Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

'Simpsons,' Pop Culture and Christianity

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

'Simpsons,' Pop Culture and Christianity

Article excerpt

Sometimes insight awaits us in the least predictable places. I recently attended a party at the behest of my wife where, I was assured, me spouses of her friends and coworkers would keep me company, Naturally, I ended up as the only "significant other" present (except for the guy who lived in the house where we gathered, and he had secret places to hide). Despite my wife's best intentions, I was soon abandoned to fend for myself.

Salvation presented itself in the form of our host's 10-year-old son, who had plopped down in front of the family TV set. I sidled up to him and asked, "You into `The Simpsons'?" We connected immediately, sharing stories of our favorite episodes until it was time for that night's reruns to come on. There we sat, a balding 33-year-old and a kid not yet in junior high, bonded through our mutual immersion in "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening's fictional universe.

Reflecting on the experience later, I realized how emblematic it was of life these days. I needed a conversation-starter, a topic that would cross generational bounds and awaken interest in individuals otherwise disparate in life experience. In earlier eras, I suppose, I might have asked about the harvest or our favorite ways to propitiate the gods, but in 1990s America I went with the obvious: pop culture.

In an odd way, this reminds me of one of my favorite episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." It involves an encounter between the Enterprise and a starship from a previously unknown culture. Picard and the other ship's captain beam down to a planet where they get to know each other while battling a monster. Picard discovers that the captain's language is composed entirely of shorthand references to larger narratives -- he would say "Darmack and Jelad on Tonagra," for example, eliciting a memory that says it all to those who know the stow, and virtually nothing to those who don't.

Starting in the late 1950s (with the birth of network TV and rock-and-roll) and accelerating through the emergence of VCRs, CDs, video games and the Internet, I think we've all become a bit like that captain. We're awash in pop culture, our consciousness soaked in it. We sprinkle conversations with movie lines, references to "TV shows, song lyrics and find our kindred spirits among those who speak the same code.

When that 10-year-old's face lit up as I asked if he remembered the episode where Sideshow Bob flamed Krusty the Clown, I knew he and I were of the same tribe.

These thoughts came to me in reflecting on two books I've read in recent weeks. Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (Jossey/Bass), by Tom Beaudoin, argues that pop culture should be the touchstone for any consideration of Gen-X spirituality. Michael Budde, meanwhile, contends in The (Magic) Kingdom of God: Christianity and Global Culture Industries (Westview) that there is something profoundly unchristian about much popular entertainment, both in terms of form and content.

Both books start in the same place -- recognizing popular culture as an 800-pound gorilla of con temporary theology, an overwhelming force that Christian thinkers cannot afford to ignore.

I should say that I'm sort of a friend of Beaudoin, to the extent that a couple of lunches together and a blown promise to make it to his wedding reception count as evidence of friendship. So perhaps I can't pretend to utter objectivity, but I can say I thought his book was terrific -- illuminating and provocative, even where I found myself in dissent. …

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