For The Someday Book

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Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture by Terry Mattingly, W Publishing Group (Thomas Nelson), 2005, 198 pp.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I have been reading a lot on the topic of evangelism lately. When I purchased this book, I was just pursuing my interest in religion in pop culture (check out the last post about angels on TV). However, in reading it now, I had an eye toward using pop culture as a means for telling the Gospel story using images familiar to people outside the church.

Mattingly is a columnist, and this book is a compilation of his columns over the course of ten years, beginning in the mid-1990s. I was initially disappointed that the book was not a more systematic analysis or sustained thesis, and feared the book would be too random and hodgepodge to be useful. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the disparate columns hung together well. Mattingly is an insightful analyst and critic.

The most important thing Mattingly offers in this book is the conviction that faith matters, and that popular culture matters. Both are real forces in people’s lives, shaping their worldviews for good or for ill. Both deserve to be taken seriously and analyzed deeply. Mattingly demonstrates a level of insight about both that is rare to see. Most people (especially writers/journalists) speak eloquently about one, but ignorantly about the other. The gift of this book is the author’s ability to comprehend both so well, and understand how they speak to one another.

One of the interesting themes that emerges over and over again is the way that attempts to form Christian popular music (Christian films, contemporary Christian music, Christian fiction) rarely get beyond shallow tropes. Because they seek to be positive, to stay within well-established orthodoxies, and to promote doctrine, elements of popular culture labeled “Christian” rarely manage to find the depth of struggle and hope that render them powerful and inspiring. This is why I got turned off years ago by Christian music and just about anything else that can be purchased at a Christian bookstore. It just seemed saccharine and over-marketed, an attempt to sell Christians a bunch of junk because it was labeled “Christian.” Mattingly returns to this theme in several articles:

Since Christendom is built on a story that is literally larger than life, Peacock wonders why CCM is smaller than life. The Bible is full of sin, death, doubt, love, hate, anger, war, lust and other messy subjects. The faith of the ages wrestles with the bad news before getting to the Good News.   — on Charlie Peacock’s book At the Crossroads (7)

Most Christians, he argues in the first chapter, are sinfully content to write for other Christians, to sing to other Christians, to produce television programs for other Christians, to educate other Christians, debate other Christians, and only do business with other Christians. “Shameful,” he writes, “We have failed and are failing America.” — on Bob Briner’s book Christians Have Failed America (69)

By mining popular culture inside and outside the targeted Christian markets, Mattingly uncovers the spirituality and the yearnings at work in everything from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to U2, Carl Sagan and the Veggie Tales. He points out what makes “popular culture” so popular, why it become a spiritual experience for people. Mattingly does not make an argument about how Christians should respond, he simply points out the connections. In other words, if you want to connect with people who live in this pop culture world, here are the things they are connecting to, and this is why they are connecting to them.

As I take time to contemplate evangelism and how to tell people outside the church about the story of Christ, I found this a helpful way of thinking, and full of insight about the quest for meaning in non-Christian sources. It’s a fun read, and light, and invites further reflection.

Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, by Steven Johnson. RiverHead Books, 2005.

I really enjoyed the premise of this book, but did not find it to be a great read. Johnson argues against conventional wisdom that pop culture is making us all dumber, citing what he calls “The Sleeper Curve.”

Instead of moving toward the lowest common denominator in our television and movie watching and video gaming, Johnson make a convincing case that we are actually moving toward a greater complexity. He demonstrates that the multiple plot lines, inferences, allusions, confusing story lines and detailed social analysis required to watch contemporary popular shows like Lost, The Simpsons, The West Wing, 24, The Sopranos (or to play video games like Sim City, Age of Empires, Grand Theft Auto or Zelda)  are actually making us smarter. Audiences 50 years ago could not follow the complex story lines that we have come to love.

Johnson then goes on to cite neurological research about rising IQ tests over the last 50 years, and suggests that our increasingly complicated entertainment might actually be making us smarter. The role of the Internet in increasing interactivity and the demands made upon the viewer or gamer are helping our brains increase their capacity for problem solving, observation and analysis. He draws multiple inferences and makes a persuading case.

I enjoyed the argument, and he convinced me. All I had to do was contemplate how boring it is to watch an old episode of Leave it to Beaver, compared with the intertwining story lines and deeper characters of any contemporary sitcom. Or compare Gunsmoke to The Sopranos. It even made me want to learn to play video games, which have never interested me in the past.

However, Johnson’s writing style left much to be desired. It wasn’t anything particularly bad that I could put my finger on, but it just felt slow and repetitive. I had a hard time making it through the book, in spite of being interested in both argument and evidence.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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