The influence of popular culture on us is like a conversation: it moves back and forth between reflecting and shaping the surrounding culture, and people in the culture. The makers of popular culture grope and probe, trying to find what will connect, and then they expand on that territory of the popular imagination. In its own unique way, popular culture both reflects the popular imagination and informs it, doing both at the same time. It starts with us where we are and takes us new places. Through this dialogue, this listening to and shaping the imagination of its audience, popular culture’s influence runs deep (far deeper than we realize) and wide (it is nearly ubiquitous, like something in the air we breathe). And it affects us at the level of worldview, how we understand the reality around and in us. The influence on our worldviews is simply undeniable.
But how does popular culture influence our worldviews? This is another hotly debated subject. Conservative cultural critics see popular culture’s influence as an active force that shapes passive minds. They argue that distractions and entertainments of popular culture lull us into a stupor, manipulate us, and alter the way we think without our even being aware that anything has changed (or only dimly aware).3 This model sees popular culture as something like a whale. How does a whale catch its food? By opening its mouth and sucking in the weak, small creatures such as plankton and krill. So too, these critics argue, we get sucked in by the huge, pervasive, inescapable influence of popular culture. We are changed just because popular culture is everywhere, and its messages are repeated again and again. I call this way of understanding popular culture’s influence the “direct assault approach”– popular culture’s influence boils down to a direct assault on our passive minds by virtue of its superior force.
Of course, there is something to be said for the direct assault approach. Popular culture is pervasive, like an atmosphere that surrounds us (I did liken it to something in the air for a reason). It is insistent and repetitious. And much of the time, we don’t make a conscious decision that we want to be influenced by popular culture, and it shapes us nonetheless. However, I have my doubts as to whether the direct assault model can explain the depth of the way popular culture influences us because this model never really deals with popular culture as a meaningful form of communication. It never deals with the way we actively appropriate the messages we receive from popular culture into our worldviews. When we are faced with popular culture, we are less like plankton and krill, and more like beavers building their lodges. We interact with and use the meanings we find in popular culture’s messages to build up symbolic “lodges” of meaning, worldview homes for ourselves in which we dwell.4
For example, one study of teenage culture found that American teens in recent years have become much less skeptical about supernatural and unexplained phenomena because of shows like X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. These teens take messages from those shows and have worked them into their belief systems. The result is that they are more open to mystery and the unexplained.5 Of course, the “beaver” metaphor isn’t perfect either, for there is an element of manipulation in popular culture. Beavers don’t tend to be manipulated by their building materials, whereas we do. My point is simply that our relationship to popular culture is rarely simple because it happens on the level of worldview. And the direct assault approach gives us very few tools to respond to that interaction between popular culture and worldview – interaction that is subtle, profound, and deeply meaningful.
It is likely that popular culture’s influence on us is a combination of passive absorption and active appropriation: krill-flavored beavers, if you will. The conversation between popular culture and worldview is anything but simple.
Putting the “World” into Worldview: How Popular Culture Shapes Worldview
There is a constant conversation between our worldviews and the world around us. Popular culture, as part of our shared world, plays a significant role in that ongoing conversation. But what does that interaction between worldview and popular culture look like in detail?
- A. The Meaning Cycle
- 1. Cultural producers make popular cultural works, or “texts” (TV shows, songs for the radio, novels, blogs, etc.) out of their own worldview “lens.”
- 2. These works are then used and enjoyed by people, which alters the audience’s worldview lens.
- 3. The audience then gives the producer’s “feedback” through box office sales, ratings, and advertising revenues. The producers also receive feedback through shifts in cultural values. After all, the producers are also culture consumers: they are part of the culture they produce for, and they feel these shifts in values.
- 4. This feedback then subtly (or not-so-subtly) alters the producer’s worldview lens, and they produce different popular cultural works, and the cycle begins again.
- As popular cultural works circulate, the cycle happens again and again and again. The net effect of that circulation is what we commonly refer to as “meaning,” the feeling of at-homeness we get in our own culture, and the feeling that vanishes when you move to another culture. This circulation of popular cultural works occurs many times simultaneously in any given culture, and these cycles interlock and reinforce one another, like a tapestry. And from this arises a culture-wide system of meaning and values that gives one’s own culture its unique texture, its “feel,” or “ethos.”6 The cultural ethos itself has an enormous impact upon worldview.
If your own worldview doesn’t mesh with the feel of the culture, then it can make you feel isolated and kind of dumb. For example, in a culture where sexual freedom is felt to be essential, someone who believes in a worldview that insists on rules to guide sex will appear old-fashioned, narrow and ridiculous. Popular culture plays a decisive role in shaping a culture’s ethos, and so shaping the worldviews of those who dwell in that ethos.
