Archives For Pop Culture and Theology

Football season is officially over. Much of the nation is in mourning, not just for that, but that the Patriots won their 5th championship. At the same time, even a casual fan would need to admit that it was one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time. This would mean the Atlanta Falcons lost the best and worst Super Bowls of all time. Even more begrudgingly, one might entertain the idea that Tom Brady and Bill Belichek are the greatest of all time. As a Dolphins fan, I shudder at the thought.

While I mostly watch the game as a game, I rarely watch events like this as just games. Part of that is just me being analytical, and the other part is the after effects of reading a collection of essays called From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion. One essay in particular, “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival,” has some obvious connections here.

The author, Joseph Price notes,

Professional football games are not quite so obviously religious in character. Yet there is a remarkable sense in which the Super Bowl functions as a major religious festival for American culture, for the event signals a convergence of sports, politics, and myth. Like festivals in ancient societies, which made no distinctions regarding the religious, political, and sporting character of certain events, the Super Bowl succeeds in reuniting these now disparate dimensions of social life (137)

Using those categories, let’s consider how last night played out.

Religion

While we might consider our culture too “secular” for pagan temples, we don’t seem to mind giant sports stadiums. As I’ve written elsewhere,

On close inspection, the “liturgy” of a football game is hauntingly similar to a worship service. You put on the garments that identify you with worshipers of the same deity (mascot). You gather at a temple (stadium, or couch in front a big screen) where priests (refs) mediate the festivities where the most devoted worshipers (players) lay it all on the altar (field). The resulting spectacle delivers an intensity that can easily translate into a worship experience for some fans.

We could add to this the elements of the celebrity presence and the halftime show. First, in ancient Greece, the athletic activities were conducted in honor of the gods. On the one hand, you could consider Robert Kraft the god of the Patriots and Tom Brady is performing for his honor. On the other hand, you could say that the entire game, regardless of who is playing, is played out for celebrities who are the embodiment of the American gods money, sex, and power. Why else are we having so many screen shots of the famous people watching? I’m watching to watch the game, not see who’s in attendance.

Second, the halftime show is certainly akin to a worship service. From this point of view, it doesn’t particularly matter who the artist is, just that the performance is as transcendent as possible, and the music involved glorifies American ideals in some way. It is simultaneously an ad for the artist and a call to worship through song, although it is not always clear who or what is being worshiped. Though last night with Lady Gaga, I’m sure you could sift through the lyrics in her medley and get a good idea. I just don’t care that much since they weren’t aquatic creatures involved.

Politics

If you’ve never thought of sports as political, you should think more. It wouldn’t make much sense why there is so much American pageantry involved in the games otherwise. A former President does the coin toss. We sing the national anthem, after a special musical guest sang God Bless America. In the civil religious calendar of American culture, the Super Bowl is the winter festival at which we acknowledge our American-ness by gathering with a group of friends and watching other people exercise and while we eat too many calories. It’s what the Founding Fathers would have wanted.

This political element is not restricted to football, but is part of every major sporting event. It is actually part of every sporting event, it is just much more overt and amped up when it’s the Super Bowl. We have to unfurl a giant flag and have military personnel, current and former, on hand in order to honor veterans and servicemen. Not saying this is a bad thing, but it is a very political thing woven into what most people would consider just entertainment. You might also note that when a coach doesn’t want to talk too much about a big game ahead, he might default to politics more than any other topic.

Myth

This might be a bit of a stretch so bear with me. Price pointed out that the actual game of football, it is a “contemporary reenactment of the American frontier spirit” (139) What he meant by that is the football depicts the rapid conquest of territory by means of violence, which is one way to think of how the west was won. So in one sense, a football game is a mythological depiction, through sport, of something deeply part of the American psyche. It’s Manifest Destiny on steroids.

While that might be tricky to validate, the mythology of football itself within the American psyche is not. The Super Bowl is never a stand alone game. It is where legends are made and where some athletes cement their legacy as the greatest of all time in their respective positions. Especially in a game like last night, what happens on the field lives on for decades. If you watched the game last night, you’ll more than likely tell someone years from now about it and what it was like. It’s not that it is mythological in its essence, but more so in its significance.

