Archives For Pop Culture and Theology

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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.

Given the earlier celebration of May the 4th this week, I thought we’d get back to film Friday with these videos from Earthling Cinema. In case you’re curious, the premise of these videos is that human culture no longer exists and an alien is explaining it to other aliens using the cultural artifacts of our movies.

Baudrillard makes a good point, though it can obviously be taken to extremes. There is no such thing as a no-spin zone, but that doesn’t mean news can’t be reported in some respects in a fair and balanced way. There is no such thing as un-biased reporting, but there is objective reporting. That is to say, no one can present anything in a completely neutral fashion, but they can make their presuppositions apparent and seek to present the information in a way that is open to public verification.

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Normally Mondays are for music, but I figured I’d talk about the Magic Kingdom since that also starts with M. It would be pretty easy to Jesus Juke enjoying a trip to the Magic Kingdom over the weekend in light of Easter. I mean, the resurrection vindicates Jesus as King, and well, you can put the pieces together from there.

But I’d rather just talk about enjoying day dates there with Ali. Instead of getting each other Christmas presents this year, we put a down payment on season passes to Disney. Now, for a reasonable monthly payment, we can go to Disney whenever we want. Initially, we thought we’d try to make it once a month so we get our money’s worth on the whole deal. At this point, we have easily already gotten our money’s worth and we’re just over three months into the passes.

Before this year, I had been to Disney twice. Once in 1989 (or maybe 1990) and then again in 1994. We went to Epcot the weekend we moved back to Florida, but that was almost 4 years ago. Ali grew up here, so she’s been more frequently than that and the Magic Kingdom is her favorite park. Saturday was our 5th time (maybe 6th) going this year, and it was quite the enjoyable day.

There is something relaxing about going when you are a season pass holder since there is no pressure to do everything. Also, after you’ve been a few times, you get a feel for how to sequence your adventure which maximizes the time you’re there. I think we rode a total of about 13 rides when it was all said and done and never waited in line more than 40 minutes. On top of that, the weather was pretty perfect and since we got there at open, we’d done pretty much everything we wanted to do by 2pm and so headed back home for a nap (for Ali) and some reading time (for me). All in all, it was a pretty perfect day.

The more we go though, the more we want to go, and the more I want to analyze it all. There are several dimensions that interest me, but just out of curiosity I thought I’d see what would be of a wider general interest. For me, Disney is not a vacation destination, it’s simply a feature of the city I live in. It’s a place Ali and I can go for a date day or an evening out. But for nearly everyone else, it is one of the primary vacation spots and people come from around the world to go there. I’d like to write and think more about this, and I think I’m going to need some outside perspective to do so. A week from today is TGC here in Orlando and if you’re there I’d love to chat. If not, drop a comment below or connect with me on Twitter. I’m hopefully going to write some kind of article on this for Christ and Pop Culture, but the nature of that is yet to be determined.

This video offers a good overview of Max Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. If you haven’t read it, you might be surprised at how theological the capitalist work ethic is according to Weber. You might also be surprised at how he sees Calvinistic theology motivating the desire to work.

While the video is a good overview of Weber, he was wrong, both on Calvin and on the connection between capitalism and Calvinism. A better resource for the connection between the isms is Calvin and Commerce: The Transforming Power of Calvinism in Market Economics. Calvinism correctly understood and applied is good for the economy, but you’ll have to read the book for yourself to see the whole picture.

9781433537080Last time, we looked the core part of Mike Cosper’s The Stories We Tell. Now, we’ll go back and hit chapters 3-4 before finishing up with the last chapter. From what I can tell, you can still get the eBook of this for free as a Christ and Pop Culture member. That probably won’t be true forever, so better join and take advantage while you still can!

Chapter 3 in Mike Cosper’s The Stories We Tell covers three interconnected themes. First, Cosper examines stories that look back to an idyllic time now lost. Second, Cosper looks at stories that take place in what seems like an idyllic environment but in reality have a darker underbelly (the Truman Show for instance). Lastly, Cosper looks at stories where humanity tries to play God and it invariably goes wrong. The chapter is aptly titled “The Ghosts of Eden.”

Chapter 4 looks at the search for love through the lens of shows like How I Met Your Mother and 30 Rock. the former of which would have been more interesting had Cosper written his analysis in light of the show’s series finale. Cosper also examines reality dating shows, specifically, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?

