations of landmark films and television shows. This is a remarkable book, theological analysis of popular culture at its best.
Background theorists: Thomas Aquinas, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt, Roger Shattuck, Mark Edmundson
Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Jewett, The Myth of the American Superhero
(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2002). Tracing what they argue is a pervasive myth in the American experience, the "monomyth" of the American superhero, Lawrence and Jewett raise the question whether the fundamentally anti-democratic leanings of the myth serve as a safety valve for the frustrations of a democratic polity, as is generally held, or encourage a kind of "pop fascism" that undermines the patience required for democracy. The basic plotline of the monomyth is that Eden has been disrupted by external forces and none of the community's internal, democratically established institutions can cope with it. A superhero is required to restore peace and justice for the good folk of Dodge or Gotham City. This restoration necessitates a ferocious act of violence. In contrast to classical myths and jeremiads, the superhero myth feeds on a disdain for institutions and the due process of law, resorts to extra-legal means to restore justice, and depicts the world as divided between the innocent and their evil foes. It is uncompromising, and has little patience for what Reinhold Niebuhr called "proximate solutions for insoluble problems." The authors trace this superhero paradigm through Westerns, vigilante law enforcement plots, Disney characters, comic books, video games, Star Trek and Star Wars, disaster films, apocalyptic cinema, and post 9/11 politics. Background theorists: Joseph Campbell
Mazur, Eric Michael and Kate McCarthy (eds.), God in the Details: American
Religion in Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 2001). The contributors to this collection have agreed, according to the editors, on a Geertzian conception of religion, meaning that when certain "markers" are present, a "terrain worthy of religious analysis" has been entered. These markers include "the formation of communities of shared meanings and values, the presence of ritualized behaviors, the use of language of ultimacy and transcendence, the marking of special, set-aside 'sacred' times and spaces, and the manipulation of traditional religious symbols and narratives." A persistent idea throughout these essays is that myths, rituals, moralities, and our sense of sacred time and place - all things that were hatched and incubated in traditional religions - have been dislocated and are reasserting themselves in popular music, sports, festivals, television shows, movies, cyberspace and amusement parks. We can't seem to shake them, given their proven record at lending our lives meaning - even though they are broken apart and reassembled in novel, hardly recognizable ways in their new incarnations. The essays cohere with each other because their authors do share this combination of bricolage and Geertzian functionalism. Some of the chapters are better than others (especially good are McCarthy on Bruce Springsteen, Wade
Clark Roof on Southern barbecue, Elijah Siegler on cop shows, and Mazur and Tara Koda on Disney). One criticism, however, is that while most of the authors drop hints as to whether or not they condone the way meaning is construed in the artifact they are analyzing, few of them offer anything to justify these surreptitious normative judgments.
Background theorists: Emile Durkheim, Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, Michel Foucault, Robert Bellah
Miller, Vincent, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer
Culture (New York: Continuum, 2004). Miller begins this book concurring that rampant consumerism has a corrosive effect on human well-being. But rather than offer another book-length rant against consumerism, he argues that the deeper problem is the practice by which consumption has become so central in our lives. He describes this practice as the commodifying of culture, drawing on the Marxist critique of commodity fetishism, whereby we conceptualize consumable products as abstract from their origins and processes of production, rendering them into objects toward which we have little accountability, and which, torn from their contexts, become pliable in their meaning. Consumerism is thus "a set of interpretive habits and dispositions" by which everything is wrenched from its context. His primary worry is how commodification transforms the religions we profess, how it engenders habits in us by which we sever belief and practice, and by which we break apart coherent traditions into discrete symbols, narratives, and rituals that can be mixed and matched in any manner we wish, i.e. made into objects that can be consumed. He offers a persuasive account of the many cunning ways in which this occurs. He then reflects on the way that consumerism cultivates human desire in a way that mimics the more traditional desire for transcendence, diverting and absorbing energies that would otherwise be used in the long, arduous journey of the spiritual life. In drawing this connection, Miller gains some sympathetic understanding for the desire that endlessly consumes, ever eluded by fulfillment. It is "hauntingly similar to Christian portrayals of desire as an endless, unquenchable seeking after an infinite God." With this discovery, he goes on to explore popular culture as a way of using commodities that sometimes contains seeds of resistance to the forces of commodification, thus subverting it and opening up a space in our culture for genuine transcendence. It is a supple argument, worthy of close reading.
