Popular Theology and Communication
Lynn Schofield Clark’s study, From Angels to Aliens, explores how teens seek and explore spiritual and religious identities, often drawing on narratives, images and characters from popular culture, i.e. those artistic expressions of various kinds that have had mass diffusion since the second half of the 20th century. The teenage years, perhaps more than other moments in our lives, mark a time of exploration of identity and a time of finding oneself within peer groups.
Clark noted how teens drew on popular culture to find religious meaning independently of their levels of religious sophistication, with similar processes of exploration in the various groups of teens she studied, ranging from the “Resisters” (those not interested in organized religion or even opposed to it) to the “Experimenters” (those exploring what they saw as a supernatural realm) to the “Intrigued” (those committed to organized religion). The television culture she explored with these teens provided materials for their search.
Clark offers some important cautions about how people create religious narratives for their lives. Some of those narratives arise in religious groups, connected to an experience with the sacred, with a conversion experience, or with a tradition.
Religious organizations certainly supply some of what might be called the “public narratives” of religion. They give a certain legitimacy to particular stories and practices while delegitimizing others. The point, however, is that the individual sees himself or herself as the authority over what is to be considered “religious” or “spiritual,” and these categories sometimes include beliefs and practices that might be surprising to those who anticipate a more direct connection between institutional religion and a “religious” or “spiritual” identity.
What she terms “the culture as tool kit” model – a set of concepts or ideas in popular culture to use as one wishes to shape the self – has some strengths. It frees individuals from a kind of socioeconomic or even religious positioning in society and insists that an individual’s actions occur “in relation to practices, or habits – not only those of the individual, but those shared by many because they are consistent with ways of seeing the world that we take for granted.” On the other hand, this model can suggest too strongly that the individual is paramount, forgetting that culture is not separate from us. “Popular culture’s narratives, like those of its religions, often embody meanings that its members cannot bring themselves to express.”
The media are polysemic
Before presenting her analysis, the scholar renews her warning about contexts. While it is important to examine the relationship between popular entertainment and religious belief, the claim that one directly changes the other denies the way that media tend to reflect cultural values as well as shape them. This is not to say that the media are not influential. We still need to recognize that television programs and films are polysemic: that is, they are open to many levels of interpretation, from the obvious and literal to the metaphorical and mythical. Clark’s work provides careful evidence that the teens she studied – and by extension, many people – seek some broader meaning to their lives and do not hesitate to draw – even if unconsciously – on popular culture.
Gordon Lynch adds theoretical detail to this insight in his book, Understanding Theology and Popular Culture. He suggests four broad areas of overlap: 1) how religion relates to everyday life; 2) how popular culture serves religious functions; 3) how religions respond to popular culture in missiological ways; and 4) how religious groups or individuals use popular culture “texts” as sites for theological reflection.
Lynch provides helpful reviews of some of the scholarly work in each of these areas. Those who study religion in everyday life often include a look at “the ways in which popular cultural texts and practices have shaped the beliefs, structures or practices of religious groups”; at how religion appears in popular culture; and at “the way in which religious groups interact with wider popular culture.”
In his second category – the religious functions of popular culture – Lynch identifies three key functions of religion:
1) a social function: religion provides people with an experience of community and binds people to a social order of shared beliefs and values that provides a structure for their everyday lives;
2) an existential/hermeneutical function: religion provides people with a set of resources (e.g., myths, rituals, symbols, beliefs, values, narratives) that may help people to live with a sense of identity, meaning and purpose;
3) a transcendent function: religion provides a medium through which people are able to experience “God,” the numinous, or the transcendent.
This functional approach, Lynch argues, overlaps with popular culture because elements of popular culture (whether film, television, art, or – we might add – the online world) fulfill some of these same functions for some people.
Lynch’s third general area, missiology, moves from the churches to the popular culture as churches attempt to evangelize culture through various kinds of outreach.
In the fourth area, Lynch traces the rich history of how people have used popular cultural materials as sources of theological reflection.
Three of Lynch’s theoretical approaches suggest areas in which popular culture might play a role in faith formation: it’s shaping the culture in which believers live, its overlapping with the functions of religion, and its providing sites for reflection.
