God: A Pop Culture Superstar

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Steve Rabey

He’s a brainy astrophysicist (played by movie star Bill Pullman). She’s a brainy nun (played by movie star Natascha McElhone).

Together these two sleuths star in NBC’s new [started April 13] supernatural thriller series, where they investigate weird and unusual phenomena that just may signal the end of the world!

It’s like The X-Files meets Constantine in this good-versus-evil drama that includes a daughter that may have been murdered by a Satan worshipper and all kinds of supernatural shenanigans.

But then NBC already knows spirituality sells; this is the network that brought us Allison Dubois (Patricia Arquette), the average wife and mom who’s a psychic investigator on the network’s top-rated Medium, a show that was introduced in January and has racked up stellar ratings ever since.

It’s like the crime thriller Cold Case meets the psychic gab-fest Crossing Over, only Medium is based on the escapades of a reallife psychic who touts her own successes on her own web site (

But the former undisputed queen of TV spirituality is Joan of Arcadia, the hit CBS show that’s now enjoying its second year of popularity. God works in mysterious ways, but seldom so mysterious as on Joan of Arcadia, which features a high school student who regularly receives messages from God.

Joan’s God is a shape-shifting deity who manifests himself/herself in numerous human guises and delivers directives to sensitive Joan from the mouths of fellow students, a grumpy cafeteria worker, a bespectacled man who lectures students on sexuality, or even the guy at the local convenience store.

God’s divine assignments are equally varied. In one show he commands Joan to build a small boat in her family’s garage. In another she’s told to transcend her low-key personality by trying out for her school’s cheerleading squad. And in another, she’s directed to host a party at her house while her parents are out of town (an act that represents a direct violation of their orders).

Like Touched By An Angel, its long-running supernatural predecessor, Joan of Arcadia is punctuated by frequent divine interventions. But there are significant differences between the two shows. Touched producer Martha Williamson, who attends the evangelical Church on the Way, wanted her show to reflect the spirit of Jesus. Joan creator Barbara Hall, who was raised Methodist and spent years away from the faith before converting to Catholicism, is more content with a less doctrinaire deity. “I’m Catholic, but the show’s not Catholic,” she told The New York Times in 2003. “Joan isn’t Catholic. God isn’t Catholic.”

A Los Angeles Times article described the “ten commandments” Hall created as guidelines for the show. The first commandment says, “God cannot directly intervene,” while the third says, “God can never identify one religion as being right.”

A spiritual cornucopia

Recent TV seasons have witnessed a flood of God-haunted broadcast and cable shows like Tru Calling, Wonderfalls, Dead Like Me, Carnivale, Six Feet Under, Miracles, and Veritas.

Perhaps the most unusual program was Mad Mad House, which premiered in March. The Science Fiction Channel’s postmodern, post-Christian reality show put ten guests (including a few Christians) in a house with a vampire, a voodoo priestess, a Wiccan, a naturist, and a modern primitive.

In a January TV Guide article entitled “TV Goes with God,” writer Mark Nollinger explored the sudden upsurge in spiritually-themed shows.

“Does God exist? What’s our place in the universe? Is there a meaning to life? And what exactly happens to us after we die, anyway?

“It used to be that the only way people could find a helpful discussion of such profound questions was to get up early, put on their best clothes—and their best behavior—and head off to a church, temple or mosque. Not now. These days, you barely need to get off the sofa during prime time.”

And other pop culture media are overflowing with spiritual messages.

At the cineplex, movies in the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Matrix series have become box office hits while inspiring profound theological reflection and debate. And the new Spiritual Cinema Circle ( is a subscriptionbased DVD service that delivers “spiritually themed” films.

At bookstores, Philip Pullman’s anti-God His Dark Materials series battles it out against British vicar G. P. Taylor’s faith-friendly Shadowmancer novel. And younger readers can pick up the latest installment in the growing, internationally popular W.i.t.c.h. series featuring “5 ordinary girls…who discover that they have extraordinary powers.” (see

Lynn Schofield Clark, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says, “Religion and spirituality are ‘hot’ right now.”

Clark spent six years conducting 250 interviews with teens and their families, publishing her results in her 2003 book, From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural (Oxford, $29.95). A member of Denver’s Faith Lutheran Church, Clark says changes in the contemporary media marketplace are fueling the growth in spiritual entertainment.

“Popular culture has become much more diverse than ever before, and this means that there is a much broader variety of messages available to young people, as well as a proliferation of evangelically-oriented materials like the Veggie Tales videos, Revolve and Refuel teen Bibles, and bestselling albums by Christian bands like Third Day and Mercy Me.

“Successes like this allow young evangelicals to identify with something they see on a very public stage, and thus it gives them a space in the culture in which they can see their faith,” says Clark. “The challenge for leaders is to help them to move beyond this identification and reinforcement, encouraging them to live out their faith by being a part of movements for better living conditions for other young people around the world, for example.”

The phenomenal success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ led Entertainment Weekly magazine to ask: “Has Hollywood found religion?” And last fall,

Gibson’s Icon Productions firm launched three new TV series: Clubhouse, Savages, and Kevin Hill. None of them were explicitly religious, and none was a major hit.

Meanwhile, today’s profusion of spiritually-influenced entertainment has created a bumper crop of theologically-informed books, from Mark Pinsky’s The Gospel According to the Simpsons to Jana Riess’s What Would Buffy Do?: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide. Such books can help prepare Christian leaders and laypeople for the difficult task of developing a biblically-informed critique of pop culture.

No escape

Spirituality is everywhere in entertainment today. But not all shows are created equal, nor do all teens view these shows in the same way. The University of Colorado’s Clark divided teen pop culture consumers into the following five distinct groups:

  1. Resisters have no interest in organized religion, but they readily identify with the antiestablishment themes in supernatural dramas like “The X-Files.”
  2. Mystics are impacted by shows like “Joan of Arcadia” but remain ambivalent toward organized religion.
  3. Experimenters are very interested in spirituality and are the most likely to go from seeing a TV show like “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” or “Charmed” to toying with Wicca.
  4. Traditionalists, the category that includes most evangelical Christian teens as well as conservative Mormons and Muslims, are primarily concerned with personal morality and how the consumption of pop culture will help or hurt them.
  5. The Intrigued are committed to their faith but seek to balance their received traditions with the new information they get from the mass media.

Finding out what kind of culture consumers your teens are isn’t always easy, but talking with kids about pop culture can help.

“It’s often easier to talk to kids about pop culture than it is to discuss what they think or believe concerning religion,” says Clark.

Steve Rabey is a Colorado-based freelance writer who teaches a class called “A Christian Perspective on Popular Culture” for Fuller Theological Seminary. His latest book is The Way of the Mystics with John Michael Talbot (Jossey-Bass).


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Publicado por em 05/09/2009 em POIMENIA


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