One of the classes I teach at Palm Beach Atlantic University is called “Exegete the Culture” and it focuses on the religious content of popular culture and the influence of mass media on the church. The class is built on the concept of the “signal,” defined as a single piece of popular culture that addresses a topic of eternal interest to people of faith.
Once you have found a signal that is of interest to the people you are trying to reach, the next step is to figure out what the creator of the signal was actually trying to say. I call this “finding the secular subject.” Once you have found this big-button topic, you can move on to applying the teachings of your faith to that same subject.
The problem, of course, is that it is often hard to find out precisely what some of the artists of popular culture are trying to say. Often, it seems that they do not know. I mean, “knowing” is such an old-fashioned concept, you know? Also, some artists are not interested in telling potential ticket buyers what the signal is all about. In the end, it is often hard to find interviews with the artists in which they clearly express what they are thinking.
But it’s fun to hunt. More ministers need to try doing this, before stepping into pulpits and unloading.
I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s hard for students to stop and think about the contents of their entertainment. It’s just a movie. Right? It’s just a TV show. It’s just a song. Why ruin it by taking it so seriously? This stuff doesn’t affect us. Right?
At the moment, many of my students are interested in Constantine, the latest franchise to spin off from the world of comic books. It’s a fable about heaven, hell, angels, demons, relics, rites and a shotgun shaped like a cross. I wrote about this recently for Scripps Howard. The lead on that column: Hell looks really cool, when seen through a Hollywood lens.
I was amazed at the degree to which some of the writers and artists were interested in the spiritual content of their film, but not anxious to address the central question: What were you trying to say? Then again, perhaps they knew that what they were trying to sell might now be all that popular in certain American zip codes. This is part of a larger story that we have tried to follow here at GetReligion, even before the fall of Alfie and the rise of The Incredibles.
What do I mean? Check out the end of this New York Times interview with actress Tilda Swinton, who plays the gender-neutral angel Gabriel in Constantine. The angel goes insane. Why? Perhaps he/she was lashing out at the reality-based community?
Hang on, this gets complicated.
Gabriel is not a baddy. He becomes insane because he starts to think that if you wrap yourself in God’s clothes you can do anything you want, and it ain’t true. There is something insane about a lack of doubt. Doubt, to me anyway, is what makes you human, and without doubt even the righteous lose their grip not only on reality but also on their humanity. The idea that Gabriel takes things into his own hands, decides that the way to get the most souls into heaven is to torch the place, is extremely modern.
Q. How so?
In that the attitude of righteousness is a reason for pretty much anything now. What’s shocking is how easily that’s peddled today. It’s like Gabriel’s rationale. I don’t remember the exact lines, but it’s essentially, “My job is to get as many souls as possible to heaven, and I have noticed that you are at your most spiritually open when the place is in flames, so I’m going to torch the joint.” It’s a beautiful piece of reasoning, and it’s a righteous argument, but it’s terrifying.
Q. Religious absolutism can be found in many places.
True, there is all sorts of religious extremism all over the place, but the reason for this partly has to do with the fascist attitudes and language of absolutism coming from Washington. It’s challenging for people outside of America that Bush was re-elected. It means we’re all going to have to work a lot harder to understand what so many more Americans than we thought really want. It’s an identity shift in our minds about America and maybe for many Americans as well.
Q. And you think this film will resonate along those lines? . . .
I don’t think there is any way that it won’t. Actually, there were a couple of moments in my speeches that were more politically on the nose, and they were cut, and I’m actually glad they were. We don’t want to date the film, but also we don’t want to alienate people who need to do new thinking about this. We’re not only preaching to the converted, but we also want to speak to those people who think they know what righteousness is.
Who says Hollywood stars are not interested in evangelism?