An understanding beyond theology
St. Anselm famously defined theology as fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.” The definition allows us to consider a general method in which an individual begins with belief and moves to a deeper understanding of that belief. In addition to setting out his theological method (based on Augustinian practices), it also describes what every believer does at some level, often in an unthematic way. People do seek to understand their beliefs, whether religious or secular.
In effect, Clark documents the process with the group of teens she studied. How, then, do people seek this understanding? Clark suggests that typical, usually theologically naive, individuals use the building blocks they find at hand, the tools, if you will, that the culture has prepared for them. And because none of us attempts to understand belief in a vacuum, we can fairly easily find significant expressions of such faith seeking understanding readily at hand. However, for the more theologically sophisticated, what we find has two limitations, the second more serious than the first.
In the first case the common faith seeking understanding seldom draws on or takes place within what the academic community and the Church might regard as theology: in the well-reasoned, written texts of the academic paper or of the catechism. In what I call “popular theology,” people explore (and have explored for centuries) their belief in every media form available to them: in the architecture of worship spaces, in orally expressed stories of faith, in art, in music, in illuminated manuscripts, in stained glass, in graphic novels, in films, in radio programs, in television, and today in social media.
The second limitation to the popular faith seeking understanding lies in questions of orthodoxy. Each expression of faith demands interpretation and, as Clark documents, the materials at hand are polysemic. Churches have developed methods to guide interpretation and to judge the orthodoxy of expressions of faith: faulty attempts litter the history of theology. The faith formation of the popular may or may not fall within the bounds of orthodox belief. Who will make that judgment? Most of the time, the believing community remains silent about “popular theology,” though the believing community does provide a baseline for religious reflection.
Aidan Kavanagh’s fictional “Mrs. Murphy”, serving as a “primary theologian” because of her devotion and prayer even though she may lack formal theological education, offers a first check on an unrestricted invention of religious ideas. Other checks occur in Church teaching. However, while academic theology, catechetical theology, or seminary theology refer to the more abstract or more highly developed reflection on belief, this is not where most people begin their reflection on belief. Many begin with the popular and so we should take it seriously.
The remainder of this essay will address those two points, spending more time on the first, but offering some strategies for dealing with the second, seeing it as a faith formation process.
Faith formation processes
“Faith formation” refers both to the formal teaching of the faith, spiritual practices, community growth, and so on (whether in classes, worship, homilies, spiritual direction, spiritual reading, or other organized activities) and to the informal, self-directed, or cultural appropriation of belief. If the former takes place in the academically and ecclesiastically recognizable classrooms and churches, this latter faith formation occurs largely through popular theology. Clearly, the latter kind of faith formation differs from and does not carry the same weight as formal teaching practices, but we ignore it at our peril.
Since many others have considered more formal faith formation, let us look only at the latter, the faith formation that comes through popular theology.
Reflections on belief surround us. Every time we go into a church, we see evidence of how previous generations understood their belief, from the stone altars in Catholic churches (marking the sacrifice of the Mass) to the images of saints (declaring the communion of saints in the body of Christ). People tell one another stories of faith – think of the times our grandmothers have explained that “God has a plan for you” or of the times that parents comfort children with stories of how their guardian angels watch over them. Each of these makes a theological claim. We find similar expressions of faith in the hymns we sing and even in the popular music we hear, in the art that helps us to see God in nature, in film and on television, through social media, and in so much conveyed by the media that we daily encounter. Much of this kind of faith formation occurs unconsciously. We absorb it from the culture around us, as we absorb so many other things, things that we take for granted.
We can see the process at work in film and television, arguably two of the most powerful instances of communication media by which cultures influence us. George Gerbner and his colleagues in communication studies proposed the “cultivation theory” to explain how these media influence us. They tested the theory for over 20 years, tracking how people interpreted their world according to the promptings of television. They concluded that “Television is a centralized system of storytelling. It is part and parcel of our daily lives. Its drama, commercials, news, and other programs bring a relatively coherent world of common images and messages into every home.” While the theory has its critics who note that it claims too much or assumes what it sets out to prove, it does offer one way for us to understand how people learn to interpret their religious worlds.