All of this perhaps why Price concludes,

As a sporting event, the Super Bowl represents the season’s culmination of a major American game. As a popular spectacle, it encourages endorsement by politicians and incorporates elements of nationalism. And as a cultural festival, it commands vast allegiance while dramatizing and reinforcing the religious myths of national innocence and apotheosis (140).

And all this time you just thought it was a game right? The Super Bowl is America’s biggest game, but it is overtly religious and is one of the high points in the civil religious calendar as the premier winter festival.

As with most things in our culture, the thing is never just the thing. There’s a bit more below the surface waiting to be unearthed. And if it’s the Patriots, it unusually involves some sort of gate based scandal, so at least we all have that to look forward to.

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One thing I tell people about movies and TV is that I’m not into post-apocalyptic stuff. Given the chance, I’d rather not spend time in a future dystopian wasteland. This reality is rough enough, I don’t need to inhabit someone else’s living hell.

So, it was with some trepidation that I asked Eerdmans to send along a copy of How To Survive The Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of The World. Turns out though, Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson are using the word “apocalyptic” more in line with the idea of “revelation” instead of “end of the world.” In other words, apocalypse is more “about the revelation of the meaning, purpose, and end (and new beginning) of things” (35). As such, apocalyptic stories “expose hidden truths, wipe away the veneer, push past the superficial and simulacra, and get to the reality of things” (35).

Now that’s something I can get into. It helps as well that philosopher Charles Taylor figures prominently. I just finished James K. A. Smith’s exposition of him, and Joustra and Wilkinson reference that frequently. A brief overview of Taylor’s work and his notions of the secular occupies the second chapter of this particular book. He becomes a frequent ally in pop cultural commentary as the book progresses.

The aforementioned clarifications of the apocalypse is the subject of chapter 3. Here also, the authors take readers on a brief historical tour of the development of apocalyptic thought in the more traditional sense. It provides helpful background for how the traditional conception relates to the root word’s meaning. I would have like more interaction with the type of sources a theologian might reference, but it was interesting to get a different perspective.

Starting in chapter 4, each chapter tackles a different pop cultural artifact, bringing it into conversation with the apocalypse and Charles Taylor. First off, it’s Battlestar Galactica how it unmasks our understandings of what it means to be human. The next focuses on anti-heros, as represented in Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and House of Cards. The following chapter is an extended interaction with the social commentary in the movie Her. As one might hope, chapter 7 takes us to Westeros and the power play slide to subjectivism in Game of Thrones. The following two chapters were the least interesting to me because I don’t watch The Walking Dead (see first sentence) or Scandal. Chapter 10 takes us to Panem and before a concluding chapter that ties everything together, concluding with a discussion of the politics of the apocalypse.

On the whole, this is a great book, if like me, you like most of the TV shows used and want sophisticated analysis of them. Charles Taylor’s work provides a good unifying reference point. And the general idea of shows being a way to “unmask” and “reveal” the meaning, purpose, and end of things is spot on. If you’d like to think more deeply about some really great TV shows, this book is for you.

It’s been a while since we’ve had an episode of philosophy Friday. Might as well get back into the swing of things by pondering whether Batman is figure of justice or not. I tend to think taking the law into your hands, violence included or not, is not the path of justice. You’re no longer an agent of the state authorized to administer punishment for crimes. However, Batman tends to let the police actually take care of that part. All of this though is what makes the Dark Knight trilogy fascinating to me. That is probably a post for another day.

I actually ended up watching this movie in high school because I had a Bible teacher that pointed out some of this imagery. I remember being slightly disturbed and wondering if it was possible that the Matrix was real. But then I remembered if Christianity is true then it’s not possible. The anxiety soon dissipated.

If you’re not familiar with the background of these videos, it is an alien explaining human culture to other aliens, via our movies. I’m sure you picked up that the LEGO movie had some philosophical undertones, but now you can know it for sure.

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More often than not, I give books a 4 out 5 star rating after I read them. This is mainly because I’m fairly selective in what I choose to read and have a good idea what I might like. Occasionally, one of these books turns out to be a dud, and then I end up writing a post like this to explain why I thought that. The particular book in question is part of a series that I have otherwise enjoyed. Crossway’s Reclaiming The Christian Intellectual Tradition has offered several useful primers on various subjects from a Christian worldview. Unfortunately, the volume on Art and Music is not one of them. And yes, I made the title of this post intentionally ambiguous.

