Bibliography on the church, media and popular culture

DATE: 1/97

FROM: Prof. Terry Mattingly

TO: Arrow Leadership Program participants

RE: Bibliography on the church, media and popular culture


On one level, we are all experts on American popular culture. We breathe it in day after day. We can sing along with our favorite songs and quote the crucial lines of our favorite movies. We know the intimate details of the lives of our favorite media superstars and, often, we can quote a few of the jokes we heard on talk shows during the previous 24 hours.

Entertainment and news, or info-tainment, are important to us. Each year, we devote thousands of hours and dollars to media. Glance at our checkbooks, or at our unwritten schedules for daily lives, and you will see signs of the power of the secular media.

One of the only places a modern American can avoid hearing about media and popular culture is in seminary classrooms, and, thus, in church pews.

Thus, it isn’t surprising that the shelves of most seminary or church book stores contain very few books about how to understand or interpret the media. A few books have been written — most of them valid — that focus on frightening trends in media and popular culture, especially trends that affect young people. But it’s harder to find books that offer positive insights or that address the role that we allow the media to play in our lives.

I am frequently asked, by clergy and seminary students, to offer a list of books that I have found helpful. This annotated bibliography is my attempt to do just that.

You will notice that some of the books are not specifically about media. Take, for example, Russell Chandler’s “Understanding The New Age.” This book seems, at first glance, to have little to do with media and popular culture. But it will only take a few pages for readers to find that one of the elements of the New Age movement that made it so powerful was, and is, its media-friendly message of personal freedom and vague spirituality. It is impossible to study alternative religions in the United States without studying the power of the media.

Ditto for issues of sex and marriage, money and consumerism, angels and demons, life, death, near-death and life after death.

Today, if people want to find out about eternity, they are just as likely — or more likely — to go to a multiplex or the mall, instead of to a church.

You will also note that many of the books focus on the lives of young people. Why is this? To be blunt, American adults are worried about the role that the media play in shaping young lives. So is the church. And who, we might ask, decided that American children would be allowed to grow up in front of television sets, wearing stereo earphones? Good question.

Under The Mercy,

Prof. Terry Mattingly

Books in this initial set are highly recommended.

Roaring Lambs: A Gentle Plan to Radically Change Your World, by Bob Briner. Zondervan.

The author is president of ProServ Television, a major producer of sports programming. Hidden behind the title is a book that focuses on the church’s crucial decision to abandon the media and to ignore to role that popular culture plays in American life. Thus, the church has little or no impact in the media. Thus, the media either ignore or abuse Christendom. This would be an excellent book for study in small groups, or the starting point for a sermon series.

Life After Television: The Coming Transformation of Media and American Life (1994: Revised Edition in paperback), by George Gilder. Norton.

A hopeful look at the cultural impact of fiberoptics and the “information superhighway” by a noted conservative thinker. It argues that Americans will soon be offered even more choices, when it comes to sources of information and entertainment. This will be real good, if people make good choices, or real bad, if our choices sink to new lows. This book was radically revised and expanded in 1994, when published in paperback. The new version is even better.

Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, by James Davison Hunter. HarperCollins-Basic Books.

A controversial best-seller that loomed just behind the headlines in the 1992 race for the White House. The thesis: American life is dominated by two camps — the cultural progressives and the orthodox. They represent America’s two religions: one teaches that all truth is cultural and relative and the other that some truths are transcendent and eternal.

All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, by Kenneth Myers. Crossway.

Do not be fooled by the pop cover. This is a well-researched book by a Christian thinker with years of secular media experience. Note the content on the effects of visual media and the effects of 1960s pop culture. A key quote: “In television we live and move and have our being.” Myers blends some of the secular arguments of writers such as Neil Postman and Marie Winn with evangelical theology. An excellent first book for clergy studying media and popular culture. Would be excellent tool in small groups and church leadership settings.

Dancing In the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture and the Electronic Media, by Quentin Schultze, William Romanowski, et al. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

This book remains a classic, focusing on youth culture — standing as one of the few major works of conservative Christian study of popular culture. It is a must for every pastor’s library, if only for the chapter on MTV and the massive bibliography.

Pop Culture Wars: Religion & the Role of Entertainment in American Life, by William D. Romanowski. InterVarsity Press.