Background theorists: Augustine, Karl Marx, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel de Certeau, Guy Debord, Zygmunt Bauman, Edward Schillebeeckx, Kathryn Tanner
Nelson, John Wiley, Your God Is Alive and Well and Appearing in Popular
Culture (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976). Nelson is interesting because he wrote this book under the twin influence of his study of Tillich and his discovery in the early 1970s of the Bowling Green based Popular Culture Association, a branch of popular culture studies that developed in the US largely independent of the ideological critiques of the Frankfurt School and the Birmingham Centre. In this book he argues that American popular culture supports a coherent (if evolving) set of religious beliefs and values in the same way that worship services support the beliefs and values of organized religions. With every exposure to popular culture, that is, "the dominant belief system of American life" is reaffirmed. And given the amount of time we spend in front of the TV, read fiction, go to movies, watch sports and listen to music, Nelson argues, popular culture is where most Americans worship and the site where they absorb most of their beliefs and values. Sometimes the beliefs and values of popular culture overlap with a Christian way of seeing and valuing life, but in many areas there is stark discordance. Early in the book, Nelson outlines what he takes to be the "American Cultural Belief System," with its basic elements of evil, salvation, and perfection: (1) meaningful social relations that make a community good are threatened by external evils, such as bad companions, illicit sexual partners, greedy landlords, criminals, selfish corporate interests and corrupt public officials; (2) the community and its institutions are too weak to resist these evil influences and must be delivered from them by an individual messiah-type figure who overcomes the source of evil through a dramatic act of violence; (3) the hero delivers us back to stable family-based communities, characterized by law and order and the civilizing influence of women, then disappears; and (4) a code of life that sustains us in the absence of the hero is conveyed through popular magazines that "generally equate fulfillment with certain physical appearances and with a breadth of social graces and savoir-faire." He develops this scheme through chapters on movies, country music, magazines, television, and crime fiction. He finds the archetype of the American Belief System in the classic western, with dissenting (if equally influential) beliefs in "Anti-Western" fiction such as High Plains Drifter, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and many gangster and detective stories.
Background theorists: Paul Tillich, Jack Nachbar, John Cawelti, Robert Warshow
Ostwalt, Conrad, Secular Steeples: Popular Culture and the Religious Imagination
(Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003). The primary aim of this book is to challenge the unidirectionality of the standard secularization theory. Instead, Ostwalt argues, secularization takes place in two ways. First, overt religion adopts secular forms - like television and movies. Second, the religious sensibility is dispersed through other forms - not strategically, but because religion is irrepressible. It is actually an exchange; boundaries between sacred and secular dissolve: the sacred is secularized while the secular is sacralized. The religious and the secular "feed off one other." Religious striving is relatively constant in history, and at the moment its locus of authority is being dispersed and the cultural vehicles that carry it are being diversified. We have come to grant "the entertainment industry, the media, and the publishing industry" authority to express religious ideas and sentiments. At its best, religion is all about combating nihilism. In reference to literature, the author claims: "secular forms can supplement or even replace religious structures as vehicles for religious longings and conversations." Background theorists: Peter Berger, Rodney Stark
Romanowski, William D., Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001).
Romanowski offers this book as a guide for interpreting and evaluating popular culture as an evangelical Christian. On one level, it is an apology for popular culture, addressing readers he assumes are uneasy with it, even though they may consume it as a guilty pleasure. His message to them is that being artistically creative is a faithful way to be a Christian, given that Christians worship a creative God. As art has always done, popular "arts" can serve Christian purposes as vehicles of social criticism, social unity, and collective memory. On another level, he insists that popular culture does promote a worldview that is in many ways antagonistic to the Christian worldview. The solution, he proposes, is to view and listen to popular culture with a critical mind, endorsing it when it expresses values consistent with "biblical principles," berating it when it undercuts these principles. Some popular films and music approximate a "Christian" worldview, or exemplify important elements of it (Romanowski singles out such films as Tender Mercies, Dead Man Walking, Titanic, and Gladiator on this score), and when they do, their creators should be recognized and praised for their efforts. Minimally, he suggests, we should learn to encounter popular culture as an interpretation of our culture's values and struggles. He also calls upon Christians to learn the craft of producing popular culture so that they can insert their values into the public square. Lacking any citations, bibliography and index, however, the book does not lend itself to scholarly use - except as itself a specimen of evangelical apologetic literature that makes use of popular culture.