Before being critical, it’s worth noting that the opening chapter is quite useful. In it, authors Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake explain the difference between modern and postmodern understandings of beauty. When they are set to explain what we mean we say “beauty” the authors guide students well. Likewise, the bulk of chapter two is quite helpful. In it, the authors offer an apologetic for cultural engagement with art and music. As they see it, “There can be little doubt that the leisurely contemplation of general revelation is an essential part of the Christian life and that our capacity for joy depends, in part, on our being good stewards of leisure” (Kindle Loc. 452, emphasis original). Then, they go on to give four reasons why you should enjoy art and music:

  1. Artists and musicians expound general revelation in much the same way that preachers expound special revelation
  2. Art and music are communication from our fellow man
  3. Art and music help us avoid being desensitized
  4. Failure to enjoy art and music invites folly

So far, so good. Had the book ended there, I would probably commend it to you. However, there is huge exegetical blunder at the end of this chapter, and everything kind of goes downhill from there.

As the authors begin to conclude the chapter, they quote Genesis 1:10 with the word “saw” missing. The point they are trying to make is that most people would assume that the word missing should be “said.” Instead, God looked around and saw what he created was good. The authors then say this:

Notice that God does not look back with fond memory on the formlessness that has now been displaced. He shows no regret for the lost deep over which he once brooded. Instead, he pauses to enjoy the most beautiful physical objects around. We follow his example when we elect to fill our leisure hours with the very best things we can— among which are the best works of art and music. Lamentably , many Christians justify their fondness for things nearly “without form and void” by trying to point out one or two good things in those leisure activities. “Sure, the pop song I like isn’t as good as Beethoven, but there’s more in it than you think.” Yes, and there may have been something poignant about the earth without form and void, so pregnant with potential as it was. But this will be true of all created things, even the ones that humanity has, as far as possible, muted. We are to pursue the best things. (Kindle Loc. 591-598)

The last line is certainly something worth pondering and perhaps debating. But, making that point as an application of Genesis 1:10 is not a sound exegetical move to say the least.

To begin, the word “good” in Genesis 1:10 cannot be synonymous with “most beautiful” which is what the authors here assume. The former is a designation that may have aesthetic overtones, but it is not being used in context to communicate a superlative quality. Here it probably has a functional meaning related to order, which is essentially what God is doing in Genesis. Order is desirable, and both of those connotations connect with the word used, as well as with the way it would have been used in parallel ancient Near East creation accounts. While it is a stretch to base the idea that we should spend our time enjoying good things on Genesis 1:10, it is even more of a stretch to suggest that verse supports the idea that we should “fill our leisure hours with the very best things we can.” This could be true, but this is the wrong text to try to make that point.

Once the authors have concluded this chapter with the conviction that we must pursue the best in our leisure time, they have to have a criteria for establishing what that is. They thankfully shy away from making the high/low culture divide a way of determining what is best. The distinction has racist and imperialist roots and makes anyone who employs it seem like an elitist. Instead, they rely on C. S. Lewis in the following chapter to parse out the difference between use and reception of culture. If the art or music can be received, rather than merely used, it is an acceptable pursuit.

As the rest of the book unfolds, it seems like this was just a roundabout way for establishing a distinction between high and low culture and then arguing that only high culture is worthy of a Christian’s time. One sees this in the conclusion to chapter 3:

The reason partakers of popular culture and high culture are mystified by each other’s tastes is that they apply entirely different criteria for judging culture, according to whether they are accustomed to using it or receiving it. There are many appropriate uses for art and music, which need not be denigrated. But for the leisurely contemplation of general revelation, for what we do when we listen to (as opposed to “put on”) music and look at (as opposed to “put up”) art, the best works will be those that, like the Grünewald and the Raphael, reward reception. (Kindle Loc. 800-805, emphasis original)

While I would agree that we should aim for reception in our leisurely contemplation, I don’t think pop culture is excluded. The reason for that is that I don’t make the mistake the authors make in chapters 4 and 5. There, they apply criteria for evaluating a work of art to a scene from a movie (chapter 4) and criteria for classical music to a pop song (chapter 5). This is a slight oversimplification, but the point is that once you set up the evaluating criteria in a way favorable to high culture, folk and pop culture come out looking unworthy of your time (especially in the latter case).

