In Understanding Theology And Popular Culture, Gordon Lynch sets out to provide an overview of key discussions and methods for religious studies scholars who want to engage in the critical study of popular culture. He works through some terms and methodology and then discusses some text-specific analysis.
Lynch first attempts to define what we mean by “popular culture”; or more accurately, he acknowledges that the term “pop culture” has been used in different ways by different writers in different academic disciplines. Pop culture can be defined roughly in relation to a cultural “other”:
1) pop culture as an opposing form to high culture (visiting a museum vs. watching professional “wrestling)
2) pop culture as defined in relation to both high and folk culture (high culture is a gourmet meal, folk culture is Grandma’s casserole, pop culture is McDonald’s
3) pop culture as a form of social/cultural resistance against dominant or mass culture (punks using safety pins as decoration; this implies the notion of bricolage, a la Michel de Certeau)
Lynch’s own assertion is that we should think about popular culture as the shared environment, practices, and resources of everyday life within which popular texts and trends are both produced and consumed. This helps us maintain an open mind as in the analysis and critique of contemporary society.
Lynch also lists 4 broad approaches to putting religion and popular culture in dialogue.
A) The study of religion in relation to the environment, resources, and practices of everyday life: This involves looking at the ways in which popular practices have shaped the beliefs, structures, or practices of religious groups; how the relationship between religion and popular culture is represented in wider forms of pop culture; and how the relationship between religion and popular culture is influenced by the ways in which religious groups interact with wider pop culture.
B) The study of ways in which popular culture may serve religious functions in contemporary society: a substantive definition understands religion “as characterized by certain core elements, e.g., belief in dieties or supernatural forces, people with religions roles (priest, shaman), sacred scriptures, tradition, ritual, and space.” (27) The functionalistdefinition of religion assumes it is characterized, not by certain core elements, but by its ability to perform certain functions for individuals or groups. These functions might be social, hermeneutical, or transcendent.
C) A missiological response to popular culture: conservative Christian groups see culture as separate from the sacred and in need of redemption. Niebuhr’s Christ & Culture is an example of this.
D) The use of popular cultural texts and trends as a medium for theological reflection: writers in this tradition explore popular culture in relation to biblical texts or particular theological concepts.
Lynch then moves on to discuss how electronic media and consumption play specific roles in our lives. Lynch rejects technological determinism, and notes that electronic media have made people less connected to local communities and traditions while increasing their involvement with electronically mediated ones. Furthermore, “the concepts, symbols, images, and stories communicated within the ‘market-place’ of electronic media play a growing role in shaping people’s personal identities and understanding of the wider world.” (55) Consumption is not just a way to stay warm and fed but a means for expressing one’s individual identity.
Lynch concludes with an examination of the music of rapper Eminem (via author-focused approach), an episode of The Simpsons(via text-based approach), and rave culture in England (via ethnographic approach). He concludes with questions one might ask to develop a theological aesthetics of popular culture, e.g., “Does this pop culture text require skill, exemplify originality, encourage constructive relationships, etc.?” (191)
Lynch, G. (2005). Understanding theology and popular culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.