While his analysis is thought provoking, I came away feeling like much more could have been done with the topic of both of these chapters. Specifically in chapter 4, the point could be made that the Gospel itself is a romantic comedy and our desire to watch essentially the same story over and over again shows an innate longing within us. Cosper examines this longing well, and in the end does foreshadow the Gospel (90), but he could have taken his analysis deeper by pointing out all these stories teach us ultimate fulfillment is found in another person and from the Christian point of view, that person is Christ. Romantic comedies aren’t wrong in the essence of their story, just the object of their affections.

When it comes to final chapter, provocatively titled “Honey Boo Boo and The Weight of Glory,” Cosper offers some keen cultural analysis. Especially now in the wake of the show’s cancellation, his insights are worthy of our attention. Before getting to Honey Boo Boo, Cosper examines the connection between reality TV and narcissism. Predictably, Kim Kardashian figures prominently. At the opposite end of the Kardashian family sits Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a show which “thrives on featuring the saddest elements of this family’s life” (202). What Cosper picks up in his analysis is savagely satirized in a recent Onion article. We have a “vulture-like attitude” in consuming and ridiculing the life of this backward family from the Deep South. We look. We laugh. We move on.

Cosper then shifts the discussion by connecting our fascination with reality TV to our obsession with social media. We’re fascinated with self-broadcasting and the rise of reality TV stars is just one way that facet of our culture manifests itself. We have the opportunity to glory in ourselves and bring an audience along for the ride. Cosper then notes that “Christian and non-Christian alike feel the dull ache of faded glory” (209). Our drive for glory isn’t wrong, merely misplaced, as C. S. Lewis has helped many understand.

This provides, I think, a fitting conclusion to the book. Cosper does offer a brief epilogue that includes a word to aspiring Christian filmmakers. But, by closing on a topic that other books on TV and movies might overlook, I think he shows that something that seems banal and not worthy of a second thought can be a pointer to deeper spiritual truth. In essence, Cosper’s book throughout is taking the everyday stories we encounter and probing their foundations to see what they provide evidence that the world we live in is the kind of world we would expect with Christian presuppositions. It provides a powerful case for what we believe but also models a way to open conversations with the wider culture about things that count.

9781433537080Beginning in chapter 3, Cosper surveys many of the types of stories we tell in our cinematic arts. We have stories of paradise lost and playing God (chapter 3), of the search for love (chapter 4), of original sin and falls from grace (chapter 5), of the frustration and futility in a post-fall world (chapter 6), of fear and mystery (chapter 7), of violence vengeance and judgment (chapter 8), and finally of heroes (chapter 9). As you can see, Anchorman references do not figure prominently.

A potential downside, depending on your viewing habits is that chapters 5 and 6 are off-limits unless you watch Mad Men and The Wire respectively. If you don’t plan to watch either, you can read through the spoilers (Cosper is kind enough to warn), but if you’re not that familiar with either show, those chapters won’t be as familiar. I haven’t started Mad Men yet, but I plan to, and when I do, I’ll come back to these chapters.

I generally avoid horror movies, but I had seen enough X-Files to read chapter 7 with interest. The money chapters for me though were chapters 8 and 9, so that’s what I’ll focus on here. I’ll circle back to chapters 2-3 and in the next post.

Chapter 8 split time between Dexter and the films of Quentin Tarrantino, mostly Pulp Fiction. I’m not a fan of Dexter, but Ali was and so I saw enough episodes to follow Cosper’s analysis. On the other hand, I enjoy a good Tarrantino film, so I was more engaged with what Cosper had to say. Cosper points out that Tarrantino’s films “have a strong moral thread that unites them: sin, judgment, wrath, and resurrection” (167). He is also a playful filmmaker who wants to have fun with his audience, blend genres, and generate discussion. His films, because of their often over-the-top character, help to present a story where vengeance on wrong-doing is executed and the happy ending is acheived, but in a way that isn’t sappy or corny. Our enjoyment of films like this points to our hope that one day all wrongs will be made right, a hope that only Christians legitimately have.

Chapter 9 is still kind of working in this vein by tackling hero stories. Cosper draws connection between the archtypal hero stories and the story of Jesus in the Gospels. The archetype was developed by Joseph Campbell, building on the work of Carl Jung. In comparing ancient hero myths, the stories were strikingly similar, and so Campbell worked out a kind of blueprint for these sorts of stories. Specifically, it looks like this (Jesus’ action in parenthesis):

  • Called Away (Incarnation)
  • Tried and Tested (his temptations and ministry)
  • Into the darkness (crucifixion)
  • Out of the darkness (resurrection)
  • Home again (ascension)

He then compares it to Frodo’s journey in Lord of The Rings, and Superman’s journey. He also charts how this journey is reflected in the stories of Katniss Everdeen, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter (189):

Stories We Tell Chart

Now one of the reasons for these similarities is that it just makes for good storytelling. Beyond that though, screenwriters are actually taught to do this explicitly. Building even further on the work of Campbell, Christopher Vogler spells out a more detailed hero’s journey in The Writer’s Journey (a book for screenwriters). As I previously pointed out, here are the stages in the first act, called Separation:

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach

In the second act, which can be split into two parts itself, Descent and Initiation, there is the single stage:

  • Central Ordeal.

