Christianity and Pop Culture, Part I: Personal Reflections from Hollywood


I recently spent a week participating in several events that allowed me to reflect with other entertainers and Hollywood leaders on the interaction of faith and entertainment, and especially film and television. The week began with a U2 concert in The Rose Bowl, and then consisted of a dinner that I helped to host for entertainment leaders, and then ended with a conference of those people of faith interested in this issue. This week’s blog entries will trace that week, its conversations and my own reflections.

For the last twenty years of my life, I have thought seriously about the engagement of Christianity and culture, and I suppose that it has become my theological and academic specialty.  My first reflection began within the walls of the church itself as I expected to be a minster and reflected on the nature of the Christian minister in culture.  I came to see the minister as the subversive prophet, holding up Scripture and the beauty and truth of Jesus to define what is truly beautiful, good and true in the world. I also have come to see ministers, especially preachers and teachers, as the storytellers who have the great privilege of sharing the one Story that is the Great Myth (to use Joseph Campbell’s hero) to which all other great stories point.  I do not think that most Christian ministers, and even Sunday School teachers, take this task seriously enough: for those who attend church, the church and its ministers are telling the Story, and the stories, which will come to create the imaginations and values by which their congregants will live. In this way, they are more important than Disney, Pixar or Mother Goose.

As I finished seminary and moved to DC, my own career took a turn from ministry to politics. I spent a semester at Wesley Seminary in a program now led by Dr. Shaun Casey from The Churches of Christ. Having grown up in the fairly apolitical theological tradition, it was the first time that I became more fully aware of the history of Christianity and political engagement in America. I discovered a whole strain of Methodism, evangelicalism and Mainline Christianity that had not abstained from politics altogether, as my own Restoration heritage had taught, and that had not attempted to hijack politics and its institutions, as the Southern Baptists around me had encouraged.  Between these two poles were a host of Christian activists and theologians such as Dorothy Day, Billy Graham, Walter Rauschenbusch, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Charles G. Finney and Reinhold Neibuhr who thought and practiced otherwise. They engaged politics, either in protest or in participation, to improve its institutions and work for more just and compassionate policies. There is a wide span between their theologies, but they all believed that government and its institutions were part of God’s creative order to serve the common good (Rom. 13).

It was this presumption for engagement rather than withdrawal or protest that led me to initiate an effort at Pepperdine University to reflect critically upon the role of Christians in the creation of the arts and particularly the mediums of pop culture such as popular music, fashion, film, television, and games.  When I moved to Los Angeles, I began to imagine along with others in the Christian community about what it would be like for Christians to create those stories and images that would most shape the next generation and cause our culture to flourish.

Like many Christian institutions, and the church more generally, Pepperdine had shied away from too close association with the entertainment industry and the resources of Hollywood celebrities and artists who live in its backdoor.  The reasons are well known for the suspicion of many Christians about engagement with Hollywood:  Hollywood, it was assumed, was a tool of Satan to spread evil lies and falsehoods into the culture that turn the attention of media hungry teenagers and adults away from the values of Scripture and a life of holiness.  Hollywood and its power centers also were assumed to be Jewish, and therefore Christians had a minimal opportunity for success.  At the very best, Christianity and its relationship to Hollywood was a strained one … that is, until 2004.

It was not always this way of course. Christians often forget that Catholics once ruled Hollywood, its studios and its rating system. Cecil B. DeMille was the most influential director of his day, and movies such as Ben Hur reflected that Christian presence in Hollywood.  But for a variety of reasons laid out in the excellent book by my friend and Fuller Seminary professor Robert Johnston, Reel Spirituality, Hollywood came to be influenced by a broad religious and multicultural milieu that reflected the growing secularization and pluralism of America after 1960. By 1980, the great divorce between Christianity and Hollywood had happened, and neither the twain would meet again until the release of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.

Passion, as many of us involved in this discussion refer to it, turned this relationship on its head. It was the first time in over a half century that Christian ministers would endorse a Hollywood film from their pulpits — a Rated R film at that. It also was the first time that Hollywood studios became aware that it had been missing a huge demographic in its market research, a Christian market that comprised 40 to 60 percent of American households depending on the criteria. These households, often in the wealthier suburbs, also had greater disposable income from entertainment than other market sectors.  This spurred an effort by Hollywood to appeal to these audiences through new church marketing campaigns and by the greenlighting of entertainment (much of it condescendingly cheesy and of low quality) that would appeal to these audiences.  Hollywood had discovered the church again, and the church also was letting down its guard about Hollywood.

Another development in entertainment that has inspired new conversation on the interaction of people of faith with Hollywood has been the breakdown of the old studio system and the democratization of media as we now obtain our entertainment outside the confines of the studio filters but now through a variety of sources from DVD, to theaters, to our computer screen on such websites as YouTube or Hulu.  A teenager with a digital camera and a laptop computer in Omaha has the potential for as much exposure as a Disney movie, at least theoretically, when she posts her short film on her YouTube channel.  This means that Hollywood studios no longer control entertainment content or dollars.

Universities such as Azusa Christian, Biola and Pepperdine now have media and film degree programs to equip Christian students to create and produce works of creative excellence and values-inspired entertainment.  We are finding new alliances with production companies and artists, like Participant Productions, who share a common mission with Christians to improve human rights in places like the Sudan or The Congo, and to work for the preservation and healing of our environment.  A great variety of Protestant churches are discovering the arts again, and they are gaining a new appreciation for the role of visual artists, musicians, writers and actors that has not been seen since the Reformation.  Because of these common interests, the gulf between Christians and Hollywood has diminished from an ocean to a river, and sometimes a stream.

Given these new realities, what should Christians in Hollywood, and in pop culture more generally, do now? Should the objective be to control the power centers of Hollywood? Should it be to withdraw altogether to create a Christian subversive and alternate subculture of “Christian music” and “Christian film”?  Or is there a another way to envision this relationship? Even more importantly, what if Christians have been wrong about Hollywood altogether? What if God already is as present in Hollywood?

More to come … Tomorrow: The U2 Concert as Parable


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