What happens when Christian run from the mass media production process and then, as their primary way of relating to mass pop culture, proceed to lob fire bombs back at the powers that be in Hollywood? Oh, meanwhile, the Christians continue to consume their share of the very products they condemn. Whatever happens, it can’t be called Christian reflection or discipleship.

The Plug-In Drug: Television, Children, and the Family, by Marie Winn. Penguin.

Updated in 1985, this book remains surprisingly timely. Her thesis: Television is a drug that parents give to their children to make them docile, because this seems easier than enforcing rules of discipline. It is the parents who are addicted. This is popular-level reading that would appeal to laypeople.

Other books of interest:

Dying For Change, by Leith Anderson. Bethany House.

A pastor looks at trends in modern American lifestyles and the church’s attempts to cope. A compassionate look at trends and statistics that often seem so threatening.

The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, by William J. Bennett. Touchstone, Simon & Schuster.

A sobering survey of social trends in America, including the impact of media. Good initial source of statistics.

The Seductive Image: A Christian Critique of the World of Film, by K.L. Billingsly. Crossway.

A Christian screenwriter looks at the world view of American movies. A key thought: It is impossible to stop modern media from crossing the borders of your soul. The goal is to be a customs agent who slows them down long enough to discover what baggage they are carrying.

Lambs Among Wolves, by Bob Briner. Zondervan.

This is a sequel to Briner’s earlier book on the church and media, listed above. It collects the stories of a number of Christians in the secular media and looks for common themes in their work and experiences on the job. But it is not a how-to volume. It would make a fine reading companion to Roaring Lambs, when used in a church small-group.

Understanding the New Age (Revised: 1993), by Russell Chandler. Zondervan.

A solid survey, written by one of America’s leading religion writers, of the religious and cultural trends in the New Age. This is not an alarmist book. Solid concluding chapters on the need for absolute truths in modern life, written from a conservative biblical perspective.

Racing Towards 2001: The Forces Shaping America’s Religious Future, by Russell Chandler. HarperCollins/Zondervan.

This covers a number of social and religious issues that are, in part, linked to church growth. It includes an interesting resource list of think tanks, church researchers and other experts for use by church leaders.

Against The Night: Living in the New Dark Ages, by Charles Colson, with Ellen Santilli Vaughn. Servant.

Written shortly before the onset of the “culture wars” debates. A key quote: “If political processes seem cynical and selfish, these days, it is because many citizens are cynical and selfish.” How did this come to pass? Colson and Vaughn conclude that Americans are crying out for answers in the age of media, relativism and the quick fix.

Raising PG Kids In An X-Rated Society, by Tipper Gore. Bantam.

This remains a good, if somewhat politically ironic, overview of the contents of youth culture, with an emphasis on popular music and video. Today, its contents seem almost tame.

The Gravedigger File: Papers on the Subversion of the Modern Church, by Os Guinness. InterVarsity.

In the style of C.S. Lewis and The Screwtape Letters, a satanic agent leaks strategy papers on the undermining of the modern church. A key: Get the church to ignore the details of daily life, such as the workplace and the role of media.

Before The Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture Wars, by James Davison Hunter. Free Press.

The sequel to “Culture Wars” offers an in-depth look at public debate on abortion and how, for most Americans, it depends on a “language of sentiment” that forbids absolute truths. Sadly, Hunter ignores the power of entertainment and pop culture.

Watching America: What Television Tells Us About Our Lives, by S. Robert Lichter, Linda S. Lichter and Stanley Rothman. Prentice Hall Press.

A very ambitious content analysis — based on randomly selected programs — of secular television. How does TV portray work, religion, the family, etc.? A good resource book from some of America’s best known secular, conservative media critics.

The Age of Missing Information, by Bill McKibben. Plume.

A liberal mainline Protestant Baby Boomer, with the help of many friends and their VCRS, studies the contents of 24 hours worth of television on every cable channel in Fairfax, Va. Then he spends 24 hours on a mountaintop. In the book, he compares the lessons he learned about life during these two different activities.

Marriage Savers: Helping Your Friends and Family Stay Married, by Michael McManus. Zondervan.

A practical look at a painful family issue. This is linked to a crucial moral debate in the “culture wars” arena — destructive patterns of home life that cripple marriages and families. Read between the lines.

Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values, by Michael Medved. HarperCollins.

The controversial best-seller by noted conservative film critic. The bottom line: Hollywood is losing millions of dollars and running off customers with a relentless attack on conservative values and institutions. Strong content might offend some readers. Note that much of this book offers a strong contrast to the content of the William Romanowski book mentioned above.

No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, by Joshua Meyrowitz. Oxford.

An in-depth, scholarly look at the role of visual media in modern life — especially politics and the family. This would be heavy readying, for some church leaders. Thesis: Electronic media has created one coast-to-coast society, which undercuts the local and regional values of tradition, faith and family.

The Unreality Industry, by Ian I. Mitroff and Warren Bennis. Oxford.

I have this book on order, so I have not had a chance to read it yet. However, a theologian on our college’s faculty has praised it highly for its look at the business of mass media and the concepts of truth, or lack of same, that undergird much of our news and entertainment. A good book that covers a wide expanse of information, he said. The authors are secular experts in business and communications.

being digital, by Nicholas Negroponte. Alfred A. Knopf.

The author is an academic who also is a key columnist with the influential cyber-journal called “Wired.” Like Gilder, this is a wonderful, popular-level gateway into the moral and cultural issues linked to the Internet. Remember: technology shapes content.

Prodigal Press: The Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media, by Marvin Olasky. Crossway.

The history of religion and morality in American newspapers. This preaches to the anti-journalist crowd in many conservative Christian camps, but still is a good survey of how newspapers got to where they are, today.

Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman. Penguin.

One of the standard secular books that attacks the values and methods of visual media. It offers a bleak, and at times elitist, look at American life and popular culture. Frequently quoted: “What if Big Brother turns out to be Howdy Doody?”

Internet For Christians: Everything You Need To Start Cruising The Net Today, by Quentin Schultze. Gospel Films-Gospel Communications Network.

This is this year’s media book from Dr. Quen the media man at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. It covers everything from church cyber-projects to the threat of child pornography, from simple computer fear to the views of folks who think that Internet addresses may be linked to the Mark Of The Beast. The book comes with its own software and Schultze will soon begin updating the text by publishing an ongoing “virtual appendix” on, you guessed it, the World Wide Web.

Redeeming Television, by Quentin Schultze. InterVarsity.

O.K., what is good about television? Is it a part of God’s creation and worthy of redemption? A noted Calvinist thinker says “yes” to both questions. Offers practical advice for churches and homes. This contains quite a bit of theological content.

Televangelism and American Culture, by Quentin Schultze. Baker Book House.

What happens when we try to sell God, in an age dominated by media? Heavy reading that addresses the issues that lurked behind the scandals in the Electric Church.

Winning Your Kids Back From The Media, by Quentin Schultze. InterVarsity Press.

This was the 1994 book by Schultze. It was specifically written for use with parents and church leaders in a congregational setting. It can be purchased in a Gospel Films kit with a set of video-taped lectures by the author.

The Emerging American Church, by Dan Scott. Bristol Books.

A Pentecostal pastor and megachurch thinker looks at the emergence of a new mainstream American religion. What happens when Baby Boomers look for truth in a world of heretical, back-sliding mainline Protestants, culturally irrelevant evangelicals and Pentecostal mystics?

The Sexual Christian, by Tim Stafford. Victor.

Sexual debates in a post-Playboy culture. A rare Christian book that pays attention to the mixed signals — bad and good — in mass media and popular culture.

God In The Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, by David F. Wells. Eerdmans.

A very academic, at times, look at the roots of the evangelical church’s problems in the post-modern age. Truth is, we act as if we like modernity, while it keeps the theological ground moving under our feet. A heavy statement on what I call the “separation of church and life.”

Return to Love, by Marianne Williamson. HarperCollins.

This best-seller, written by one of the leaders of the New Age movement, takes Americanized eastern religion and covers it with a thin layer of Christian imagery and vocabulary. Perfect for “Oprah.” Please note: This book is included as “signal” from the pop culture.

Children Without Childhood: Growing Up Too Fast in the World of Sex and Drugs, by Marie Winn. Penguin.

This book includes a summary of material from The Plug-In Drug, but also looks at other trends in the lives of American children. It would be an excellent choice for a study group for parents.

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