Denver Journal

Denver Journal

Redeeming Pop Culture: A Kingdom Approach

01.01.03 | Denver Journal, Apologetics and Ethics, Douglas Groothuis | by T.M. Moore

    A review of T.M. Moore's, "Redeeming Pop Culture: A Kingdom Approach," by Dr. Douglas Groothuis.

    Moore, T. M. Redeeming Pop Culture: A Kingdom Approach. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2003. 167 pages, no index.

    Evangelical theologies of culture-let alone theologies of specifically popular culture-are not in great abundance today. (Sadly, many evangelicals tend not to think theologically about anything, but rather pragmatically and experientially. They tend to jump on whatever bandwagon the evangelical pundit-of-choice is now advocating.) As Os Guinness has been lamenting for decades, evangelicals easily become worldly simply because they lack any penetrating cultural critique and any sense of being "against the world for the world" under Christ, who is the Lord of the universe and thus the Lord of every culture (Matthew 28:18; Colossians 1:15-20). As the remarkable Dutch theologian, statesman, and journalist Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) famously put it, "There is not a thumb's width of creation over which Christ does not say, 'Mine.'" Although God owns the earth and all that is in it (Psalm 24:1), much of the creation is in rebellion against its cosmic Landlord (Psalm 2; Romans 1:18-32), and the church often lacks the perspective, resources, and motivation to "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:3-5) in crucial areas of cultural engagement.

    In the last several decades, academics have developed a discipline called Cultural Studies, which subjects popular culture-things like comic books, television programs, fast food, and other artifacts-to sociological and historical examination, usually, but not always, within a Marxist or neo-Marxist grid. These studies tend to reject any stratification of culture into high culture, folk culture, and popular (or low) culture, partially to insure their own academic legitimacy, since they study what has often been taken to be popular (or low) culture. (No comic book, for example, can favorably compare with the profundity of Pascal's Pens�es or with George Herbert's metaphysical poetry).

    This loss of any sense of value hierarchy is partially traceable to the decline of the influence of Christianity in culture at large and in the academy. If a personal and moral God exists who has made human beings in his image (Genesis 1:26), God serves as the supreme Judge of human thought, action, and culture. There is then a distinction between the holy and the profane, between that which serves to advance human flourishing and what impedes or diminishes it. There is, therefore, also a distinction between what is beautiful and what is ugly, what conforms to the good patterns of creation and what is perverse. Paul assumes these objective axiological dichotomies when he writes to the Philippians, "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Philippians 4:8, NRSV).

    Moore's short and relatively simple book attempts to articulate a "Kingdom approach" to popular culture, but is only partially successful in its aims. Moore is a pastor of the Reformed persuasion and the author of several other books. His approach is not short on biblical reference or quotations from theological sources of substance (such as Jonathon Edwards, John Calvin, and H. Richard Niebuhr). He also draws on some material from Cultural Studies writers, conservative cultural critics, such as Jacques Barzun, and Christian analysts of popular culture such as Ken Myers (whom Moore claims as his primarily influence on popular culture) and William Romanowski. This is a fairly rich palette of sources, and Moore gleans from it many significant insights into the Christian's response to culture in the six brief chapters of Redeeming Pop Culture. I will chart some of his constructive points before voicing a few concerns.

    Popular culture tends to drown us and overrun everything-like kudzu out of control. "Popular culture in America has become like kudzu, the tenacious southern vine. While it has certain intrinsic properties of beauty and functionality, and is therefore desirable, it can overgrow and overwhelm everything in its path when left unchecked, turning whole forests, fields and farms into an indistinguishable kudzu chaos" (4). Moore distinguishes four interrelated approaches to popular culture. The phenomenological approach simply describes occurrences of popular culture with no evaluation. Consider, for example, the content of People magazine. Second, the celebratory orientation (the passion of fans-remember, the word derives from fanatic), not surprisingly, merely praises or lionizes aspects of popular culture, whether an athlete's accomplishments or the hottest band on MTV. It goes beyond observation to evaluation, "but only within the specific segment of popular culture to which the devotees are committed" (6). Third, the ideological approach focuses on the intellectual content of popular culture or what it teaches about reality. Fourth, is the moral approach, which comes from a more prescriptive-and often condemnatory-angle. For example, Focus on the Family publishes warnings about objectionable content found in television programs, movies, and video games.

    Moore believes that a biblical or Kingdom approach to popular culture will incorporate aspects from all four themes; however, it will also include a missiological element. "This requires evangelicals to relate to popular culture in such a way as to carry out the evangelical mission of proclaiming and embodying the kingdom of God" (8). But before we can be too missiological, we need an understanding of culture proper and popular culture as a subset. After a long definition of culture by Ken Myers, Moore offers this handy definition: "We might say that culture consists of the collection of artifacts, institutions, and conventions by which people define, sustain, and enrich themselves" (18). While America is divided into subcultures, it is united (in some ways) by popular culture, which is nearly omnipresent. Popular culture, according to Moore exhibits "six primary characteristics." First, not surprisingly, it emphasizes popularity or mass appeal, rather than specialized or developed tastes. Secondly, popular culture is exhibited by a great diversity of forms: television, fashions, movies, radio, video games, etc. Entertainment is a third driving feature. "It thrives on short-term enjoyment" (27). Fourth, "popular culture is inherently unstable. It has an ephemeral quality..." (28). Fifth, interconnectedness characterizes popular culture. Consider how a popular film generates a soundtrack, posters, action figures, fashions, and so on. A sixth characteristic is expansiveness; that is, popular culture seeks to expand its influence and profits into as many corners of culture as possible. I prefer to use the word rapacious to describe this characteristic.

