Theodore A. Turnau III, Ph.D., known to his students as Ted, teaches Comparative Worldviews, Religion as a Social Force, and the Advanced Seminar on Alternative Cultures: Understanding Fandom.
The following is an excerpt from Ted’s upcoming book, Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective due for publication in April 2012 by P&R Publishing.
The Conversation between the Beaver and the Tree:
The Influence of Popular Culture on Worldview
Now that we have a basic understanding of the two major players in this drama – popular culture and worldview – we ought to turn our attention to how they interact, the conversation between them. First, we will consider the issue of popular culture’s influence on worldviews. Do we passively absorb what popular culture sends our way, or are we more active in the process? Second, we will explore in more detail how popular culture passes on its influence: how popular cultural works circulate through a culture, the role of popular cultural traditions, and how popular cultural works form “worlds of meaning.” Finally, we will think a bit about apologetics as a response to the worldview challenge posed by popular culture. We will find that the way apologetics is typically done often lacks the sensitivity to cultural and worldview issues needed to effectively build bridges to non-Christians.
Beavers or Krill: The Debate over the Influence of Popular Culture
The heated debate over the influence of media and popular culture has been going on for decades, and most often the sides talk past each other. Concerned parents and media advisory groups say, “See how popular culture is shaping us and our kids! We are putty in their hands.” On the other side of the debate, the producers of popular culture (record, movie, television and gaming executives) shake their heads and say, “Look, we’re not shaping anyone. We simply reflect back to the culture what’s already there. We mirror society.” Who is right? Does popular culture shape and distort society’s worldview, or does it reflect back to society what it already believes?
The answer, of course, is “Yes.” Both are right, at least partly. Certainly popular culture has influence, but it can have an influence only to the extent that it connects with values and desires already present in the culture.1 Popular culture influences only when its messages resonate within the hearts of people living in the culture. When I was a child, I used to like to open up our piano and sing into the strings. Whatever note I sang, I would receive back sympathetic vibrations: an echo of the note I sang, plus the octave, plus the fifth, and very faintly the third an octave higher as well. Popular culture does the same thing: it sings into our hearts, the very core of our belief systems. And sometimes, our hearts vibrate sympathetically with it.
Many times however nothing vibrates, and a popular cultural work simply fails to connect. We forget that there are plenty of pieces of popular culture that never succeed: movies that fail at the box office, CDs that move quickly to the discount bin, ad campaigns that never catch on and are pulled off the air, TV shows that never make it past their pilot episodes.2 In fact, popular culture fails and loses money far more often than it turns a profit. The nature of the entertainment business is that there are always going to be more flops than hits. That high rate of failure is awfully hard to explain if popular culture merely manipulates us into buying and believing whatever they want us to, bending us to their will, as it were.
Rather, the entertainment industry is always probing to find out what the public likes, chasing popular tastes. That is why there are so many sequels and why Hollywood studios bank on “star power” to draw audiences. They are risking money, and they want to reduce the risk by investing in names and stories that have already proven themselves at the box office. Advertising can only do so much. The producers of popular culture want something that is going to connect with popular values, tastes and desires. In other words, for popular culture to succeed, it must connect with us, with our worldviews. It must reflect back what is already there.
On the other hand, when a piece of popular culture does connect, then it not only reflects what is already there, but it wields a powerful shaping influence as well. Popular culture and the stories it tells have a profound impact on us, how we see ourselves, on our worldviews, on our imaginations. These stories take us places. Sometimes they take us to familiar places, such as “small-town guy loses girl, then gets her back again.” Sometimes they take us places we’ve never been, such as Middle Earth, or the outer rim of the galaxy, sneaking around with James Bond trying to save the earth, an exotic foreign culture, or different types of sexual relationships. Such popular cultural works really can shape us inside and change the way we see the world.
1 William Romanowski notes that popular culture becomes popular by affirming and reinforcing existing beliefs. See Eyes Wide Open, 93-94.
2 Andy Crouch calls this “survivor bias,” that we only remember the cultural works that survived. See Crouch, 192-95.