Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Theology and Popular Culture

One of my favorite series of books is the Popular Culture and Philosophy series put out by Open Court Press.  It contains volumes on The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All; Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts; James Bond and Philosophy: Questions are Forever; Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale; The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh! of Homer; Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box; and, Ben Myers will be glad to know there is even a volume on Bob Dylan and Philosophy: It’s All Right, Ma, I’m Only Thinkin.’  There are many other volumes and more planned.  The contributors include well-known Christian philosophers, but not only Christians.  Philosophy often involves very difficult concepts and illustrating them through popular culture (as Socrates/Plato used allegories and even Jesus told parables) can be a great way of helping convey these ideas.  But I think the series is important for more than pedagogical reasons. It’s also helpful to think critically about culture, not just “high brow” culture, but popular culture–in praise and criticism.

I could wish that there were a similar series (as well done) for Theology and Popular Culture.  Some isolated books exist, but nothing like this series in breadth and quality and outright fun, although Baker Book House’s Engaging Culture series is a good step in the right direction.  Theology should not take its cues from culture, pop or otherwise, but it should/must interact with the various cultures in which it finds itself.  Too often preachers and theologians have either jumped on a cultural bandwagon or given a knee-jerk condemnation.  (I think it’s ironic, for instance, that in the ’80s The Simpsons was regularly denounced from evangelical pulpits for Bart’s potty-mouth and other reasons, but these days evangelicals often heap it with more praise than it deserves.  It’s a TV show–out to entertain and make money. It has good and bad dimensions. But it does what good art should–and raises many of the right questions.) Critical interaction in light of the gospel is the better way to go.  Some theologians have been fairly good about this–but not enough and too few pastors have learned to use popular culture to foster theological reflection/discussion in local churches.  Here’s my vote that we work on changing this quickly.

In the meantime, check out the Popular Culture & Philosophy series.  I have learned from many of the volumes–and not only from the specifically Christian contributions. I have read about half of the volumes, and plan on getting most of them, if not all. (I’m not sure I would get as much from some volumes on movies, shows, or popular past-times like poker which I do not share or have not seen.)  But what I like best is that the series is fun and helps convey the truth that philosophy can be (should be) fun. I believe that should be even more true about theology–which participates in the joy of the gospel.

March 11, 2007 - Posted by | theology


  1. I LOVE the idea of a theology and popular culture series. Why don’t you pitch it to a few publishers–why not Open Court, for example?

    By the way, a good friend and colleague, Steve Gimbel, has a new book coming out in Open Court’s series: _The Grateful Dead & Philosophy_. He had a blast putting it together.

    Comment by Kerry | March 11, 2007

  2. Hi Michael — great post. Brazos Press has been doing some good stuff on theology and culture too.

    Comment by Ben Myers | March 14, 2007

  3. I did a series on the Simpsons in my church’s “Exploration Group” a few years ago, six weeks, six videos. Making allowances for the culture clash – I live in Wales – and after some translation and some inter-textual explanations -it made for a rollocking theological time of it. Rowan Williams, of course, is big on the Simpsons.

    I know the Open Court Press series: I’ve read the ones on the Simpsons and baseball, and almost bought the one on Monty Python last week. The essays are of variable quality, but it’s a great concept. And one on the Grateful Dead – definitely on my shopping list! Just yesterday I was telling some university students about the Dead, waxing all nostalgic about an unforgettable spring-time open-air concert they did at Wesleyan in 1970. “Never heard of them,” was the unanimous reply. Does Just War theory permit holy war on such Philistines?

    Comment by kim fabricius | March 15, 2007

  4. Never heard of the Grateful Dead? Isn’t that like never having heard of the Beatles? Yes, the essays vary in quality, but I haven’t seen a volume, yet that doesn’t have some very good chapters. I’m planning on getting the Monty Python volume soon (“nudge, nudge; think, think!”). Other volumes in the series include: Basketball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Paint; South Park and Philosophy: You Know, I Learned Something Today (Don’t think I’ll read that one); The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the Soulless; Poker and Philosophy: Pocket Rockets and Philosopher Kings; Hitchcock and Philosophy; The Beatles and Philosophy: Nothing You Can Think That Can’t Be Thunk; The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill, Therefore I Am; The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy: The Lion, The Witch and the Worldview; The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real; Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way; Star Wars and Philosophy: More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine; U-2 and Philosophy: How to Dismantle and Atomic Band; (Okay, that’s 3 rock-related volumes–time for some Jazz or Blues-related volumes!); Woody Allen and Philosophy: You Mean My Whole Fallacy is Wrong? The possibilities for this series–or a similar one on Popular Culture and Theology–are endless.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 15, 2007

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