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What is Popular Culture? Why Theology?

What is Popular Culture? Why Theology?

The Culture of the People

What is culture? We can define this in many ways, but the standard understanding is the mixture of various customs, practices, and artifacts that define a particular group of people from a specific place and time. Others in academia define culture as the processes, products and practices of a people that create shared meanings.[1] By these broad definitions, there are numerous subcultures to the one culture. Popular culture, and specifically, popular American culture, is considered a subculture of a wider view of cultural values, customs and beliefs. Popular culture, then, is a culture of the people as the term suggests. It is a collection of mainstream images, concepts, perspectives and ways of acting that are accepted by the people of a particular place at a particular time. It also means culture that is widely available and mass-produced. For the Western world, popular culture is intimately connected to the digital media culture, which disseminates at lightning speed the trends, stories, songs, films and dances of the culture.


There are several ways that popular culture is considered “popular.” How does something become popular or mainstream? Why does an 8-year-old boy who takes a microphone from a reporter and starts reporting the news about a county fair go viral? Little Noah Ritter has a large personality, but to have 19 million hits on his video? What about ToysRUs live video of April the giraffe in labor and having her baby at Animal Adventures Park? Hundreds of thousands of viewers were watching April live for weeks. Fourteen million people saw a man give the shirt off his back to a homeless man on the subway. What is it that causes a YouTube video to go viral so quickly? What meaning does it have for our lives?


Encountering Grace in Culture


Much of what is considered popular culture, that is, mainstream media culture such as movies, music, social media and online gaming touch upon a deep need in human beings for meaning, purpose, connection, friendship and love. In this sense, popular culture is the place for doing theology, for encountering God, as Andrew Greeley would say. The philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich, proposes a theology of culture since, “Religion as ultimate concern is the meaning-giving substance of culture, and culture is the totality of forms in which the basic concern of religion expresses itself.”[2 ] In other words, the substance of culture, says Tillich, is religion and the form of religion is culture.


Greeley suggests that in order to develop a theology of popular culture we look first to an understanding of the religious imagination that is the creative imagination. He says religion and culture are intimately linked because both originate in the creative self, which Longergan would call insight.[3] Story issues from the creative self. Storytelling is a significant method for passing on a culture to future generations. It is also the element that drives our commercial consumer culture. We long for good stories. This is the creative imagination at work. Symbols in popular culture have a meaning beyond the graphic image. They have a story. We can each, most likely, tell a story connected with those symbols, such as the PBS symbol we remember in the corner of the TV screen while watching Sesame Street as a child. Or we may tell of our first experience of an Apple product or a Tweet we just read. These symbols convey meaning in our current cultural experience and we express them through stories. The popular culture is driven by this creative imagination.


 Since creativity is a God-like quality, we can see how theology can be a conversation in popular culture, which thrives on creativity. The consumer of the cultural artifacts is also creative, according to Greeley. He says that to be a creative consumer of culture means that you read the story, the story the artists create.[4] Catholics, through our analogical way of viewing the world and our use of metaphors, consider it not much of a leap imaginatively to see God present in the popular culture. If Jesus Christ became human and present in this material world, says Greeley, then all is sanctified.[5] Grace is present everywhere and in all creation including in human beings’ creative imagination and the artifacts of that creativity. Everything is a sacrament where grace is present for those who have eyes to see. (cf. Mt. 13:16). The experience of grace, then, Greeley continues, “is an impact on the senses, and then it is filtered through the imagination where it has an enormous and sometimes overwhelming effect.”[6] Sometimes a residue lingers in the imagination of the experience and thus offers another moment of grace.


Theology and Culture in Conversation


Popular culture is the present day “arena of discourse, the primary forum for disseminating values, ideas, and ethics"[7] in society, and so theology must engage in dialogue with it. The great 20th century theologian, Karl Rahner, provides depth to this reasoning by saying, “The very commonness of everyday things harbors the eternal marvel and silent mystery of God.”[8]


Tom Beaudoin, author of Virtual Faith, refers to the Catholic concept of “sensus fidelium” which means the sense of the faithful.[9] Just as the Spirit guides the Church’s teachers and leaders, the faithful, as a whole, have an instinct or “sense” about when a teaching is, or is not, in harmony with the true faith. Beaudoin goes one step further with the term “sensus infidelium” meaning the wisdom of the unfaithful.[10] Here he considers how popular culture and the elements that make up this culture, the sacred and the profane, are all arenas for God’s grace.[11] He mentions that there is no theology apart from life in the world, from life in culture. “In order to understand our culture, we must think theologically. And in order to comprehend our theology, we must know our culture.”[12] He uses the word “religious” rather than “religion” to avoid the institutional connotations rejected by contemporary language. The “religious” involves a profound experience of a limitation, a hunger for depth. And this is what the popular culture is expressing in so many of its artifacts and where theology can contribute to the conversation.


[1] John Storey, Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture, Second Edition, IAthens, GA: University of Georgia Press), 2003, 3.

[2] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 42.

[3] Andrew Greeley, God in Popular Culture, (Chicago, IL: Thomas More Press, 1988), 19.

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5] Ibid., 50.

[6] Ibid., 66.

[7] Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor, A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 20.

[8] Karl Rahner, as quoted in, Robert Johnston’s Useless Beauty: Ecclesiates Through the Lens of Contemporary Film, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004), 11.

[9] Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 33.

[10] Thomas Beaudoin, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Quest of Generation X, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 34.

[11] Ibid., 34.

[12] Ibid., 30.



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