We can think of popular culture’s influence on worldview in terms of a cycle:
- B. Popular Culture Comes from Somewhere: The Role of Tradition
- Another important factor to recognize is that popular culture flows out of established cultural traditions. It both works within, and strains against, those traditions. It might sound strange to talk of “popular cultural traditions,” but popular culture does not come out of nowhere. It only seems that way.
I remember when I was twelve or thirteen years old, our local public broadcasting station started airing Monty Python’s Flying Circus late on Saturday nights. From my perspective, Monty Python fell out of the blue. The absurdist humor was like nothing I had ever seen. But the Pythons and their humor definitely came from somewhere. For starters, all of them (except for the American animator Terry Gilliam) grew up in post-WWII Britain listening on the radio to the absurdist humor and anti-authoritarian satire The Goon Show. That had a profound impact on their attitudes towards comedy, class, and social authority. And they all, except Gilliam, went to elite English universities. There, they were heavily involved in the tradition-bound student-run drama clubs and comedy revues of Oxford and Cambridge. As their talent became more widely known, they were offered jobs as comedy writers in British television and radio (another tradition-bound institution). But they all became increasingly frustrated with the traditional limitations of the standard British comedy format (a sketch must have a punch line, there must be a break between comedy sketches, etc.). The future Pythons all knew each other, either by friendship or reputation, and sought out opportunities to work together. They shared a passion to break out of the old traditions, and they began work on a new type of comedy revue show for the BBC. And, ironically, their tradition-breaking actually created a new cultural tradition: “Pythonesque” comedy.7
The story of the Pythons could be retold for any creator of popular culture. Every popular cultural work comes from a tradition and either fits comfortably within that tradition, or it strains against that tradition’s conventions and limitations, trying to create something new. Each popular cultural work contains a tug of war between tradition and innovation.8 Even when popular culture seems to come from nowhere, there is always a creative tradition lying behind it. Popular culture is formed out of cultural traditions. And these traditions in turn shape a culture’s ethos.
- C. Woven Worldviews: the Fabric of Popular Cultural “Worlds”
- But the real question still hasn’t been answered: How do individual popular cultural works influence our worldviews? Movie trailers provide the answer. Many of them begin with a sort of cliché phrase. It is so cliché that it has become a joke: “In a world where . . . .” After that, you can insert any sort of dire situation you please. “In a world where love is hard to find and hard times follow you wherever you go . . .” “In a world where being different can spell trouble . . .” “In a world where bloodthirsty rabbits rule through fear and intimidation . . .” Or whatever. The convention may be cliché, but it also suggests something that is profoundly true: popular cultural products, and films in particular, create worlds of meaning for us. That’s what they do. Popular cultural texts project imaginative worlds of meaning.
We will talk more about popular culture as being comprised of “imaginative worlds” in the next chapter when we discuss a theology of popular culture.9 But for the time being, we need to start thinking about worldviews as things that are embedded into the very structure of these popular cultural “worlds,” and that the very shape of these worlds is what influences our worldviews. So when we talk about worldviews in relation to popular culture, we need to remember that a worldview isn’t simply some philosophical statement attached to a movie or song or video game, like some manifesto stapled onto it. That’s a mistake some Christian cultural critics make when talking about popular culture: “Yes, well, this is an existentialist film,” or “this song is about New Age religion.”
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3This conservative approach ironically often echoes the earlier Marxist Frankfurt School approach, such as that of Theodor Adorno. See, for example, Theodor W. Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered,” in Media Studies: A Reader, 2d ed., edited by Paul Marris and Sue Thornham (Washington Square, NY: New York University Press, 2000), pp. 31-37.
4For a fascinating (and sometimes disturbing) account of how this happens in television fan culture, see Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992).
5 Lynn Schofield Clark, The Bible in Transmission (August 1999), available online (accessed 27 March, 2008). See also her “U.S. Adolescent Religious Identity, the Media, and the ‘Funky’ Side of Religion,” Journal of Communication 52, no. 4 (Dec. 2002): 794-811.
6Cultural theorist Raymond Williams called the unique texture of a particular culture its “structure of feeling.” See Raymond Williams, “The Analysis of Culture,” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. John Story (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994), 60-61.
7This short pre-history of Monty Python was derived from Graham Chapman (estate), John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, with Bob McCabe, The Pythons Autobiography by the Pythons (London: Orion Books, 2003), especially the first four chapters.
8 Philosopher Paul Ricoeur, speaking about novels, calls this “traditionality.” Each work can be placed on a continuum between sedimentation or innovation with respect to its particular narrative tradition. See Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 1, translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 68-70.
9 I will use the term “imaginative” rather than “imaginary” when describing these popular cultural worlds. To be sure, these worlds are imaginary, in the sense of being fictional, but I want to underline the way these worlds also actively engage our imaginations, provoking an imaginative response from the reader, viewer, listener, or player in these worlds.