We live in a world of many narratives. Stories anchor our identities. These narratives compete, intertwine, change, or seek to change each other. As Christians we believe that the biblical story is the chief narrative to which all else is anchored—the norming norm. But there are an enormous number of competing narratives, and if narratives affect each other, we must expect our understanding of the biblical narrative to be affected by these competitors.
Most of the religious thought produced in American culture does not come from the biblical narrative—or any narrative that fits the typical rubrics of religion—but comes from popular culture. Some of America’s holiest words are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Ask American parents what their deepest desire is for their children and nine times out of ten they will say something like: “I just want them to be happy.” That’s a religious profession and not a biblical one. Or look at a US dollar bill; see the e pluribus unum—out of diversity, unity? What a religious aspiration—an inspiring notion, perhaps more biblical than the pursuit of happiness but one that we frequently fail to meet as a nation. This is a religious text on a religious document. The pursuit of happiness and cash money are also defining religious narratives in American life.
Our government is not the only producer of religious narrative for American culture. Disney/ABC outproduces the government in religious content and influence—and certainly outdoes the Lutheran church. My family and I recently stayed in one of the Hilton Hotels (what pop-culture icon pops into your mind when I mention that one? OK, stop thinking about Paris) while participating in a family wedding. The hotel provided the Disney Channel and within the first half hour of our stay, the influence of one of its narratives on my daughter’s life was a done deal. She watched the Little Einsteins while we were unpacking and became completely captivated. In this animated show, four ethnically diverse friends travel around the world performing various missions that seem inane to adults (rescuing all the farm animals from the ocean, for instance) but are the height of childhood logic. The Little Einsteins theme song is now part of our family songbook right alongside Children of the Heavenly Father. If we’re even going to begin to talk about ourselves being “Children of the Heavenly Father,” we have to know what the Disney Channel says about who we are. You don’t have to be happy about this reality, but you deny it at your peril.
Soon after that trip, we took our daughter to play at a park in Minneapolis. She ended up riding on the tire swing with two other children. One of the children was a Somali immigrant—a little girl in a full-length dress and headscarf. In my effort to make playground equipment a thrill ride I counted down before I pushed: “5, 4, 3, 2, 1…Blast Off!” At which point my daughter and this devout Muslim girl started singing The Little Einsteins’ theme song; “We’re going on a trip in our favorite rocket ship…” Their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different, yet they were united in a Disney-created chorus; e pluribus unum indeed. I’m not trying to single out Disney. It is just the target that presents itself most readily to the father of a three-year old. But Disney is one of the major players in the US media market. The vast majority of the US media market share is controlled by a very small number of companies. These corporations, therefore, are the largest producers of pop-culture religiosity. Without their backing, most ideas don’t stand a chance of making it to a large audience.
My point is not that pop culture = bad, biblical narrative = good. When that argument is made, the general result has been to create a parallel Christian pop culture, complete with movies, music, television, Internet content. Generally, the fruits of this effort at parallel pop culture are pretty dismal. There is a lot of great Christian creativity out there, but if we’re going to limit our cultural and narrative intake to what is marketed as Christian, I am going to get very depressed, very quickly. This parallel pop culture also preserves the delusion that we really can, with relative ease, separate the cultural wheat from the chaff. I love Davey and Goliath too, but all the D&G in the world isn’t going to fill the void left by abandoning PBS, let alone Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel.
Pop-cultural narratives mingle with the biblical narrative in the formation of our identities. The biblical narrative is never going to be the only story out there—nor is the biblical narrative going to be the only narrative that defines our lives. Whether or not that ought to be the case is beside the point. The question is, then, how do the religious narratives of pop culture interact with the biblical narrative? What is our method for engaging pop culture faithfully? We need to figure out how we can embrace pop culture as a powerful and potentially positive narrative force that embodies the biblical narrative in novel ways. At the same time, we need to maintain critical distance from it so that we are able to see where the biblical narrative shows us a still more excellent way.
While it is a mistake to pit pop culture against the Bible, it is equally mistaken to think that the religious narratives of pop culture are in harmony with biblical narrative. Pop culture can greatly enhance our understanding and interpretation of Scripture—as long as we continue to understand the biblical narrative as the defining narrative—the norming norm, to use Lutheran theological parlance. If, as Christians, we regard Scripture as the norming norm of our religious thought, of our theologizing, we can use pop culture both as an exegetical tool and as a proper foil to illustrate God’s purposes.
Let’s use a pop-cultural text to illustrate the methodology I just discussed. The current Sci-Fi Channel series Battlestar Galactica draws on a number of religious narratives. The back story for the show (a “re-imagined” version of a short-lived ABC series from 1978) is that humanity created a race of robots, the Cylons, to serve it. The Cylons rebelled and attacked their human masters, leading to a devastating war that ends in stalemate and a tense peace. At the opening of the miniseries that re-launched the series, Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos) gives a speech during which he reflects on the war that he fought in as a young man.
When we fought the Cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question, why? Why are we, as a people, worth saving? We still commit murder because of greed, spite, jealousy. And we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we’ve done. Like we did with the Cylons. We decided to play God, create life. When that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn’t our fault, not really. You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore.
This is not so much a speech as it is a sermon. The questions Adama raises are at the heart of every religious tradition: Why are we here? How do we save ourselves? What do we need saving from? Who is going to save us? Why are we still a bunch of lawless jerks? And ultimately “Why are we, as a people, worth saving?”
Much of Adama’s speech resonates with biblical teachings. When he asks why humanity is worth saving, he asks a question that is raised as soon as Cain murders Abel. Even after their peace treaty with the Cylons, humans still behave like louts. The Bible provides terrible details of humanity’s continuing failures, even after God’s repeated interventions. In this sense, Adama’s speech is a powerful proclamation of the Word. The narrative of the humans and the Cylons expresses a biblical truth about humanity that needs to be heard by those familiar with the Bible as well as by those who wouldn’t be caught dead reading the Bible: humanity is a grave danger to itself and its best efforts at self-improvement usually lead to failure. We are often left without the immediacy of this insight, and begin to believe and behave as if we can save ourselves or that we don’t need saving. If all we have left is Adama’s question, “Why are we, as a people, worth saving?” our only honest response can be: “We aren’t.”
Adama’s insight about human nature is biblical and sound, but it is the Law and the Law alone. And as Paul says “the law brings wrath…” (Romans 4:15). Adama’s speech is one of despair, and it is on that note of despair that we have to stop using the speech as an exegetical aid and bring the biblical narrative’s message of hope in the gospel as the corrective response to Adama’s despair. Pop culture may interpret Scripture correctly, some of the time, but biblical interpreters must bring a proper response when a pop culture text loses its consonance with the biblical narrative. Adama gets the Law. He understands the Law, but he doesn’t understand Gospel. This is a common problem when using pop-cultural texts to interpret or proclaim the Word of God: it’s easier to find examples of the Law than the Gospel. Before he gets a chance to find a better answer to his question, the Cylons attack again. And so the television series enters once again into humanity’s quest to save itself.
We need to mine pop culture to find narratives that can once again bring the words of eternal life to the church, and to the culture, to those who are not versed in theological jargon and in the finer points of the catechism. But pop culture has its limits. Adama cannot answer his own question. The biblical response to Adama’s question is the gospel truth. Humanity is worth saving because “God so loves the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” We are worth saving because God loves us and chooses to save us. That is what Adama is missing. And this is the narrative that we need to bring to our culture.
Zachary Wilson is pastor of Spirit of Life Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.