Jesus: Lord of pop culture?

Apr 2007    

WHEN it comes to sharing the Gospel, most Christians would probably agree with missiologist Hendrik Kraemer when he talks about meeting listeners on their own terms.

He writes, “Communication involves the communicator having somehow discerned which are the obstacles to the receipt of the message in such a way as to be able to meet the listener on her or his own ground” (The Communication of the Christian Faith).

However, we might want to broaden that definition to say that the communicator must discern not only the obstacles but also the opportunities.

One such obstacle is the perceived irrelevance of the Christian church to many people today.

Yet pop culture provides many opportunities for a new dialogue.

The question is whether the Church can discern such opportunities. Barry Taylor, musician and pastor in the Hollywood entertainment industry, is quoted by Robert Johnstone as saying: “There is a very, very serious conversation going on in our culture, in Western culture … about God. And the Church is not part of it. We’re not invited to the conversation most of the time … and we are not aware of it” (Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue).

Johnstone continues: “Conversation about God … is increasingly found outside the Church as well as within it. One of the chief venues for such conversation is the movie theatre with its adjacent cafes.”

A decade ago, I was a church leader in Liverpool and was given a threemonth sabbatical. I found myself having a cup of coffee outside the entrance of an entertainment megastore. I watched streams of young and indeed older people emerge and I found myself wondering how is the Gospel relevant to these people?

At that time I was leading what by many standards would have been called a successful growing church. We had seen rapid growth in numbers attending worship, introduced new forms of worship, including alternative worship, developed audio-visual facilities, sent people on overseas mission, built up a strong student ministry, and were beginning to see many people offer for full-time ministry.

Yet, when we were honest with ourselves we had to recognise that most of our growth came from de-churched people coming back to church rather than us connecting with unchurched people. While such growth was good, there remained many people in our neighbourhood who seemed beyond our normal methods of outreach.

On a national stage I had for a number of years been using the dialogue of science and Christian faith as a bridge for some outside the Christian Church to explore faith, as demonstrated in God, Time and Stephen Hawking, but that was a route that some found attractive and some did not. What could be another apologetic bridge?

During the sabbatical I was worshipping not with our main congregation but at a church plant that some of our younger people had established in a bar in Liverpool city centre.

One morning a student was preaching and he used a clip from Star Wars. It was the section in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke finds out that Darth Vader was his father. The preacher then made a link to the fatherhood of God. It was not a particularly strong link and raised a huge number of theological difficulties! Yet, it showed me something that I had not grasped before.

I loved Star Wars, and it had been part of my growing up in the 70s and 80s.

Here was something I enjoyed and someone was inviting me to build theological bridges to it. How could I take this forward?

We got together a group of people of various ages, bought in a lot of pizza and for three nights watched the Star Wars movies and then talked theology. Together we asked questions, built bridges and found resonances with the Christian faith. Those conversations led to a book (The Power of the Force: The Spirituality of the Star Wars Films) and to a national tour where we explored the borderlands of Christian faith and Star Wars.

The reactions to this were interesting. More than one journalist asked me whether I was just highjacking the material of Star Wars for my own purposes. Many in the theological community failed to see the relevance of this project. Some fellow Christians actively opposed such a strategy, warning that to bring Christian faith and Star Wars together was dangerous dabbling in the New Age.

Such responses were useful in terms of thinking through some of the deeper questions about the relationship of pop culture and Christian theology. They point to a serious engagement with pop culture which moves beyond the tendency to raid a movie or a television programme simply for an illustration to liven up a sermon or a lecture. More often than not, such a move misrepresents the original narrative and the theological link is far from convincing. At the same time we must be in seeing how the Lordship of Jesus affirms, critiques and indeed subverts many of the values and stories of pop culture.

Perhaps, one of the most important reminders for Christian theology is the presence and work of God outside “temples built by human hands”. An exploration of the questions of pop culture demonstrates God at work in the world often in surprising ways.

Robert Johnstone comments, “Movies have, at times, a sacramental capacity to provide the viewer an experience of transcendence” (Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue).

Part of the task of Christian theology is to build bridges with culture in a way that demonstrates its relevance to the big questions of life. Those questions of hope, good and evil, transcendence and redemption, are being explored in music, film, literature and television. Are we prepared to grasp these opportunities?

The Rev Dr David Wilkinson is Principal of St Johns College, Durham University. He is the keynote speaker at Aldersgate Convention 2007.


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