Background theorists: Bible
Ward, Graham, Cities of God (London: Routledge, 2000). While not primarily an analysis of popular culture, this thick and rich book offers a more comprehensive assessment of culture, organized around the question: "what kind of theological statement does the city make today?" As he proceeds, however, Ward scrutinizes many artifacts of popular culture. With St Augustine's City of God whispering in his ear, Ward tunes into the semiology of the city through his reading of films, fiction, architecture, urban planning, employment patterns, sex shops and cyberspace - the places in the postmodern city where desire either pursues its object with abandon or is criticized for doing so. The key pathologies behind the ways we desire in the contemporary world are "social atomism" - which erodes our capacities for community - and a lust which is endlessly driven to own and accumulate (what Augustine once called concupiscence). In film and fiction, this latter pathology is often symbolized as killer viruses, parasitic creatures, and vampires - a motif to which Ward gives considerable, and enlightening, attention. Ward also surveys the surging popularity of angels in popular culture and interprets it as "the manufacture of new urban mythologies," the indication of a new "longing for transcendence," and an opening up of "new negotiations with the divine." At the center of this book, Ward sketches out what he calls a "systematic theology"; it is highly idiosyncratic and deeply dependent upon the surrounding analyses - very original, but barely in conversation with the genre of systematic theology a la Calvin, Schleiermacher, Tillich, MacQuarrie and Rahner, which is probably deliberate.
Background theorists: Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, W.F. Hegel, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Michel de Certeau, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Emmanuel Levinas, Slajov Zizek
Warren, Michael, Seeing through the Media: A Religious View of Communications and Cultural Analysis (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997).
Warren mounts an argument in this book that electronic media, and particularly television, have a mesmerizing effect that encourages "cultural passivity," according to which while much of its content simply washes over us, much of it lodges within us and becomes reference points in our consciousness - without our awareness or consent. Because we cannot escape media, he argues for a "cultural agency" by which we become more conscious of this content and the means of its delivery, interrogating it for the picture of reality it is presenting to us and reflecting on it in light of counter messages found in the Bible (e.g., suspicion of the accumulation of wealth, taking the side of the victim). He offers guidance on frames of analysis that cultural agents can use to clarify the messages carried in the media, asking about the artifact itself (lyrics, narrative, images, performer), the layers of production (composer/writer, manufacturing process, marketing, intended audience), and the values that it conveys. He also offers an iconic interpretation of media images. Just as icons have always triggered within us ways of imagining ourselves, "inviting the viewer to imitate the qualities of the person or reality represented by the icon," media images have the same effect. Consequently it is a serious business to scrutinize what these images represent.
Background theorists: Gregory Baum, Paulo Freire, Raymond Williams, Stewart Ewen
Wright, Alex, Why Bother with Theology? (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002).
Theology is on life support, Wright argues, as he surveys the British scene. It is as incomprehensible to those in the 17-35 age cohort as "the hieroglyphs in the British Museum." But he believes theology does remain relevant, a "secular theology" a la Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity." People are still hungry for meaning, but the churches have lost touch with them, speaking in archaisms that cannot be comprehended. Wright seeks a third way between liberalism and radical orthodoxy, favoring what he calls "cultural theologians." "God is to be found precisely in those places where churchpeople might often prefer that God is not. That is in places where people dream of liberation and release (whether through Lottery winnings, or promotion at work, or sex, or engagement with characters in a TV soap)." He favors novels and movies as barometers of significant thinking about meaning in our "postmodern" culture, and offers along these lines the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula LeGuinn, Colin Thubron, and Hilary Mantel. In film he favors futuristic dystopias such as BladeRunner and Alien, and the metaphysical ponderings of Andrei Tarkovsky (esp. Stalker and Solaris). Background theorists: Karl Rahner, Timothy Gorringe, Graham Ward, Slajov Zizek
Was this article helpful?