The theory also extends quite readily to social media. Though not as centralized a system as television, social media does provide storytelling which each user finds compatible, since people tend to choose their social networks. Social media may well reinforce cultural influences more than television does. In both television and social media, people use the “pre-packaged” explanations of how the world works to shape their own beliefs.
We can see the overall process at work, perhaps in a less deterministic way, by thinking about film and belief. Many film directors incorporate their own understandings of belief in their choices of theme, character, or material. Early film history incorporated many biblical ideas as the basis for epic or spectacle, and these appealed widely to the audiences who shared their beliefs, something that occurred more recently with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). This approach tends to simply illustrate bible stories with traditional theological interpretations. Film becomes visual storytelling that re-introduces into people’s lives many of the aspects that appear in church teachings.
Beyond this, Blake has highlighted how theology – often absorbed from childhood religious experience – imbues imagery and narrative with what he calls “the sacramental imagination” of film makers, as they tell even ordinary stories. The worlds they create are worlds brimming with theological potential.
More sophisticated or ambitious writers and directors take other approaches in reflecting on their belief. For example, they create a theological world and ask questions like: “what if such and such occurs?” ”How should people act morally in this situation?” We find many, many examples of this kind of work in different popular films. For example, the American director Clint Eastwood explores themes of forgiveness (in the film The Unforgiven, 1992) or moral choice (in Million Dollar Baby, 2004) or loving one’s neighbor (in Gran Torino, 2008).
Many commentators have listed dozens of successful popular films which wrestle with theological themes. The communication medium itself dictates the ways in which film makers reflect on their belief in both narrative and exploratory patterns, inviting the audience to themselves enter into a reflection on what these situations might mean. Lynch draws much of this material to illustrate his fourth area of intersection between theology and popular culture from people’s reflections on film.
Similarly, television provides places for people to wrestle with or understand their belief, but typically in a longer format, allowing for the “cultivation” of beliefs identified by Gerbner.
A television series, like films, creates a kind of alternative fictional world, and invites people to reflect on what they believe by seeing that belief play out in various scenarios created by the writers and producers. Recent series like “Lost” (2004-2010), “The Good Place” (2016-2020), the Indian series “Typewriter” (2019), or older ones like “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003) not only raise questions of the supernatural, personal accountability, and community, but also present answers to those questions that are informed by a particular faith response.
In many ways these programs serve as commentaries on previous texts, much as the medieval Church created commentaries on received materials from the Gospels in church drama. The pattern remains the same. The communication medium offers the opportunity or possibility for a type of thinking that cannot take place in an expository written text.
Similarly, the theological background or education of the producers guides them to a particular approach and interpretation. Blake calls this the “indelible theological imagination” that shapes their reflection. For film and television creators, early life experiences of art, music, church worship, and family relationship provide an often unconscious approach to understanding God and in turn will form how those directors and writers describe and create new worlds in their media. These, in turn, offer audiences and young people an avenue into theology.
Clark describes the process in much greater detail, drawing on her interviews with teens. Whatever the specific details, people do reflect on their belief by drawing on the materials available to them. Images of angels, for example (whether online, in church buildings, on holy cards, or in films) lead people to both accept the reality of angels and picture angels in particular ways.
Clark notes that many unchurched teens “assumed that the media had nothing to do with religion.” But that does not mean that they did not use media constructs to make sense of their worlds. Their experiences reflect Lynch’s description of the social and hermeneutical functions of both popular culture and religion: to provide an experience of community and to offer a set of tools or images to make sense of the world.
Social media offer yet more opportunities for accessing the building blocks of popular theology. These occur less in the long narrative forms of film and television and more in short forms of YouTube clips, memes, popular music, and shared ideas. If anything – and little research exists on this – this more fragmented world has perhaps less structured reflection on belief despite its abundance of building blocks. But the social function of media makes people more likely to accept an online hermeneutic.
The very scope and inescapable nature of popular theology means that it exerts a powerful influence on faith formation in every segment of the culture. In the United States, with its wide range of religions and hesitation to publicly criticize them, popular theology has tended to express a generalized theism or, perhaps with the rise of high profile Christian groups, a kind of generalized Christianity, filled with euphemisms for suffering, death or sacrifice. How might faith formation tied to a particular creed, Catholicism for example, function in this world?
