Thursday, May 3, 2012

Blog Tour: Christianity and Popular Culture

Welcome to the Thursday, May 3 stop on the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg's Blog Tour on Religion and Media!  As a historian, I am intrigued by the many ways in which religion influences American society (and vice versa).  I had the honor of posing a few questions on this subject to Dr. Mary Hess.  Dr. Hess is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and a Roman Catholic layperson with a background in both American and media/cultural studies.  She blogs at; more information regarding her publications and research interests is available on the Luther Seminary Web site.  Please join us in this conversation; we look forward to your questions and comments.

1) Where do you see theology most deeply expressed in popular culture today?  Has this changed over time, and if so, how?  What might this signify for the future?

Many years ago Christian historian named Margaret Miles wrote a book called "Seeing is Believing" where she made the argument that we tend to work out our arguments about moral action more often in the movies than in public philosophical arguments. I think her insight may be even more true today. Most of what we care deeply about is only engaged in complex ways in fiction. It's hard to find much in the news that allows for ambiguity, or that attends carefully to historical context. I don't mean to say that we only do this in film, or even that we do a lot of thoughtful work in films! But I think that in order to find places where real theological questions are being engaged in complex ways, you have to go to movies -- or better yet, to long form narrative television (that is, shows that spread their content over many, many episodes in complex narrative arcs).

That's a long-winded way of saying that I think you can find theological questions being raised in a lot of popular culture, but that the more sustained the narrative the more likely you are to find thoughtful reflection. Once I've said that, then I can turn to almost any genre of popular culture and identify interesting work. But theology in popular culture is never as systematic or clear as it is in philosophical arguments.

I'll give you some examples. I think of series like "Six Feet Under," "Deadwood," "Battlestar Galactica" and so on, as examples of television shows that ask difficult questions about human and divine agency; about loss, hope, despair; about forgiveness and reconciliation; about redemption and sanctification. But these shows don't offer uniform -- or even all that recognizable -- theological platforms. They aren't "didactic" about Christian doctrine, for instance. But they do evoke perennial questions, and offer thoughtful reflections.

There are a lot of popular musicians who do this, too. I think here of the music of Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and U2 to name just a few of my own favorites.

And there are novels -- the Harry Potter series, for instance, are perhaps our most current analogue to the work of C. S. Lewis.

You asked "has this changed over time"? Yes and no. Theological themes have always emerged in popular cultures. At different times in history these themes have been overt and intentional or implicit and hidden. At some times there has been public condemnation of popular culture, and at other times popular culture has been valorized as an explicit carrier of theological content.

I think perhaps what has changed the most in our current era is that the tools for creating and distributing popular content are more accessible than at any previous time in our history. We are moving into what might actually become a truly "participatory" global culture. We're not there yet, but we have the possibility. Blogs, for instance, are a widely accessible form of sharing content. All you need is access to the net, and you can share content in a blog. Yes, we need to think about various digital divides. Yes, we need to be conscious of helping people access and use blogs wisely. But the bottom line is that we now have a medium that is accessible to just about anyone, and which creates a platform for global communication. That is unprecedented and we are only beginning to sense the possibilities.

2) What in the history of Christian engagement in popular culture might inform a thoughtful approach toward the media today?

The example I find myself using most often has to do with how Christian churches dealt with the advent of television, at least in the United States. Christian churches tended to respond in one of two ways. Either they were deeply excited about the possibilities for using television to spread the gospel widely, or they were deeply worried about the ways in which television content was damaging and potentially destructive of Christian faith.

At first glance those two positions might seem very different from each other. But if you think about it, both pretty much assume that the creator of the content controls its meaning. In the first instance Christians saw television as a way to pipe their content to many more people over a much wider area. In the second, Christians saw television as piping negative content directly into people's homes. Television was the "pipeline" through which content was poured, and the person receiving the content was considered to be a pretty passive recipient of that content. So more conservative evangelical churches helped to create the entire Christian broadcasting and publishing world, and more liberal Protestant churches focused on media literacy education, which was going to somehow "inoculate" people against negative content.

Frankly, I don't think either approach was all that successful in the long run. What we've learned, instead, is that media -- whether television, film, digital media, etc. -- are environments in which meaning is made, and the producer of a message does not control its reception. Media literacy educators learned, for instance, that far from "inoculating" people against negative content, we tended to inoculate them against religious community -- because people didn't want to 'give up' the television they loved, and were far more willing to turn their backs on religious community.

So a thoughtful approach to media today takes very seriously the "agency" of the audience. Scholars of digital media speak about "participatory culture" -- by which they mean that consumers of media are very often the producers of it as well. Spaces such as YouTube, flickr, facebook, and so on are the focus of more and more of our attention.

