Theology and Culture

The media-world is the shelter where the vast majority of those of us who live in the West dwell and from which we draw the material out of which we make sense of our lives. It is under the canopy of the media that we imbibe, speculate about and negotiate the meaning of love, friendship, beauty, happiness, truth, hope, pain, grace, luck, work, sacrifice, and death. The mediated world of electronic images, sounds, and printed words provides us with our most broadly shared symbols, icons, myths and rituals - the signs with which we enlighten ourselves, search for consolation, and establish our bearings. In some ways organized religion has failed us; but in other ways this is simply due to the emergence of the datasphere and our exposure through it to other workshops of meaning in the world, other ways to assemble stories and symbols that give weight and direction to our existence. Many of these stories and symbols sprang originally from authentic religious traditions, but now float free, available for the taking.

As a theologian reflecting on culture, my sympathies lie with Johann Gottfried Herder. With Herder, I concur that it is not off-limits to speak of culture, and of diverse cultures, in terms of divine providence or as embodiments of God's ideas - at least cautiously. That is a working hypothesis for the remainder of this book, to be explored in this chapter through a survey of classic theological treatments of popular culture, to be followed, in Chapter 4, with an inventory of theological concepts that are particularly useful to cultural inquiry.

One preliminary caution: It is important to acknowledge that the arts and the media are not the only artifacts that tell us about a culture. And simply disclosing and interpreting the symbols, semiotics and values of a culture's arts and media does not exhaust what needs to be said and investigated with respect to social processes that operate within a culture, particularly those processes that lead to oppression and discrimination against age, gender, race, class, etc. Ideological critique is also a worthwhile way to examine a culture. While it is not entirely outside the scope of a theology of culture, it is not the primary focus.

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