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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"Don't Stop Believin" (Robert K. Johnston, Craig Detweiler, Barry Taylor, editors)

TITLE: Don't Stop Believin': Pop Culture and Religion from Ben-hur to Zombies
AUTHOR: Robert K. Johnston, Craig Detweiler, Barry Taylor, editors
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012, (176 pages).

This book is a collection of commentaries on pop icons and various well-known symbols in the cultures from the 50s to the present. The title of the book is very similar to the pop group Journey who released this hit in 1981. Perhaps, it is chosen because 1981 is somewhere near the midpoint from the 50s to now. Probably, its very title represents a kind of an intersection of faith, pop culture, religion, and people. Maybe, the name of the pop group that produced the song is reflective of where culture is going. It is a journey of belief. Comprising articles written by an assortment of people from many different walks of life. It asks questions about what are the stories, the songs, and the symbols, and the messages they carry that remain valid or has evolved over time. Are there deep theological truths beneath them? What is the gospel according to Peanuts, or Twilight? Through 101 "theologically significant figures," the contributors in this book seek to make some sense out of them.They notice the trends pertaining to gender, sexuality, and religious views that have changed over time. There are lesser of traditional boundaries especially in an electronic age. There are also increasing limitations that we are only beginning to understand. Here is why.

The first 15 articles sketch out what the 50s are about. It is a time where families are more closely knitted, coming together to watch TV sitcoms like "I Love Lucy" and "Father Knows Best." It is time of growing awareness of a need for greater equality, especially race and gender. This gives rise to rebellious symbols such as JD Salinger's counter-cultural "Catcher in the Rye" or Elvis Presley's Rock and Roll against a culture of uptight, prim-and-proper Pleasantville atmosphere. In spite of his popularity, Johnny Cash succumbs to drugs, and fights a losing battle against addictions which led to his eventual suicide. Then, there is Walt Disney's whose vision of an entertainment empire for kids requires a storytelling style that is not linked explicitly to any church or religion. Yet, there is a message that things eventually will be made right. Godzilla the monster is also a chance "to show" the dangers of environmental carelessness, and "to warn" the consequences of nuclear bombs. Christians like Billy Graham and CS Lewis are also described. So are novelists like Alfred Hitchcock, and JRR Tolkien, and artists like Pablo Picasso and Marilyn Monroe.

The 60s is a continuation of the tensions that began in the 50s. With the Cuban missile crisis on the background, and the constant desire for happiness and contentment, John F. Kennedy brings needed leadership to America, and musicians like Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin is a cry to belong, and a growing discernment of a need for people to connect with one another. Such as Franklin's rendition of the hit song, "Respect." Of course, there are efforts to help people perform some escape, like the Star Trek movies, Stan Lee's Marvel Comics heroes, and of course the dizzying popularity of the Beatles.

The 70s is a longing for "Happy Days." Sometimes dubbed the "Me" era, it is a time where narcissistic pursuits begin its climb. Clint Eastwood becomes the icon for challenging people to "Make my day." The Godfather movies brings together a complex combination of faith, family, and filmmaking. Billy Jean King's success in the tennis world gives her tremendous impetus in the championing of women's rights. Bruce Lee's fame and tragedy becomes another reminder of how the most successful martial arts exponent during that time can feel lonely and needy. Of course, there is Mother Teresa who provides a needed corrective to the world of success, by seeking to help the rest of the world through lowly and humble service. Star Wars provide a bridge to the 80s.

With the American hostage situation in Iran, the 80s is marked by social unrest and a deep longing for security. Star Wars provide a feel good ending to a seemingly hopeless war. Ronald Reagan's rise to Presidency gives many Americans hope and a feel good disposition. Calvin Klein's fashion ideas challenge conventional thinking and causes breakthrough in sexual freedom. The runaway success of the musical Les Miserables, is due to the clever and effective themes of hope/despair, legalism/grace, condemnation/redemption, etc. The Apple MacIntosh marks the beginning of computers gaining a foothold in popular culture.

The 90s is a time where spiritualism becomes more prominent. With Deepak Chopra, Dalai Lama, and other spiritualists entering the scene, people become more open to Eastern religion.  This is made easier with these Eastern gurus speaking and teaching widely in the West, using language and symbols to meet the hunger and thirst of many frustrated people living in the West. Goth represents anti-religious establishment. Ellen DeGeneres stands for pro-lesbian. Secularism is championed by Philip Pullman. Reacting to these, the Left Behind series of novels try to warn the culture at large that there is an impending judgment if people do not correct their steps. The Matrix movies attempt to marry all of these religious and social sentiments by combining all kinds of religion, postmodern thinking, and others into an entertainment vehicle. Games like SimCity empowers a young generation to take control of their own destiny through virtual gaming.

There are also many interesting thoughts on Twilight and Stephanie Meyer, Survivor reality shows, Harry Potter books and movies, sports icons like David Beckham and Tiger Woods, and the rising social media icons like Facebook.

The editors finally ask some questions about what these all means. Are the cultural icons merely trying to communicate something to us? How should Christians respond?  The first approach is to adopt a "traditional approach" where some either boycott the pop culture. The second is to plunder them so that we can extract the good, like what Os Guinness is advocating. The first approach tends to be overly dismissive and may commit the error of throwing away the baby with the bathwater. The second approach makes Christians guilty of superiority thinking. A third approach is suggested, that participates in the culture, and advocates for the gospel without being overly dismissive or carelessly embracing.

My Thoughts

Like it or not, the world that we live in are full of cultural symbols. This book of a mini-who's who enables a group of Christians to come together to reflect, to ponder, and to suggest steps in which we can be engaging and not enveloped by the culture at large. This calls for wise discerning of the underlying messages of these cultural icons. It calls for biblical perspectives and how Christians are to live counter-cultural when they is a need to, to support humanitarian, ecological, social reforms, or things common to the well-being of people. There are many crying out for help or for understanding. Are Christians hearing them? There are many seeking out some semblance of direction in life. Are Christians looking out for them? There are also many trying to make sense of what is life all about. Are Christians equipped to help them out? The editors of this book has been carefully chosen for their expertise. Robert K. Johnston is well-known for his work in the integration of theology and film. Craig Detweiler, with Barry Taylor do the same for the music scene, as well as celebrities, art, and cultural fashion.  Instead of having a book where theology or biblical insights inform the shape of the book, it takes on a two way interaction, where one observes, then reflects, and then pauses to make some sense of what the Bible is speaking and what the culture is saying. In doing so, one is careful not to dismiss all cultural icons are mere entertainment. Neither is one overly simplistic in trying to "baptize" everything with holy things. The latter attitude will reflect more of a secular/sacred divide, instead of a holistic view of things where all truth is God's truth. One's theological insight can be sharpened, regardless of whether the object has a "Christian label" on it or not.

There is a slightly heavier Californian influence among the contributors in the book. Many of them are associated with Fuller Theological Seminary, as well as churches and organizations in California, the land of Hollywood. I enjoy this book. In fact, there needs to be an expanded dictionary version, maybe online, so that the wider Christian community can benefit from this serious and yet fun engagement of culture from a Christian perspective. Don't stop believing, and don't stop engaging too.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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