Today excerpts from my new book, " The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity-Lite" due for release on April 16. Pre-order at amazon today! In 1967, as a new follower of Jesus, I sat in San Francisco's Fillmore West between two guys who were smoking marijuana, listening to Jefferson Airplane, way before the trendy bracelet told me to, I asked myself, "What would Jesus do?"
For the past 40 years I have spent my life at the intersection of my Christian faith and popular culture, trying to understand both and interpret each to the other. I've been a writer, nationally syndicated broadcaster and a provocateur and peacemaker in a vigorous discussion about the connection between the depth of our spiritual life and the richness of our cultural life. From time to time I am asked why I take popular culture seriously. After all--today's popular culture is generally superficial, celebrity driven and concerned with profit motives more than good art or important ideas.
I reply that despite its superficiality popular culture is a theological place. It systematically teaches and preaches, informing its audience about which issues matter most, fulfilling an educational role once occupied by schools and a spiritual role once filled by religion.
Former poet laureate Carl Sandburg recognized this early, saying in the 1950s, "I meet people occasionally who think motion pictures, the product Hollywood makes is merely entertainment, has nothing to do with education. That's one of the darnedest fool fallacies that is current. Anything that brings you to tears by way of drama does something to the deepest roots of our personalities. All movies, good or bad, are education,and Hollywood is the foremost educational institution on earth."
Veteran religion editor Phyllis Tickle points out that since the 1960s, popular culture is where we explore our beliefs: "More theology is conveyed in, and probably retained from one hour of popular television, than from all the sermons that are also delivered on any given weekend in America's synagogues, churches and mosques." So much theology is derived from popular culture that many argue that it has replaced religion.
A leading Jewish intellectual and commentator on culture, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, believes that popular culture is not only displacing religion but actually is a religion: "Hollywood is not just a place"it is a world in itself. Hollywood has done something remarkable: it has created a great and very successful religion. Through its successful missionaries"the films produced in Hollywood" it has spread around the globe, gaining adherents faster than any other religion in the world. If it has not attained the stature of a full-fledged religion, at least it is a very strong cult."
Every week, newly released songs, films, or books give voice to our common human concerns and probe the essential human questions:
Is there a God?
Who is God?
Who are we?
What is our meaning and identity?
Where did we come from?
What is our destiny?
What is love?
Why am I lonely?
What will satisfy me and make me happy?
Does anybody understand me?
Is there any hope?
Popular culture is a theological place. And so I pay attention to the stories told there. I listen to the cries of our age. I ask how I can better understand and communicate good news to people Who, based on the hopelessness so often on display in today's popular culture, so obviously need it.
Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub