Sunday, June 3, 2012

Religion in American Popular Culture (Part 2): Secular vs. Religious Uses of Mass Media

Religion in America, especially Christianity, has sought to transcend the superficiality of merely riding on the waves of popular culture and picking up its signals. Hence, a very distinct subculture of religious popular culture has emerged over the course of the last century, a subculture whose distinctiveness from secular counterparts in literature, music, film, radio and the press arises from religious adherents’ desire to conform to the scriptural teaching of being “in the world but not of the world.” As R. Laurence Moore observes, “To halt what they [clerics] viewed as a decline in moral and religious seriousness, they descended into the marketplace to erect some competition . . . In their own churches and in forums outside the regular market, they invented, and used as enticements, Christian forms of fun [1].” But Christian forms of popular culture have evolved into something much more than merely a pious imitation of the secular world for those who want a similar escapist experience without the “corrupting” influence (although, as we will see, that is indeed a significant aspect to study). It has also become an exercise in seeking out and maintaining relevance to the larger outside community. The message coming from culture-savvy ministers of religion, says Conrad Ostwalt, is hard to mistake: “[I]n order to grow, in order to reach a lost world, they must address the existential concerns of a secular society by adopting its language and customs to appear relevant to such a society [2].” The result has been the transformation of American religion into a marketplace commodity on the cultural shelves. Hence, one can today walk into a major bookstore chain or music store and find a special “Christian Fiction” section set apart from general fiction, and “Contemporary Christian Music” set apart from the sections of general music genres any one Christian artist or band might fit into. Then of course there are many store chains which are billed as specifically Christian, in which one can find literature, music, movies and recreational spaces and events that have found a home in this sequestered subcultural space.

The irony is that this subculture has created an environment whose effects, for those participating within its confines, is not qualitatively different from those of the larger secular media. Much of religion’s original meaning and context is lost in transmission to popularized vernacular mediums, and the process of assimilation and interpretation by its consumers is equivalent to that occurring in the larger secular media world, the only difference being that the religious subculture is a specialized, custom-made model, a portrait in miniature of its more diversified and universal parent.

Of course, religious themes and references are everywhere to be found in secular popular culture as well, and comparing secular uses of religious ideas to those within subcultures explicitly marketed as religious yields a number of highly interesting insights to the culturally-aware critic. The primary difference is often one of nuance and subtlety versus a straightforward rendering that is self-evident in its second-handedness and in its creative appropriations. Secular culture is replete with unspoken homages to religious themes. The figure of Christ, for example, is an “archetype [that] assumes innumerable dramatic forms [3].” Motifs and themes that reflect religious imagery and ideas, when utilized creatively by secular culture, very often assume universalistic characteristics. As Moseley remarks, “The correlative of Christ is the something through which the Western writer frequently gets at everything [4].” Countercultures, on the other hand, by their very nature take the elements of whatever they are reacting to and bring them to the forefront. In the case of the religious counterculture in America, this process is especially noticeable. In many cases it is a process of reclaiming, as evangelists who have a finger on the pulse of popular culture take the universal aspects that secular society has recognized and found compelling and convert these aspects into narrowly-construed and specialized art forms that mimic and imitate secular narratives that have seen huge success. Witness, for instance, Christian novelist Ted Dekker’s The Circle series, a sci-fi/fantasy epic that purports to be a more Christianized version of the immensely influential Matrix trilogy of movies [5]. Or take a look at Tim LaHaye’s Babylon Rising fiction series [6], which basically asks and fleshes out the question, “What if Indiana Jones was a devout Christian?”

Examples of such imitation in the interests of providing a more “virtuous” alternative are everywhere to be found. One Christian organization has created “JesusWeen,” an outreach that offers a more pious alternative way for people of faith to celebrate Halloween [7]. In Orlando, Florida, a Christian-targeted theme park called “The Holy Land Experience” recreates the sights and sounds of ancient Jerusalem, including replicas of famous biblical scenes and live reenactments of the Passion ordeal of Christ. In the category of “Christ-honoring products,” the Christian cartoon series Veggie Tales achieved success partly as a result of Disney boycotts [8], and videos featuring Bibleman, an evangelical action hero who quotes Scripture as he battles evildoers and is protected by a literal “helmet of salvation” and “breastplate of righteousness,” present a pious alternative to heroes like Superman or Batman (who display more humanistic values) while also incorporating video game tropes and popular music [9]. The secular DC Comics’ series Infinite Crisis has been imitated by Archangels: The Saga, a comic book series dealing with spiritual warfare in which warrior angel superheroes seek help from a superior power. For Christian teens who take offense at raunchy and irreverent teen comedies such as Road Trip and American Pie, director Eric Hannah offered a more wholesome alternative with 2001’s Extreme Days, a road-trip comedy about five college students who manage to live morally-upright lives but still be hip and cool.

These trends extend even to the text of the Bible itself. Most people are aware of new Bible translations such as The Living Bible, The Way and The Message which rewrite the Bible in completely modern language and vernacular, but a relatively new phenomenon in the Christian publishing industry is Transit Books’ Revolve: The Complete New Testament [10], billed as the first Bible designed to look just like a teenage fashion magazine for girls, and Refuel: The Complete New Testament [11], the same concept as Revolve only this time with teenage boys as the target audience. There is even Metal Bible on the market, a Bible edition specially designed and geared for fans of heavy metal. The publishing company responsible for this product, Bible for the Nations, has also released many other Bible editions, including a Biker Bible, Trucker Bible and Football Bible.

NOTES

1. R. Laurence Moore, Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 268.

2. Conrad Ostwalt, Secular Steeples: Popular Culture and the Religious Imagination (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 60.

3. Edwin M. Moseley, Pseudonyms of Christ in the Modern Novel: Motifs and Methods (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962), 34.

4. Ibid., p. 35.

5. Ted Dekker, Black (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004); Red (Nasville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004); White (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004); Green (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009).

6. Tim LaHaye and Greg Dinallo, Babylon Rising (New York: Bantam Dell, 2003); Tim LaHaye and Bob Phillips, Babylon Rising: The Secret on Ararat (New York: Bantam Dell, 2004); LaHaye and Phillips, Babylon Rising: The Europa Conspiracy (New York: Bantam Dell, 2005); LaHaye and Phillips, Babylon Rising: The Edge of Darkness (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006).

7. Sonia Van Gilder Cooke, “The Latest Christian Halloween Protest: JesusWeen,” Time NewsFeed 10 October 2011. http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/10/10/the-latest-christian-halloween-protest-jesusween/ (accessed 3 June 2012).

8. Hillary Warren, There’s Never Been a Show Like Veggie Tales: Sacred Messages in a Secular Market (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2005).

9. Richard W. Santana and Gregory Erickson, Religion and Popular Culture: Rescripting the Sacred (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2008), 12.

10. Thomas Nelson, Inc., Revolve: The Complete New Testament (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 2003).

11. Thomas Nelson, Inc., Refuel: The Complete New Testament (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 2004).

12. Johannes Jonsson, coord., Metal Bible English Version (Howell, MI: Starve The Flesh, 2011). A preview of this product can be viewed at http://bible-for-the-nations.com/index.php?option=com_flippingbook&view=book&id=33&page=1&Itemid=472&lang=sv.

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