In the last act, called Return, the stages are:

  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • Resurrection
  • Return with Elixir

Though I won’t elaborate on it here, you could use this grid as well for Katniss, Luke, and Harry. With a little help from Vern Poythress here is you can apply the above grid to Christ’s life and ministry. In the initial act (Challenge), Christ is in heaven (his Ordinary World) and is sent by the Father to redeem the world, which is a Call to Adventure that lacks a Refusal of the Call (Galatians 4:4-5; 1 John 4:14). At the outset of Christ’s public ministry there is a Crossing of the Threshold (Matthew 4:1-11). From there Christ makes Allies (the disciples) and Enemies (Satan, the Pharisees) and amidst the many Tests (challenges from Pharisees and demons) he breaks away often to meet with his Mentor (God the Father). All the while, Christ has set his face to Approach Jerusalem (for this emphasis, see Luke’s Gospel). In the second act, it is not a stretch at all to see Jesus’ crucifixion and death as the Central Ordeal of the gospel story (Matthew 26-27). In his death which is the start of the final act, Jesus was vindicated and received the Reward, completed the Road Back and was Resurrected from the dead. He then returned to his Ordinary World (heaven) having accomplished redemption and made the Elixir available to all who would believe (1 Timothy 3:16; Philippians 2:8-11; Romans 4:24-25).

As I see it, even though it happened in the middle of history, the Gospel is the archetype for all stories with a redemptive trajectory. Film is no exception, and Cosper makes that case as well in his writing. He wraps up the book with one more chapter, which along with chapters 3-4, will be the focus of my next post.

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Earlier this month, Mike Cosper’s book The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth released. You can get to know him a little better and find out what’s on his book shelf here, as well as read an extensive interview on the book here.

Over at Christ and Pop Culture, his book is part of the rotating bundle given away to members. You can read my write up to get a 30,000 ft. overview and join Christ and Pop Culture to get the book for free. You can also read this rundown of 20 Truths from The Stories We Tell (half of which are in the introduction and first two chapters).

A couple of weeks back, I started some interaction with Cosper’s work. The plan was to resume Monday with chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 1 is kind of a short theology of story and storytelling. Cosper explains how from the Christian point of view, the world is not only full of stories, but all these stories are part of one larger overarching story.

Christians also hold that people are created in God’s image. Being made in a storyteller’s image leads to being storytellers ourselves. Cosper says:

There is nothing new under the sun, and our stories— no matter how fresh and new they might feel— are all a way of “playing in the dirt,” wrestling with creation, reimagining it, working with it, and making it new. Our stories have a way of fitting into the bigger story of redemption that overshadows all of life and all of history. Because that bigger story is the dirt box in which all the other stories play.

The storyteller’s raw material is the stuff of ordinary, everyday life: relationships, conflicts, love, loss, and suffering. Behind that raw material is the bigger picture of which we’re participants. We live in a world that was meant for glory, but is now tragically broken. We hunger for redemption, and we seek it in a myriad of ways.

And so we tell stories that reveal the deep longing of the human heart for redemption from sin, for a life that’s meaningful, for love that lasts. We tell stories about warriors overcoming impossible odds to save the world. Stories about how true love can make the soul feel complete. Stories about horrific, prowling villains carrying out a reign of terror, only to be vanquished by an unexpected hero. Stories about friendships that don’t fall apart. Stories about marriages that last. Stories about life, death, and resurrection. (33-34)

Cosper then explains how we tend to tell the same kinds of stories over and over again. Ultimately, our stories are our hopeful attempts to reckon with whether or not every sad thing will become untrue. In that light, Cosper says:

This is a book about stories and how they reveal the heart’s longing for the gospel. In particular, it looks at how this deep desire is evident in pop culture. It’s common to argue that The Odyssey or King Lear reveals depths about the human heart; I happen to think the same can be said (though in different ways) about Dexter and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

The overarching story of redemption history— the old, old story— can be told through the framework of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation . God made the world, sin corrupted it, Jesus redeemed it, and one fine day, God will ultimately restore it. That’s the story of the Bible, start to finish.

