Vol 3, Num 15 :: 2004.09.24 — 2004.10.07
One day this summer I was at my desk, attending to business as usual, when I received a phone call from a woman with a thick New York accent. She introduced herself as Lina Lofaro, a reporter for TIME
magazine. And then, in one fell swoop of surreality, she told me that she wanted to interview me for a story about Christianity and film.
The absurdity of her request astounded me. ?You?ve got to be kidding,? I wanted to protest. ?I?m insanely unimportant. I work part-time at a Midwestern college and get mistaken for a freshman on a regular basis. Shouldn?t you be calling someone who?s, like, published a book??
But I held my tongue. Then, egged on by my co-workers, I feigned confidence. As though news outlets telephoned to ask my opinion all the time.
Over the next hour, Ms. Lofaro and I had a spirited conversation about art, faith, and the relationship between them. I referred her to colleagues who were writing film reviews and laypeople who were initiating film classes in their churches. I told her about Christian colleges where students regularly viewed and interpreted movies as part of their co-curricular education. We discussed the slowly shifting paradigm in evangelicalism that no longer divides the world into false categories of ?sacred? or ?secular,? but invites serious engagement with culture on the basis that both truth and lies are present in everything humans make.
I?ll snuff out the remaining suspense in this anecdote: the next week, none of my comments appeared in the glossy pages of TIME. While certainly a blow to my ego, this wasn?t my greatest disappointment with the piece. In the end (through no fault of Ms. Lofaro, who was not its ultimate author), ?The Gospel According to Spiderman? focused on the dominant approach to popular culture among American Christians. And this approach is, unfortunately, a superficial one that appropriates Hollywood movies to make misguided stabs at ?relevance? (increasingly the idol before which evangelicals bow down). Rather than exploring the thoughtful, sensitive ways in which Christians are beginning to awaken to the importance and power of film, the TIME article was an unwitting catalogue of the worst pop culture crimes committed by people of faith. (Pastors, take note: Power Point presentations featuring Catwoman are always?always?a bad idea.)
I had hoped for more. I hoped for more because so much more is happening, and not just in the realm of cinema. I hoped that this article might, in a small way, contribute to the changing conversation about popular culture that is echoing through much of North American evangelicalism.
Working in student activities at Calvin College, a Reformed school, has afforded me the invaluable opportunity (and daunting task) of investigating the landscape of popular culture. Based on its high regard for God?s creation and its refusal to confine the presence of sin to certain activities or locales, Calvin has long been the lone standard-bearer for participation in and interaction with all manner of cultural offerings. Other, similar institutions seemed to reflect more common evangelical attitudes?either staunchly dismissive (?Christians shouldn?t listen to ?secular? music?) or casually permissive (?It?s just a movie, don?t take it so seriously!?).
Recently, though, my colleagues and I have noticed that other Christian colleges are taking popular culture seriously to heart in ways that never would have been acceptable even a few years ago. Messiah College is inviting artists like Aimee Mann and Counting Crows to perform, and, thanks to its innovative on-campus cinema, students have an in-depth opportunity to experience and study film. At Biola University (which was featured in a New York Times Magazine piece earlier this month), professors like Craig Detweiler are trying to demonstrate that truth and beauty can be found in the music of Bj?rk as readily?sometimes more readily?than in praise and worship songs.
Beyond the borders of higher education, Christian film critics are talking about movies in insightful new ways on websites such as Christianity Today Movies and Jeffrey Overstreet?s Looking Closer. Musicians like Sufjan Stevens are creating sounds and words so strange and Christ-haunted that even wildly commercial Rolling Stone is intrigued (if more than a little perplexed). And a number of publications?Beyond, Paste, and, yes, the one you?re reading right this minute?have taken shape, asking questions of art that Christians have typically avoided, probably because the answers won?t come easily, if at all.
What?s behind this sea change? We?re not yet sure how to account for the evolving attitude towards popular culture, but clearly, for many evangelicals, the artistic tide is turning. In coming months, this column will keep watch from that vantage point, attempting to search out, document, and ruminate upon where and how and why this is happening. It may take the form of reflection on a concert experience, or observation about a trend in popular fiction. It may be a report on a field trip to the local multiplex, or it may be a scholarly rant about the perils of seeing film merely as escapist entertainment (perhaps the aforementioned two are related?). Occasionally, the students with whom I work will chime in?after all, they?re the ones riding the wave of this paradigm shift.
Sure, this stuff is off TIME magazine?s radar, and it will probably stay there?but such is the kingdom of God. For better or for worse, grassroots change lacks the bombast of Catwoman Power Point sermons. But a tiny mustard seed is growing. And, gradually, the conversation is changing.
Kate Bowman is the student activities coordinator at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.