Much of this could have been avoided if the foundational exegetical mistakes didn’t set the tone in chapter 2. By seeing a call to only enjoy the best in leisurely cultural contemplation, the authors would not have had to come up with criteria for determining the best. This is the wrong category to employ when deciding on cultural pursuits. For one, it doesn’t actually work in practice other than to decide that some genres of music are better than others. Also, it doesn’t work within a given genre of music. If Rachmaninoff is the best when it comes to piano concertos, should you bypass Chopin? If Bach is the best, does that mean downplaying Beethoven?

A better conviction is to enjoy everything to the glory of God. This entails actually figuring out how to do that with whatever cultural pursuits you have. At bare minimum it would mean reflecting on them well instead of passively consuming them. Another post would be need to sketch out what I think that looks like, and motivated by the lack of helpful direction in this book, I might just do that.

They left out of some of the more inflammatory aspects of Peter Singer’s idea about how to interact with animals. Also, to answer the last question, yes.

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As is our tradition, we’re finishing out the year with a Christopher Nolan film. Part of what I like to do in Bible class is teach cultural criticism, and appreciation of good storytelling and cinematography. So, two years ago it was Inception. Last year it was The Prestige. And now Interstellar.

I was perhaps over-hyped by it last fall but thoroughly enjoyed seeing it in theaters. It begged for further analysis, but I had other things to focus on. With summer coming and now the fact that I’ll watch it three times in the next week, I’ve collected some articles from around the web for further reading. I also picked up The Science of Interstellar because I really wanna know how plausible it all is (spoiler: it’s at least plausible, it not yet possible)

If Oprah and Stephen Hawking Made A Movie

If humanistic pop science is a religion, then Christopher Nolan is its high priest and “Interstellar” its rapture story. This ambitious film with magnificent scope and epic images is less an adventure story and more an exposition of a frothy, inch-deep, godless faith that science alone can save and yet that love conquers all, even science.

Nolan Responds to Scientific Criticism

My films are always held to a weirdly high standard for those issues that isn’t applied to everybody else’s films—which I’m fine with. People are always accusing my films of having plot holes, and I’m very aware of the plot holes in my films and very aware of when people spot them, but they generally don’t.

Interstellar Is Absolutely Religious

To me it seems that Interstellar, perhaps more than any of Nolan’s films to date, positively resounds with religious—even Christian—stuff that might not ring as loudly if you weren’t steeped in it to begin with.

To wit: Cooper promises Murph he’ll return to earth, and she despairs of his return, then realizes he’s been talking to her and guiding her all along, which rings awfully sharply of the early Christian church’s assumption that Jesus would return within their lifetimes. And Cooper communicates with Murph through books (hello). He has “become” one of those beings who exists on more than three planes—you know, for a while at least, he’s omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent. There’s the somewhat unavoidable new-Adam-and-Eve imagery near the end. And did anyone hear echoes of Lewis’s Space Trilogy?

The Scientific Romanticism of Interstellar

If Interstellar were a religious text, the dogma it encodes could be called something like “scientific romanticism.” This belief system would hold that science will solve all of our problems one day, even the ones that by definition resist empirical observation and thus exist outside the purview of science (see Sagan’s Contact for another dogmatic specimen). Scientific romanticism works well as a narratival contrivance, but when employed to spice up the lives of those atheists who otherwise think that they have a clearer-headed view of the universe than those troglodytic believers, it can expose the scarcity of meaning available to those who eschew belief in God.

Look to The Heavens: Interstellar and The Relativity of Our Perspective

It could be argued that Interstellar is a product of how far humanity has come. In his ninth feature film, Christopher Nolan stretches technology to a near breaking point, producing a visceral absorption of sight and awe-producing sound (and silence). Narratively speaking, Interstellar also presents human technology at its highest heights, it’s outermost point of human evolution. Man can go farther than they have ever gone before, reaching the ends of the galaxy, and more. Just like technological advancement isn’t what keeps its characters scratching and crawling for life, Interstellar is a humanistic film grasping for something more. It pushes us to look to the stars. And when we do, we’ll find something bigger than ourselves.