I believe that the stories we tell can be examined and understood in this light. The creative impulses of the human heart are always probing at these elements of redemption history because they are our story and they are our hope— even if it’s the misguided hope of one writing a poem to an unknown god in Acts 17 or of one believing that a win on American Idol will satisfy his soul. Throughout the book, I’ll use these movements of the old, old story— creation, fall, redemption, and consummation— to look at the ways we’re telling our stories today. (37-38)

Before getting farther into his analysis of the stories we tell, Cosper asks “How far is too far?” in chapter 2. This is certainly a perennial Christian question when it comes to culture in general and movies in particular. Cosper sees this as the wrong question, rooted in either an “overanxious teenager” or “church lady” mentality. One wants to know the line to bump up to it as close as possible; the other to ensure that there is a line and others observe it. Cosper then explains:

The question itself is simply the wrong question. Those who ask, how far is too far?— whether at the movie theater or the youth group— have, in a way, shown their hand, revealing a heart that misunderstands what it means to be a Christian in the world. Our engagement should be motivated by neither the thrill of sin nor the thrill of religion, but by the thrill of the gospel. (42)

Cosper, in good triperspectival fashion, works through three aspects of the gospel: the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of the cross, and the gospel of grace. In the middle of those three, he circles back to the original question (how far is too far?) and says:

In the light of the gospel, we can see that all that’s good about TV and movies belongs to God (the gospel of the kingdom), and much of this book will look at the good. As suspicious as I am of television and movies, I believe there’s a lot of good in them . The stories we are telling are indeed forming our hearts and minds, and not all of that formation is bad.

That said , the gospel also tells us that the world is a fallen place (the gospel of the cross), and the stories we tell are no exception to that rule. Enmeshed with the good is the bad. If we tell stories (as many argue) to know who we are, then our stories reveal that we are indeed creatures of glory and depravity. Our world desperately needs a Savior willing to sacrifice everything for us. (51-52)

Then in relation to the gospel of grace he says:

It calls us, most of all, to a kind of thoughtful, mature engagement. We should think deeply about the media we consume because it will have a long-term effect on the way we look at the world. We should think about the way entertainment exploits real people— both trained actors and also the subjects of “reality television,” turning their plights, struggles, and vices into cheap entertainment. We should think about the reasons we are laughing or crying, about the ways that our stories are promising redemption, salvation, and “the good life.” (53)

After laying this kind of groundwork, Cosper tackles the question of conscience and community. He notes that together, they “can go a long way to guarding your heart as you step into the theater or turn on your TV. This kind of thoughtful engagement requires us to make connections between our media consumption and our hearts. Cultivating a sensitivity to your conscience will lead you away from much trouble, and community will be there to guard you from blind spots and self-deception (54-55).”

As he closes, Cosper makes an important admission regarding his own conscience that is worth taking to heart:

I confess that in the months that have passed since proposing this book, researching it, and actually beginning to write it, I’ve experienced a personal transformation in how I think about TV and movies. Author Harold Best once remarked to me that as he got older, he simultaneously became more convicted of his freedom in the gospel to engage culture, and his own sinfulness. The result was that while he believed in a great and wide freedom in Christ, he exercised his freedom in a far more limited way than he had when he was younger.

Researching this book has had a similar effect on me. Examining why we tell stories and thinking about the formative effect they have on our lives has caused me to be less enthusiastic about certain shows and movies , and more enthusiastic about others. I’m more sensitive to what I think is exploitive and dehumanizing, and less enamored with certain writers, directors, and actors. (55-56)

To me, that shows someone who is thoughtfully engaging with the world of stories, but is sensitive to how the Spirit may be working in his own heart. Instead of simply deploying “freedom in Christ” as a license to watch any and everything, Cosper models a willingness to engage as well as a willingness to pull back from certain content that he now sees differently.

I’ve seen my own attitude change in this regard as I’ve grown through my 20’s. There are certain shows that I don’t watch anymore that I once did and there are certain shows that I’d like to watch, but just don’t feel like I should. I’m not obligated to engage everything, I’m just obligated (I think) to engage thoughtfully with what I do watch. As we move on in Cosper’s book, we’ll get plenty of food for thought for doing just that kind of engagement.

I’m always on the lookout for interesting and fun (my definition) ways to learn and teach philosophy. That’s part of why I’ve been posting the 8-bit Philosophy videos. I recently came across another way: superhero comics.

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You can follow Supergatari on Twitter, and pick up a copy of the book for only $3 over at Amazon. Much like 8-Bit Philosophy, there is also a YouTube channel.