I believe that Christian communities -- indeed, any religious communities -- need to venture into these spaces and reflect on how religious meaning is made there. Rather than boycotting them -- which is something many Christian communities have suggested that we do (a stance which reminds me of early media literacy educators) -- or entering into them entirely uncritically (a stance which reminds me of Christian broadcasting) -- we need to support people in learning how to produce their own messages in these media, and in doing so learn how to be critically engaged with them (which is actually the stance of current media educators). (See, for instance, NAMLE:

3) What can new media teach the church?  What can the church teach new media?  

Wow -- what a huge question! I think I'll start by referring your readers to some wonderful books that explore the shifts that have happened, historically, as new technologies arrive. Books like Elizabeth Eisenstein's "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change," or Jeremy Stolow's work, his book "Deus in Machina" is about to come out. A great short book which is very accessible, is Elizabeth Drescher's book "Tweet if you [heart] Jesus: Practicing church in the digital reformation."

I think part of what new media in OUR era (because there are new media in all eras) might teach us is how to take seriously people's desire to participate and contribute. As Clay Shirky suggests, new media help us to see and take advantage of our "cognitive surpluses." We're learning -- and here Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown's book "A New Culture of Learning" is particularly instructive -- that inquiry-driven, project-based, portfolio-assessed learning is more effective and compelling than our previous more teacher-centered forms of learning have been.

At the same time this more explicit attention to tacit learning requires us to think about what it means to learn through "indwelling" -- and this is one place where churches have much to teach new media. At our best, people in religious communities know a lot about how to shape meaning in spaces that are communal and collective. We know a lot about what it means to "know" when certainty is not the final goal. As Anne Lamott is fond of pointing out, the opposite of faith is not doubt, it's certainty. So how to shape hope in the midst of despair? How to think about ultimacy when faced with mortality? These are questions that communities of faith have much to bring to, and we lodge it most often in the deep bones of our traditions, in the ways in which we "indwell" particular spaces and particular questions. Those of us who are actively participating in new media have much to learn from these traditions.

Here's a question for your readers: What are the historical lenses you think most necessary to put on when thinking about new media and religion?


juliestecker said...

Mary, in response to your question:

As a Lutheran, I find it particularly relevant to put on the lenses of the reformation. We see the way that the reformers were interacting with new technology (especially the printing press) and using it for the good of the church. Honoring the reformers doesn't mean we go out and find a printing press to get the word out about what God's people are doing, it means we look around at the cultural reality and find ways to use it for the sake of the Gospel. If we believe that God is living, and active, and always doing something new, I think that's really our call as people of God.

Mary Hess said...

Yes! I think you're right that we need to be engaging the cultural realities around us. I think you'd enjoy Elizabeth Drescher's book, because that's essentially what she does -- makes a case for how the reformation interacted with the printing press, and then thinks about how we might be in the middle of a new reformation, which is in its own way interacting with social media.

Brent said...

How can churches use social media to promote social justice issues and charity groups?

Karen said...

How do you think the religious community can new media to embrace a younger generation who has felt out of place in traditional churches?

John Spangler said...

I have been assuming that congregations and their education ministries can help young peole become critical consumers, smart readers and interpreters of media culture. Do you know of resources along these lines for pastors and other educators who want to bring something to the table?

john spangler

Laura Gifford said...

Communities of faith have used "new" media as effective means of bearing witness--one of the many goals of the nonviolent protests of the civil rights era, for example, was to demonstrate the brutality of the segregationist regimes of the American South, something the then-new medium of television did a remarkable job of broadcasting to Americans and international audiences alike.

One could argue that communities of faith have become co-opted by "new" media, as well. When Bishop Fulton Sheen was presenting a weekly television program in the midst of the early Cold War and awarded the 1952 Emmy for best television personality, was he using the new medium--or being utilized by it? Or both? Did Robert Schuller's drive-in church with its innovative radio technology bring people in... or keep them apart?

Are there other examples, historical or contemporary, of the church using new media well--or poorly?

Inquiring mind said...

Most of the Facebook posts by religious organizations and institutions are so unengaging!. Do you have suggestions for how the faith community can make their content compelling for such a short-attention- span audience?

Madeline said...

Laura and Mary -

I wonder if the prevailing forms available in a particular medium limit its potential engagement by faith communities. For example, the prevailing television forms of shout-and-interrupt "news" panels; reality shows; "vote them down or off"; etc. How does one get the interest of viewers for more thoughtful material presented in different ways?

Laura Gifford said...