    So how should we then evaluate and interact with popular culture? Moore admits the decadence of much of popular culture, but his book is not a lamentation but a call to understand popular culture and be a redemptive leaven within it. To that end, he dedicates a chapter to the matter of "Popular Culture and Our Kingdom Calling." This articulates a short theology of the Kingdom of God from an essentially Calvinistic perspective. The Kingdom is God's rule to "accomplish his eternal redemptive purpose on earth. While the Kingdom orbits around and pervades the church as the community of the redeemed, it nonetheless is present throughout the world as the Spirit of God confronts and woos the people of earth with their need for God" (42). While the Kingdom is spiritual, it has cultural ramifications. There is a "Kingdom mandate" (45-47) to "subdue culture" (52-57) for the glory of God. This chapter makes a solid foundation for what follows.

    Chapter three addresses "The Sources of Popular Culture," both positive and negative. Constructively, these include our being made in the divine image, the gifts of God, and the Holy Spirit. Destructively, they include the devil and the corrosive effects of sin and the world in general. Moore spends little time on the demonic dynamic in popular culture (72-73). This is unfortunate given both (1) the biblical emphasis on the Christian's need to understand the strategies of the demonic and (2) the widespread moral decadence (especially the embrace of homosexuality as normal, even by "Christian" denominations) and explosion of occultism in American popular culture today as evidenced in television programs, movies, video games, and even children's books, such as the best-selling Harry Potter series, which has been made into movies. More reflection might have been offered on the nature and effects of worldliness as opposed to godliness (see Romans 12:1-2; 1 John 2:15-17), along the lines developed in David Well's recent books such as No Place for Truth, (Eerdmans, 1993), God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994), and Losing Our Virtue (Eerdmans, 1998). However, this subject is indirectly addressed elsewhere in the book where Moore speaks of developing cultural discernment.

    Chapters four and five concern how Christians ought judge and approach popular culture. Chapter six explores "moments of transcendence" to be found in popular culture. Each chapter gives the reader significant insights, which I will not enumerate, but rather commend to the reader. But for all the emphasis on approaching culture from a "Kingdom" viewpoint, there is little in this book about how Christians can constructively engage popular culture through art-making and other forms of cultural production. Yes, we need to ingest and evaluate popular culture biblically and carefully. But how do we counteract it-besides not indulging in its dross? Books by Bob Briner, particularly Roaring Lambs (Zondervan, 1993) and Final Roar (Broadman and Holman, 2000) (also reviewed in Denver Journal), provide insightful strategies to that end.

    Moreover, how "popular" should our cultural endeavors be? Moore commendably speaks of the importance of developing "taste" (99-105), but will not a developed taste end up leading us away from much of popular culture and towards higher forms of culture expressed in literature, cinema, and so on? A Kingdom orientation to culture may inspire us to desert or at least marginalize much of popular culture as we pursue the good, the true, and the beautiful under the Lordship of Christ. Although he is not a Christian, philosopher Roger Scruton makes a strong case for the superiority of higher culture (including jazz) over popular culture in his book, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture (St. Augustine's Press, 2000). In any event, these kinds of questions raised in this and the preceding paragraph are not adequately addressed in Redeeming Pop Culture. But without some sustained discussion of these issues it is not clear how one can hope to really redeem popular culture.

    Does Redeeming Pop Culture make a substantial contribution to the evangelical literature on the topic of popular culture, small though that literature is? I'm not sure. Ken Myers's classic, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Crossway, 1989), although a bit dated in some of its examples, provides a good theological grounding and presents deeper historical and social analysis than that given by Moore. (I have used Myers's book in my course on contemporary culture every year for the past ten years, and I have yet to find replacement). Some readers, however, might bog down a bit in some of Myers' details or long quotations from other authors. Perhaps Moore's shorter and simpler book would make a better introductory book to the subject for less motivated readers. Redeeming Pop Culture does sport one significant advantage over Myers, however. Myers neglects to develop the doctrine of the Kingdom of God in relation to cultural endeavors, preferring to employ the category of "creational norms" instead. In that respect at least, Moore's theology of culture is deeper and richer than Myers', since the Kingdom of God is such a central theme in Scripture.

    Despite my misgivings, Redeeming Popular Culture is a needed and wise reflection on a central feature of the contemporary world that is both ubiquitous and largely unanalyzed. Instead of assimilating popular culture uncritically, we should (again) heed the words of the Apostle Paul, "Test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, NRSV).

    Douglas Groothuis
    Professor of Philosophy
    Denver Seminary