Think Theology Film Review

One of the taglines, and most memorable lines in the film, is that ‘mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here.’ In Interstellar, the world is broken, and mankind’s solution is to find a new earth. Their journey between the stars (hence the title) is guided by a mysterious force, which they guess to be some kind of multidimensional being, a force that wants to save humans from their fate and provide them with a new earth and a second chance. Where many films are concerned with our own personal mortality, this makes the picture a whole lot bigger: what is humanity’s purpose, and where will it go when it all ends here on earth? The existence of God and the book of Revelation make sci-fis like this somewhat redundant, as Christians have a hope of a new earth that will replace this current broken planet, but it’s refreshing to see mainstream blockbuster cinema grappling with such weighty themes.  The astronauts in this film aim to find a new planet somewhere light years away from this earth, but the hope of those who read Revelation 21 is that instead of finding us a new home, this one we currently live on will be perfected and made new, and “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more for the former things have passed away.” Instead of vague multidimensional beings who will provide a new home for us, it’s the God who created us in the first place, making all things right. Yet what both the film and Revelation agree on is that this earth isn’t going to last forever, and that something is fundamentally broken that needs to be fixed. It’s important to work out what, then, is mankind’s next step.

Lastly, Christopher Nolan was a guest editor of Wired, leading to these posts:

The Metaphysics of Interstellar

By the time Christopher Nolan signed up to direct Interstellar and started rewriting its script, astrophysicist Kip Thorne had been working with Nolan’s brother, Jonathan (who goes by Jonah), on getting his ideas onto film for years. When Chris and Thorne met, they quickly found common ground: Thorne wanted science in the story, and Nolan wanted the story to emerge from science. So in Interstellar, time dilation—the passing of time at different rates for different observers—became an emotional obstacle between a father and his daughter. Quantum gravity, the reconciliation of relativity and quantum mechanics, became the plot’s central mystery. The visual effects team even collaborated with Thorne to make sure their depictions of a black hole were accurate as well as elegant.

Time Dilation: How Time Travel Is Possible

To get ahead in life, spend some time on the International Space Station. Why? Well, according to the theory of relativity, astronauts on the ISS age more slowly due to the spacecraft’s high orbital speed. It’s called time dilation, and it means that when they return they’re a bit younger than they would have been—as if they’ve traveled into the future. (The effect is very small—it would take more than 100 years on the ISS to warp ahead by just one second.) But not all space travel will keep you young. Like speed, gravity also slows time, so your clock revs up as you get farther from a large mass like Earth. As a result, satellites in higher orbits age more quickly. Got your heart set on space travel but want to age at a normal, earthly pace? Good news! There’s a sweet spot, 3,174 kilometers above Earth’s surface, where the effects of increased speed and reduced gravity cancel each other out. You can hang out there as long as you like without fear of relativistic shenanigans.

Absolute Zero: The Lost Chapter of Interstellar

Before Cooper left his daughter to find humanity a new home in space, there were the Lazarus missions. Led by Dr. Mann, this was NASA’s first attempt to locate a hospitable exoplanet. So what happened to Mann on the other side of the wormhole? We teamed Christopher Nolan with award-winning comic-book artist Sean Gordon Murphy to tell Mann’s story.

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In general, I try to keep up with Baker Academic’s Engaging Culture series. In fact, I’m hoping to share more about the titles in that series over the summer. The most recent title is Paul Heintzman’s Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives. It is, in short, “an exploration of how Christians and the church can address the phenomenon of leisure in contemporary society” (xv). He argues there are four reasons Christians should want to study the topic (xv):

  • Problems with current leisure practice that need to be addressed
  • Potential benefits of leisure to be appropriated
  • Understanding leisure as a spiritual need
  • Lack of theological reflection on the topic

Heinztman explains these issues in more detail in the introduction before getting into the argument of the book, which is split into 6 parts. In the first, he surveys understandings of leisure from contemporary society. There are seven main views (6):