I agree that thoughtful responses can be difficult in a sound-bite world. I'd be curious to hear what Mary has to say (by the way, my earlier question was to anyone reading these comments and not just to Mary specifically). Anecdotally speaking, I am encouraged by interactions I have with college students (even as I am sometimes discouraged by the lack of depth that some new technology encourages toward academic life). I suspect we may enter a period of backlash against some of the shouty voices, because I see a real longing for authenticity and a recognition that this approach offers very few tools for meaningful interaction. Of course, they (and we) are still conditioned by these influences to accept much of what they say, even as we question their utility... it's moving from recognition to application that poses the challenge.

Mary Hess said...

Brent -- I think that there are many, many examples of churches using social media to promote social justice and charitable work. Perhaps the way I'd respond is to note that the digital social media are not all that great at instituting relationships, but they are pretty useful for intensifying and sustaining relationships. Thus, there are groups that are already doing social justice work -- one example might be the Interfaith Youth Core -- and they are using social media as a way to publicize and extend their work. Churches need to be thoughtful about listening to their core constituencies and thinking about how to develop that work in further ways. Raising money in small amounts, developing petitions, communicating more widely about ongoing efforts, connecting with and listening to more diverse groups -- all of these are ways that social media can be helpful.

Mary Hess said...

Karen -- how can religious communities use new media to embrace a younger generation? Another great question, but I'd answer it in some similar ways to Brent's question. If you're a church which currently is not connecting with a younger generation, than simply jumping into social media to publicize what you're currently doing isn't likely to be very effective. On the other hand, if you are genuinely ready to face your own transformation, and genuinely interested in reaching out to people who have been estranged in some way from your religious community, then I think new media can be a helpful resource. First, for listening. Second, for developing new pathways to share the unique specificities of your own community. And then, third, to demonstrate that you respect what you are learning from these people you are reaching out to, and to show what you are doing that has changed.

Mary Hess said...

John -- You're asking for resources for congregations and their educators that can help people become "critical consumers, smart readers and interpreters of media culture." The first thing I'd say is that my goal would not be for people to be better consumers, but rather for people to become more active PRODUCERS. The digital tools that are emerging right now are participatory tools, they work best when people are creating with them. One reason facebook is so popular (among many) is that it enables people to write their own webpages without knowing a single piece of html code. So, first, help them to become producers -- which will already help them to become more critical of what's out there. Then I think you can also invite people to participate in some of the larger conversations that take place around popular media culture. I love sites like The Jesuit Post (, Busted Halo (, Lutheran Confessions (, and the Sarcastic Lutheran ( There are so many!

Mary Hess said...

Laura -- I think I need to bow to other minds that are much better than mine when it comes to historical issues! I'm sure that there are LOTS of examples where churches used emerging media well and where they used it poorly. I tried to point more generally to responses around television, but again I'd point off to the books I mentioned at the start. Another book that makes some pointed claims is Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody." In that book he makes the argument that it was new media (email, newspaper websites, and so on) that made the crucial difference between the vastly differing responses to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church. The earlier crisis in the'80s and early '90s' went nowhere, but by 2000 the new tools made a VAST difference in how people could organize locally, and the organizing they did brought down a cardinal (Cardinal Law in Boston).

Mary Hess said...

Inquiring mind asks a fascinating question about how religious organizations might make their content compelling for a "short attention span" audience. First, I'd say that it's not so much a short attention span audience, as it is an audience with a vast amount of content to choose from, so it can be a very discriminating audience with very little patience for banality or stupidity. You might not believe me-- after all, YouTube is full of silly cats and lots of other stuff. But I think that part of what makes content compelling enough that it gets shared (and LOLcats are part of that) is that it touches people in some way. The video that Mr. Bethke made ("I love Jesus and hate religion" went viral very, very quickly. I think it touched people on a deep level - and many, many people responded by creating their own video responses. I think we need to start asking religious communities whether they actually believe, deeply, what it is they're trying to share. And we have to ask if what we're inviting people to become involved in really matters -- to us, first, before we try to get anyone else involved.

Mary Hess said...

Madeline -- that's a question a lot of people are asking! I tried to respond to something similar a few days ago, when I noted that instead of pursuing news content we ought to be reaching towards long form narrative kinds of media. (CF. So, yes, I do think some kinds of media limit their potential for engagement. I regularly tell people that I think they should never watch television news -- except, I suppose, if they are consciously using it as a form of entertainment. Part of what we have to work is helping people learn how to communicate in various kinds of media, because they way they become much more familiar with the constraints as well as the affordances of specific media.

Mary Hess said...

Laura -- AMEN! I think that we are indeed moving into an era where there is a deep longing for authenticity and meaningful interaction, but we're only just beginning to learn how to facilitate that. I think the Public Conversations Project (which has some wonderful free resources on their site) is leading the way in helping us to do this (, but there are many others doing this as well.