This is the first article in a new series exploring popular culture from a thoughtful Christian perspective.
When I was in university, one beloved professor, in trying to explain why a serious study of literature was a necessary and worthwhile endeavour, used a phrase that has stayed with me: we are a story people. We make sense of both the world and ourselves through the stories we tell. We learn about others—their lives and experiences, however alien they may be to us— through the stories they tell.
I often think of that phrase when considering how contemporary Christians should engage with the popular stories of our time. As someone who has spent a great deal of his professional and personal life writing and talking about popular media (novels, comics, films, television shows) this phrase guides me in my work.
For Christians who want to discern how to engage in the culture around them, the place to start remains theologian H. Richard Niebuhr’s seminal study, Christ and Culture. Although first published more than 70 years ago, Niebuhr’s five categories of ways Christians have tried to live faithfully by engaging (or, in some cases, disengaging) with culture remains relevant and useful. His categories are:
- Christ against culture—those who position their faith as being in opposition to culture.
- Christ of culture—those who see an agreement between their faith and culture.
- Christ above culture—those who see aspects of those two perspectives.
- Christ and culture in paradox—those who see an ongoing tension between Christ and culture.
- Christ transforming culture—those who see Christ as the converter and transformer of culture.
Niebuhr doesn’t argue for the superiority of one of these categories. In fact, he urges readers not to settle on one perspective to the exclusion of the others, arguing there isn’t one “correct” answer. Rather, he suggests that as people of faith, we should continue to consider and reconsider all five positions.
As someone who grew up in the church, I’ve seen several of these attitudes modelled, mostly from the “Christ against culture,” “Christ of culture” or “Christ transforming culture” categories. I’ve had some tell me (often quite loudly and aggressively) that Christians should ignore popular culture, equating it to trash and a waste of time. And I’ve sat through more than my fair share of well-meaning yet uncritical Bible studies where leaders shoehorned Jesus into Star Wars, The Matrix or whatever was currently popular with “the young people.”
Christians are faced with the complex challenge of navigating their faith amid an everchanging cultural landscape. The proliferation of voices and ideas in media and online spaces makes it increasingly difficult to think critically about popular culture from a Christian perspective. But we can either ignore popular culture, and the stories the world is telling—and therefore, fail to understand the world we want to reach—or we can seek to engage with culture in a way that is discerning and critically thoughtful, without becoming dogmatic or morally careless.
This conversation has taken on increasing importance as some school boards seek to ban challenging and controversial books and films while, at the same time, there has been an explosion of explicitly Christian media. Why read those books or watch those movies when there are nice, safe Christian books and movies we can watch?
For me, the answer is obvious: we are a story people. Popular culture is the new “common language.” The stories that show us what people believe about what it means to be human, about our place in the universe or about how to live a good life are streaming on Crave and Netflix or screening at your local multiplex. From the legalism of a “way” in The Mandalorian to the nature of evil in Better Call Saul to anxiety about the end of the world in The Last of Us, The Walking Dead or The Leftovers—these are the stories our culture is telling about our hopes and fears and beliefs. At its best, popular culture asks thoughtful and deeply spiritual questions that Christians need to be in dialogue with, so we can understand the world to which we are called and share the reason for our hope.
Dr. Michael Boyce is the director of program implementation at the College for Officer Training in Toronto.
Photos: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, Marvel Pictures, and Disney/ Pixar