A dialogical approach
Because popular theology seldom offers consistent or systematic “theologies” – indeed the media employed do not really focus on that kind of thought – some additional step must take place to move this kind of faith formation into a dialogue with a more traditional faith formation. This additional step marks the boundary to questions of orthodoxy. Because this step deals with faith formation, teachers should not begin with the errors of popular theology or with an enforced focus on the catechism. Instead, a faith formation program can build on what young people have already begun to experience and offer them a structure. Two tasks appear here: to lead people to critique what they unconsciously absorb, that is, to thematize it; and to learn to express their own reflections on belief, but in dialogue with the faith of the Church.
The materials of popular theology always remain open to interpretation so a good first step is to invite young people to first express what they understand of these elements of faith. They could bring this to discussion, which may simply focus on the components of popular culture. Teachers should take those components seriously since that culture encompasses a first approach to faith and manifests concerns closer to people’s minds than the contents of the traditional catechism.
This dialogic approach finds its roots in an area of communication different from media studies. It works to create a bond of trust and mutual respect as both teacher and student move from unconscious to conscious appropriation of faith. These discussions find support in religious pedagogy. They allow teachers to move the students to an orthodox understanding of those areas that the students have themselves identified as worthy of reflection.
A second step guides the students to move from consumption to creation. Up to this point, most people simply take in popular culture and use its images and themes to make sense of their worlds. The faith formation process needs to go beyond this to help people understand both the impact of media content and how the creation of content works. The process need not be complicated or even require media skills. Individuals can tell stories of faith; they can imagine what those would look like in visual forms (artwork, video, etc.) or in musical settings. Most people have more skills here than they might realize. By encouraging people to use different, popular forms to express their own belief, the faith formation program can reinforce key functions that Lynch identified for both popular culture and for theology: 1) to establish a community, 2) to create an existential or hermeneutic sense, that is to make religious sense of the world; and 3) to offer an experience of the Transcendent.
Above all, a deeper sense of community emerges from the discussions of popular culture and faith. Moreover, people can work together to express their understandings of what they believe in the different media forms – another way to create a sense of community. Second, the very process of trying to express one’s belief in different media helps the creator (the student, the class, etc.) reach a more systematic understanding in the context of established faith. Here they develop a more organized hermeneutic process; they interpret their own religious experience for others and do so within the tradition of the Church. The creative process also teaches them how better to offer a critique of popular theology since they experience its challenges first hand. Finally, this creative process can help people to experience something of the transcendent, by participating in the creative power of God.
Using popular theology in faith formation can connect formal and informal faith formation by beginning with the lived experiences and questions of those seeking to understand their belief.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 06 art. 12, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0620.12
. Cf. L. S. Clark, From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003.
. See ibid., 20f.
. See ibid., 12.
. Ibid., 47.
. Cf. G. Lynch, Understanding Theology and Popular Culture, Oxford (UK) – Malden (MA), Blackwell, 2005.
. Cf. ibid., 21.
. Ibid., 22.
. Cf. ibid., 23.
. Ibid., 24.
. Cf. ibid., 28.
. Cf. ibid., 33.
. Cf. ibid., 36.
. Cf. G. T. Goethals, “The Imaged Word: Aesthetics, Fidelity, and New Media Translation”, in P. A. Soukup – R. Hodgson (eds.), Fidelity and Translation: Communicating the Bible in New Media, Franklin (WI), Sheed & Ward, 1999, 133-172.
. Cf. R. A. Blake, Afterimage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers, Chicago, Loyola Press, 2000.
. Cf. G. Gerbner – L. Gross – M. Morgan – N. Signorielli, “Living with Television: The Dynamics of the Cultivation Process”, in J. Bryant – D. Zillman (eds.), Perspectives on Media Effects, Hillsdale (NJ), Lawrence Erlbaum, 1986, 17-40.
. Ibid., 18.
. L.S. Clark, From Angels to Aliens…, op. cit., 20.
. Cf. M. Hess, “A New Culture of Learning: Implications of Digital Culture for Communities of Faith”, in Communication Research Trends 32 (2013/3) 13-20.
. Cf. J. Shea, Stories of Faith, Chicago, The Thomas More Press, 1980, 77f.