Theologians and the Study of Culture

Christian theologians are notorious for either preemptively dismissing theory that is making the rounds outside their discipline, or rushing headlong to embrace it. The work of cultural studies has caught the attention of many of us, and, true to form, some view it as yet more evidence for the decline of godly civilization, while others, at the opposite end, herald it as the key to understanding all past failures of godly civilization.1 What has caught the interest of its heralds, in particular, are its twin emphases on the importance of material culture over the standard big ideas, classic texts, and towering personalities when looking for indicators of how people actually construe reality, and the valorization of popular culture as the most vibrant site of creative resistance and liberation of subordinate peoples within Western societies today.2

One particularly striking example of this is found in the work of Anthony Pinn, a professor of religious studies at Macalester College. Pinn has offered some trenchant analyses of blues and rap music, sorting them out into various sub-genres and articulating the theological experimentation, social criticism, and envisioning of liberation to which they give voice.3 Pinn approaches blues and rap as exemplary sites of resistance within popular culture where a subordinate people "tell it like it is" about the hostility of the world toward "Black life" - a reading of their experience that he calls "nitty-gritty hermeneutics." In often uncompromising roughness, blues and rap artists unmask the "nitty-gritty" reality of their suffering and carry their bitterness into convention-breaking music and lyrics that speak aloud their defiance and advocate a variety of strategies of rebellion to their audience. Anyone who listens to them, Pinn argues, cannot help but rethink the social order and the ideological and religious assumptions that perpetuate it. In this, Pinn has followed the lead of the Birmingham theorists to privilege subaltern communities and attend to the grasp of reality that expresses itself in their ad hoc creativity -complete with the elements of bricolage and poaching that typify the sampling so characteristic of rap.

Other writers have done as much - James Cone, Michael Eric Dyson, and Jon Michael Spencer have written perceptively on blues, soul, rap and hip hop as forms of community self-affirmation and prophetic critique that have extended the long-standing efforts of the Black churches to empower their people.4 But Pinn goes further, and divides these musical sites of resistance against the Black churches and their preachers and theologians. As much as blues and rap rhymes object to the dominant culture in American society, he argues, they heave contempt at the Black churches and their God. A persistent message of blues and rap is that Black Christianity perpetuates Black suffering. The crucial insight that Pinn finds in blues and rap to oppose to this is a theological one, namely, that there is no God and that holding onto theistic beliefs keeps subjugated people in their chains. It will not be until they realize that there is no "Being outside of the human realm" who takes an interest in their liberation that they will take the situation in hand and struggle fully against the structures that oppress them.5 If religion is to become "usable" it must abandon the crutches of theism and all notions of redemptive suffering and rally the people to take matters into their own hands. He writes:

Only a religiosity that participates in and affirms the cultural life of the community, and speaks plainly to pressing issues without paying tribute to unproved theological assertions - no new wine in old wineskins - is in keeping with the meaning of religion.6

Pinn, in other words, privileges the "hermeneutic" of one segment of a subordinate community over the hermeneutic of its own mainstream. He pits the sub-subaltern against the subaltern, in effect, and favors the former. He privileges this segment to the extent of claiming that until the Black churches concur with the theological atheism, strong humanism, and no-holds-barred social realism of the rappers, they have no legitimate claim to true religiosity. This is a use of cultural studies that overextends its real value. Cultural studies directs us to understand that a fuller appreciation of the vital and complex life of a society requires an examination of the semiotic guerilla tactics of its subcultures, and that studying their agency in the realm of popular culture is a reliable means to do this. Pinn borrows the concept, produces an eloquent account of two genres of popular culture within the Black community, isolates a hermeneutic of life within these two genres, and then uses it to pass judgment on the central tenets of faith of the Black churches.

Pinn is right to look outside the churches and organized religion to other places where people are making and finding meaning and hope for their lives. But he makes the mistake of concluding that the subaltern rappers have emerged because organized religion has gotten the essentials wrong. While normative judgments have a place in the theological analysis of popular culture, and while religious beliefs ought to come in for some criticism in light of insights that are discovered through cultural studies, Pinn's unilateralism lacks subtlety. His work so privileges the insights generated by one site of resistance within popular culture that it misses the kind of reciprocity of judgment that ought to characterize the enterprise of theology of culture. He has turned the sound guidance of cultural studies to listen respectfully to deviant uses of popular culture into a prejudice that presumes deviance is where the truth will be found. This is an error to be avoided. The relationship between the discipline of theology and the theological improvisation that occurs in popular culture should be characterized by more thoughtful reciprocity than this. As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann has advised, the reason it is important to grasp "the implicit theology of this modern world of ours, and understand why and how it was born," is "so that we can recognize both its vitality and its congenital defects."7

While it is true that the media-world is still relatively new, popular culture is not. Theologians have had to advise the churches for centuries on how they should relate to popular culture. Moltmann's distinction between an openness to the vitality of a culture and a suspicion of its congenital defects is a good one for identifying two opposing schools of thought vis-à-vis culture in the history of Christian theology. Both have solid pedigrees going back to the church fathers, and both have their advocates on the scene today. Because the writings of Tertullian and Augustine on how Christians should view the gladiatorial games, athletic contests, theater and poetry of the ancient world offer the basic arguments of both sides in this debate, it will be instructive to begin with them.

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