Christians of the Caribbean
Yesterday I was passing the time watching the last five minutes of Family Feud and mocking the contestants for their cluelessness -- such as when the question is "Name something bricklayers use in their work" and the word "brick" doesn't come to their attention. Of course, when they were asked what parents put on vegetables to get their children to eat them, the first thing that came to my mind was honey. Now, for the record, I have never put honey on a vegetable, have never eaten a vegetable with honey on it, nor have I ever seen or heard of a person putting honey on a vegetable. Nevertheless, that is how my mind works.
Following this stimulating mental exercise, I switched the channel over to see what was happening on the O'Reilly Factor, only to be greeted with the visage of some member of a film ministry website arguing that the recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie has a Christian message. O'Reilly wasn't buying it and neither was I. I listened to the man's points, but in the end, the most that could be said was that the movie contained some general and very sketchy ideas about salvation and eternal punishment that could be made to resonate with some Christian teaching, but the point is that it would have to be "made" to do so. In short, the evidence did not remotely rise to the level of a "Christian message," in contrast, for instance, to the more overtly and intentionally (according to the director) Judeo-Christian symbolism of Superman Returns.
What was really at stake here for the man making this claim was the opportunity to fire another shot in the ongoing culture war. Whether correctly or incorrectly, many Christians feel under attack in our culture and are determined to attack back. Popular culture has become a fashionable weapon in this war.
I am a firm believer in the power of popular culture, for good and ill, and I believe that it is often a significant artistic vehicle for communication of spiritual and theological ideas. But I wonder: why do some Christians feel the need to co-opt every successful film for Christianity? Even if they were able to make the case that Pirates of the Caribbean has a Christian message, what do they expect that to accomplish? Do they expect mass conversions because a few cinematic pirates discussed issues of eternal damnation? Do they think that by associating Christianity with Captain Jack Sparrow, that it will somehow make Christianity more hip to the mall-going crowd?
Popular culture functions best when it is able to generate substantive dialogue about theological and spiritual issues. That substantive discussion, however, gets lost when popular culture becomes simply a tool to serve an agenda. Typically, it has been conservatives (religious or political) who have made the most egregious missteps in this regard. This is because Hollywood has traditionally been a bastion of liberal thinking -- it represents a turf war in which conservatives have lost most of the ground. So many are fighting to retake some territory. (This problem is not solely the possession of conservatives, though. Recently, I read an angry diatribe by a media democrat who was upset by the recent Republican conference that lauded the TV show "24" and engaged several of the creators and actors in dialogue about it. He wanted to claim "24" for the Democrats by insisting that the villainous President Logan was obviously Republican while the heroic President Palmer was clearly a Democrat, even though the show never identifies them as such and President Palmer possessed some traditionally Republican characteristics such as being pro-military and unapologetic about using extreme violence against terrorists. He was even known to willingly violate civil rights in the pursuit of justice. Is that the image Democrats want to claim?)
When popular culture becomes the tool of an agenda, those wielding it often end up looking foolish (like President Reagan who embraced Bruce Spingsteen's "Born in the USA" as the theme song for his campaign because of its seemingly patriotic title without realizing the song is a bitter protest against America's treatment of Vietnam veterans) or they end up getting more than they bargained for. Back in the 90's, Republicans made a big fuss about how Forrest Gump represented Republican ideals. Maybe so, but do you really want to hold up a dim-witted social misfit who only stumbles blindly into success as a symbol for your party?
What is needed in the church's relationship with popular culture is not a Hollywood PR campaign, but a more astute engagement with the material. Our shallow, devotional approach to film short changes both ourselves and the film itself. Films are visual novels and need to be "read" with the same depth and analytical rigor with which we read literature. Learning to do so can open up a wealth of insight and lead to the kind of cultural dialogue that makes us salt and light in the world.