By Elizabeth Glass Turner
Over the past 20 years – and that covers a host of Incredible Hulk and Spiderman movies – many evangelicals have reexamined how we approach popular culture as individuals and as a church. Not that long ago, innumerable conservative ministries held prominent sway in the way we evangelicals thought of modern North American culture (think “Murphy Brown”), issuing tallies of the number of curse words used in certain sitcoms in their household newsletters.
Mid-nineties, along came Bob Briner, author of Roaring Lambs: A Gentle Plan to Radically Change Your World, with his challenge to North American evangelicals: don’t shrink from the age in which you find yourself living. Rather, pursue avenues of transformation. As an Emmy award-winning television producer, he lived his message.
Shortly after that, a similar idea was advanced by a very different source. Philosopher Bill Irwin, PhD, initiated the “Pop Culture and Philosophy” series of books, which popped up on bookstore shelves across the nation. Most shoppers have now seen titles like Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book about Everything and Nothing, Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box, or, for the gamers among us, World of Warcraft and Philosophy: Wrath of the Philosopher King.
Irwin’s goal was simple: “Get philosophy out of the ivory tower by publishing books about smart popular culture for serious fans. With each volume in this series we seek to teach philosophy using the themes, characters, and ideas from your favorite TV shows, comic books, movies, music, games, and more.”
This integration of critical thinking with sources of daily entertainment dovetails nicely with Briner’s intentions to engage rather than to withdraw. Engaging popular culture is not a new concept for Christians, as those who consider the Apostle Paul’s methods on Mars Hill are quick to cite. It’s a familiar practice for missiologists, who constantly ask, “what is something pre-existing in this culture that connects to conversations about big ideas – truth, existence, ritual, purpose?”
Since this fundamental shift in evangelical perspective, books that address cultural interests and philosophy or theology abound from a variety of publishers. A few recent titles illustrate the appeal to very distinct demographics.
For instance, for anyone who has ever purchased Nintendo boxers at Wal-Mart for a son or nephew, The Legend of Zelda and Theology, edited by Asbury University alumnus Jonathan L. Walls, appeals to lovers of the classic video game who note startlingly familiar themes common both to the game and Sunday morning worship. Essays like “The Birth of Gaming from the Spirit of Fantasy: Video Games as Secondary Worlds with Special Reference to The Legend of Zelda and J.R.R Tolkien,” and “On Hylian Virtues: Aristotle, Aquinas and the Hylian Cosmogenesis” drive video game fans to engage their entertainment with critical thinking.
Fans of Robert Downey, Jr., or the explosively brilliant BBC series named simply “Sherlock” will enjoy The Philosophy of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Asbury Theological Seminary alumnus Philip Tallon, PhD. The volume includes essays that go beyond “elementary” deduction, such as “Eliminating the Impossible: Sherlock Holmes and the Supernatural,” as well as a selection from famed Christian author (and mystery writer) Dorothy Sayers.
Moving from deer stalker hats to werewolves, do you (embarrassingly) know the lyrics to your love-struck tween’s favorite Justin Bieber song? You might want to check out Belieber: Faith, Fame and the Heart of Justin Bieber written by religion journalist Cathleen Falsani. Maybe it will help youth pastors and parents to engage with popular culture with an eye on a more informed way of discussing pop culture and the issues that matter most.
Do you know Robert Pattinson’s favorite color and dream date? Some parents may require their teen to read a chapter from Twilight and Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians, and the Pursuit of Immortality for every Meyers chapter they devour. “Twilight and Philosophy” asks questions like, “what can vampires tell us about the meaning of life? Is Bella a feminist? How does Stephenie Meyer’s Mormonism fit into the fantastical world of Twilight?”
Only time will reveal the long-term impact of the 20th century evangelical Protestant shift from cultural withdrawal to cultural engagement. Only time will tell what cultural contributions last – such as those of Sir Arthur Conan Coyle – and which will fade (Gangnam Style?). What outlasts TV series, or New York Times bestsellers, or even theological trends, is the pursuit of truth. May we continue to find – and embed – truth in our culture.
Elizabeth Glass Turner is the pastor of Kemp United Methodist Church in Kemp, Texas.