What should we make of pop culture? It surrounds us and shapes us in many ways. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Does it take us away from the Gospel or can it be used to advance the Gospel in the New Evangelization? Let’s look at cases for and against pop culture and then try to strike the right balance.
Josef Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI) very briefly treats pop music in his work, Spirit of the Liturgy: “On the one hand, there is pop music … aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal”(148). The cult of the banal would keep us trapped in the ordinary, flat, and boring aspects of life. It doesn’t move us beyond to an experience of the transcendentals – such as truth, beauty, and goodness. He also wrote, elsewhere, that Christian art “must oppose the cult of the ugly, which says that everything beautiful is a deception and only the representation of what is crude, low and vulgar is the truth, the true illumination of knowledge.” We cannot deny that the cult of the ugly has largely grown to dominate our culture and even the Church in some respects.
Roger Scruton, a British philosopher, in his book Modern Culture, also argues along these lines, insisting on the priority of high culture over the popular: “It is my view that the high culture of our civilization contains knowledge which is far more significant than anything that can be absorbed by the channels of popular communication” (2). Pop culture has descended from folk cultures into a “commercialized mish-mash” (3). Nonetheless, Scruton recognizes that pop culture still essentially helps cultivate our identity.
I have also written, elsewhere, questioning the extent to which pop music can be used for evangelization. Pop culture is largely banal, and much worse than that, it largely contains a damaging moral message. Rather than profound truth, goodness, and beauty, we largely find there ugliness and cacophony, made all the more so by its technological medium.
With these criticisms in mind, we now turn to the other side of the argument, namely that pop culture is a necessary medium for evangelization. First, we see in Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, a call to take up contemporary expressions:
Each particular Church should encourage the use of the arts in evangelization, building on the treasures of the past but also drawing upon the wide variety of contemporary expressions so as to transmit the faith in a new ‘language of parables’. We must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings, including those unconventional modes of beauty which may mean little to the evangelizers, yet prove particularly attractive for others (167).
Bishop James Conley draws upon the popular impact of Pope Francis in his recent piece, “Our Pop Culture Moment,” where he states:
But I’m not immune to the charms, and whimsy, and sometimes profound insight of American popular culture. I also know that pop culture matters. And that our country’s political and social opinions come more often from the world of Lorne Michaels and Jon Stewart than from the staid pages of even the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. When I talk to young people about gay marriage, they’re more likely to cite Macklemore than Maureen Dowd.
Given this profound influence we certainly cannot ignore pop culture, but how do we judge the worth of pop culture and how to use it best?
Striking a Balance
We need to approach our own culture in light of the Church’s teaching on inculturation, which means that the Gospel must take flesh within the culture in which we live. In doing so, we need to be aware of the challenges of pop culture, but also the opportunities it presents. The work of incultruation means that we have to translate the Gospel into a language that makes sense today, but it also means that we have to purify this language so that it can support the Gospel message. This is the balance we need – we can’t snobbishly ignore pop culture, but we also have to work to transform it!
When I was teaching catechesis a few years ago, we spent a lot of time talking about the buzz word “experience.” After Vatican II many catechetical leaders said wrongly that we can find grace and revelation simply by affirming our own experience. Although that position is blatantly false (ignoring original sin and the need for the Church), it does shed light on the need to engage people where they are at and to help them make sense of there every day life. Engaging pop culture is a necessary part of that effort, a work of accompaniment that helps us understand how people think and how they are formed in their ordinary experience.
If we accept the wrong understanding of experience, however, then there is no need to seek redemption and transformation. We may need to engage pop culture to speak the language of the day and to understand where people are coming from, but we also need to move them beyond a simple acceptance of that experience, to help them see reality more clearly, and to have a more profound experience of the mysterious and wonderful in the world around them and in the faith. The Gospel must infuse our cultural experience and saturate to the point that it shapes our ordinary experience. This is the task of the New Evangelization!
In short, we need to return to wholesome, simple things that are accessible, i.e. popular, and yet noble, i.e. reflect the deepest truths of life. Therefore, pop culture is not the end, but an important tool as we work for the renewal of culture. Let’s hope that we can end up creating a new pop culture, imbued with better values and enriching people’s lives all the more.