Culture: Enemy or Friend?

11 set

Steve Rabey

Pop culture has always accentuated differences between younger and older generations. For example, people who during the sixties rebelled against their parents by listening to artists like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones now look on with horror as their own children listen to artists like Limp Bizkit and Outkast.

But during the last quarter of the 20th century, pop culture illustrated differences of another kind. For much of this period, some conservative Christians saw culture as the enemy of the church in a vast “culture war,” while other believers saw culture as a symptom—but not a major cause—of the often confusing mix of faith and faithlessness that characterized the age.

Two important episodes from the period illustrate these divergent approaches.

In 1988, filmmaker Martin Scorsese released his movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, which he described as a “deeply religious film.” But some evangelicals didn’t see it that way. Across America, theaters that showed the film faced pickets from believers who thought that the film was critical of orthodox Christianity. And Campus Crusade for Christ president Bill Bright offered to buy the original print of the film for $10 million so he could destroy it.

In 1999, Gen X filmmaker Kevin Smith, a self-confessed Catholic whose youthful imagination was steeped in comic books and videos, released a movie he called Dogma, which he described as a comedic love letter to the church and the sacred mysteries of life.

As with The Last Temptation of Christ, there were many angry believers who tried to halt the film’s release. This time, it was the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, and the Southern Baptist Convention who declared the film blasphemous.

But Dogma, which is certainly controversial, generated a different kind of response from many members of the emerging generations who embraced the film’s unusual mix of piety and profanity.

The film stars Matt Damon as Loki and Ben Affleck as Bartleby, two fallen angels with bad attitudes who were banished by God to the wasteland of Wisconsin. Now they’ll do anything to get back home to heaven, exploiting a loophole in Roman Catholic canon law which threatens the sovereignty of God and the very existence of the cosmos.

The film’s wacky cast of characters includes the glitzy angel Metatron (Alan Rickman), a woman named Bethany (Linda Fiorentino) who works in a Pittsburgh abortion clinic, a muse who works in a strip bar to make ends meet (Salma Hayek), Rufus, a previously unknown 13th disciple of Jesus who was allegedly edited out of the Bible because he was black (comedian Chris Rock), and Cardinal Glick (George Carlin), whose program to reinvigorate the church uses contemporary advertising and marketing techniques to replace the “depressing” image of the crucifix with a statue called “Buddy Christ,” which features a smiling Jesus with upraised thumbs.

Smith, a film school dropout and former video store clerk, used credit cards to make his 1994 debut, Clerks, an acclaimed “slacker opus.” In that film’s closing credits, Smith thanks God, “without whom this couldn’t have been done.” His later films included 1995’s Mallrats and 1997’s Chasing Amy.

Dogma explores Smith’s strong, but often ambivalent, feelings about religion. Although he has repeatedly affirmed his belief in God and in Jesus Christ, Smith is much less certain about the church. Like Bethany, a central character in Dogma, he goes to church but isn’t always sure why and is usually bored. “It’s called the Celebration of the Mass, but it’s no party,” he said in an Internet interview. “No one’s having a good time.”

Critics liked Dogma almost as much as many conservative Christians hated it. But it was Catholic priest and author Andrew Greeley who may have best summarized the film’s mix of the silly and the sublime.

“Is God offended by the movie?” Greeley asked in a column he wrote for Religion News Service. “Unlike those religious fanatics who are trying to ban the film, I claim no special access to the mind of the deity. I suspect, however, that God understands that the humor of the film is a prelude to making some very serious, and funny, theological points.”

Out of the cocoon

Few members of the emerging generations boycotted the film. Many went to see it, some more than once. And some even used the film’s release as an opportunity to talk to unbelievers about contemporary perceptions of Christianity. One of these is a friend of mine named Patton Dodd, who works as a full-time writer for a Colorado Springs mega-church and in his spare time directs “The Colorado Springs Film Society,” an informal group of film fans who meet once a month to share their love of movies.

You may have seen an article Patton wrote for issue 6.2 of the magazine Re:Generation Quarterly. The article, entitled, “Can Colorado Springs Save Itself?” describes the confusion some local evangelicals experience when Patton tells them that the film society isn’t an evangelistic outreach to unbelievers, but merely a gathering place for film buffs. This in a city that is home to dozens of evangelical parachurch organizations that have spawned a never-ending series of city-wide evangelistic efforts. “No one in the group knows that we are Christians,” Patton says, “and we don’t plan on doing anything to show that we are other than forming relationships with people and letting the Gospel speak through our lives.”

Responses like this show that, unlike older generations of Christian “culture warriors,” many younger believers focus less on battling pop culture and spend more time decoding its metaphysical messages. They prefer to see pop culture as both a barometer and influencer of mainstream tastes and beliefs; and instead of seeking to silence or suppress it, they seek to understand it and utilize it in their ministries.

Throughout the 90s, spiritual themes increasingly found their way into pop culture products like books, musical recordings, and films. Often, these pop culture artifacts raised deep and probing questions about the practice of Christianity (such as Robert Duvall’s The Apostle) or showed positive portrayals of non-Christian faiths such as Tibettan Buddhism (Kundun, or Seven Years in Tibet).

Gen X authors Todd Hahn and David Verhaagen described the new approach in their book, GenXers after God.

“On the surface we appear to be concerned with promoting godliness. However, a sharper analysis suggests that these skirmishes are more often motivated by fear. We are fearful that as Christians we are losing our place at the head of the table as the dominant molders and shapers of culture’s mindset…

In our culture, we were comfortable with being the leaders of the consensus worldview. This is no longer true and it frightens us. In response we have lashed out. We have fought and adopted the language of war. The problem is that we have savaged the very ones that need the gospel. We have demonized them and turned them into our enemies.”

Perhaps as young new leaders begin charting a course for the church in the new millennium, they will guide us to an approach toward pop culture that learns from the failures of the “culture war” approach.

Steve Rabey is a Colorado writer. His most recent book is Milestones: 50 Events that Shaped American Evangelicals in the 20th Century(Broadman & Holman).


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Publicado por em 11/09/2009 em POIMENIA


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