  • Classical Leisure (a state of being; an attitude)
  • Leisure as Activity (non-work activities)
  • Leisure as Free Time (time after work and existence tasks)
  • Leisure as a Symbol of Social Class (conspicuous consumption)
  • Leisure as a State of Mind (an optimal psychological experience)
  • Feminist Leisure (meaningful experience; enjoyment)
  • Holistic Leisure (leisure in all of life)

Heintzman will return to these categories regularly throughout the book. After giving an expositional survey of them in the first chapter, he discusses trends and issues in the second. These include our use of time, boredom, issues in the work-leisure relationship, and the lack of spiritual dimension in many leisure activities. This then provides context for the second part of the book which traces the history of leisure concepts. Chapter 3 explains the history of classical understanding of leisure and chapter 4 offers a short history of leisure activities.

From here, Heintzman digs into the biblical understanding in part 3. Chapter 5 gives a short biblical theology of the Sabbath, while chapter 6 does the same for the concept of rest. Since this does not exhaust the relevant biblical teaching, chapter 7 gives a glimpse of other words and themes that relate. This includes a short look at festivals and feasts, dance, and hospitality in select Scripture passages. In part 4, the focus turns to our understandings of work. Chapter 8 gives a history, including references to how the Protestant work ethic has been misunderstood. Chapter 9 then turns to the biblical material in order to sketch out a theology of work.

This all provides context for part 5. There Heintzman begins critiquing the different Christian concepts of leisure, before offering a constructive way forward (chapter 10). Then he argues for an “identity” approach to the relationship of work and leisure (chapter 11). In short, this means that the distinction between work and leisure is not as well defined as one might think and there is no need to be liberated from work in order to enjoy leisure (206). This then leads to Heintzman’s discussion in part 6 about the relationship of leisure and spirituality. He connects leisure with our spiritual well-being (chapter 12), and also our ability to cope with life (chapter 13). His epilogue offers a concise and illustrated theology of leisure.

Heintzman’s book is both an interesting an important read. Interesting because it’s not a topic I think many of us have studied in detail, yet it is something we are engaged in on a daily if not weekly basis. It is also interesting because of the source material he draws on, which lies outside most of my normal reading. It is an important read because it has direct bearing on how we use our time and whether we are living spiritually healthy lives in our approach to work and leisure. While I wasn’t particularly riveted by the study, Heintzman presents his ideas and argument clearly, making a persuasive case. It is probably something I’ll be reflecting on further over the summer with the extra leisure time I’ll have on my hands.


Paul Heintzman, Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary PerspectivesGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, April 2015. 352 pp. Paperback, $24.99.

Buy itAmazon

Read an excerpt

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Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!

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Yesterday, an article of mine posted over at Christ and Pop Culture:

Over time, my taste for metal hasn’t really mellowed. It’s continued to expand and grow more progressive. And while I haven’t been overly analytical of my musical tastes, I have reflected on them here and there, and in one particular instance, found myself interacting with a series of videos from Pastor Doug Wilson.

I don’t remember how I stumbled across the series’ first video, but it was Wilson responding to this question: “When young people in a church are death metal fans, what are the operating principles for discussion with them on this topic?” Without really defining the genre, Wilson argued that some musical genres are essentially rebellious by nature and that’s kind of the point. Additionally, he seemed to argue that if you actually sat down and explained what the lyrics were about, it would answer the question of whether or not a Christian kid should be listening to it.

This wasn’t particularly satisfying. On the one hand, some musical genres are rebelling against Western tonal musical standards, but I’m not sure that makes them rebellious in the sense that it’s sinful to listen to them. That seems to be treating the two rebellions as equal, which assumes that Western tonal music is the God-given standard for music (i.e., the correct way to compose and play music). Certainly I can compose music that rejects current social conventions, but metal in general, and death metal in particular, aren’t really doing that. The lyrics may reject conventions, but the music is still mainly in the Western tonal tradition.

You can read the rest here. I am curious to see when and if Wilson responds. He seems apt to do that kind of thing, so I hope I’m not thoroughly demolished by his wit and wisdom. I guess we’ll see.