The Church and Pop Culture Lecture 2

Church and Pop Culture, Lecture 2: Social Rituals

Developing a Christian Worldview in a Pagan Nation
Ethics 111 – 3 Credit Hours

1994, Jefferis Kent Peterson
Lecture 2

(Licenses to use and distribute this course in other educational facilities are available.)

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Model Of / Model For

We are going to look at our definition of culture from another angle. To help us evaluate whether a part of pop culture is transmitting a non-Christian set of values and beliefs to us, we need to take a look at our culture’s symbols and rituals.


Clifford Geertz, a sociologist, defines culture as: “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols . . . (which) communicate, perpetuate, and develop (our) knowledge about, and attitudes toward, life.”

For Christians, the cup and the bread are symbols which communicate a definite understanding of the world and reaffirm our basic belief in the meaning of life. These symbols are so powerful, that all a minister needs to do is to break bread in front of the congregation, and every adult would understand what he is doing even if he doesn’t say anything. For Americans, the Flag – Old Glory – is a symbol which speaks directly to the heart of most of us. It stands for identity as a nation and for our belief in freedom.

Geertz, says that these “Cultural symbols have a double function; first of all, cultural symbols” are models of the existing social life, its thoughts, ideas, philosophy, its world view. And secondly, cultural symbols become models for the future development of society.

For example, when the last plague caused the death of the firstborn children of Pharaoh and of the Egyptians, the angel of death spared the first born children of the Hebrews because they put the blood of a lamb outside their door. The angel of death passed over their houses. And because of the Lord’s grace to them they established the celebration of Passover. Now, for those people, Passover was a model of something that was happening to them and to their society. But the Lord commanded the children of Israel to celebrate the Passover yearly, so that they could teach their children about God’s mighty deeds on their behalf (Exodus 12; especially vs. 26-27.). And even to this day, every practicing Jew identifies himself with the history of his people, especially with the Exodus and the deliverance of the Jews as the chosen people of God. In this way, the Passover celebration is a model for the future of the community and for its identity as a people.

In just the same way, the U. S. Constitution was a model of the social life of the 18 Century. It was based upon the individualism and rationalism of the Enlightenment philosophy. It expressed a concept of property that allowed individuals to divide up and own land (whereas the American Indians believed that the Earth all belonged to the Great Spirit and that no one had the right to own it). But the Constitution has also become a model for the development of our society and has shaped our present behavior and attitudes. We still hold the same concept of property and believe that a legitimate government can only be instituted through the consent of the governed, (even though for thousands of years, people believed that rulers were divinely ordained, whether the people liked it or not).

Every cultural symbol and pop cultural symbol will also have this double function of modeling existing behavior and of being a model for future behavior.

The Super bowl for instance is a

Model of competition, winning through force and violence, endurance, and of a Darwinian world view of survival of the fittest – it models American values and patterns by which we live.

It is also a

Model for behavior: by participating in the ritual of Super bowl – watching the game on TV, putting our hand over our heart at the raising of the flag, singing the national anthem, etc. – our beliefs and values are being reinforced. We are participating in and affirming the value of competition and of being #1, the best in the whole world!


Rituals are those patterns of behavior by which a social group acts out its values and reinforces its worldview. Rituals are models of and models for a culture. Two elements of ritual are (1) ritual action and (2) ritual myth (story).

1] Ritual action is any pattern of action which is repeated (such as watching the Nightly News, saying grace before meals, or going to church).

i) Ritual action uses two things as symbols:

a) symbolic objects (such as the flag or the Cup)

b) symbolic actions (genuflecting, making the sign of the cross, placing hand over heart)

ii) Ritual actions point to and are drawn from basic elements of human life: water, food, fire, marriage, birth, death, killing, offering, sacrifice, etc.

2] Ritual Myth ( “myth” is a technical term in sociology, which means that a particular story told and retold has a deep meaning which gives identity to a group of people or a culture. It does not mean that the story is not true, as in the phrase, “its just a myth.” The purpose of the term is to describe the stories that form the identity of a particular people or group):

i) tells the story behind the action. (“On the night in which he was betrayed, he took bread and broke it, saying . . .” the words explain the meaning of the actions.)

ii) the story contains the values, commitments and the beliefs of the group. ( The story of the Pilgrims coming to America to practice freedom of religion and their story of survival with the help of the Indians and the First Thanksgiving, is a story which contains much of the American Identity and Value system.)

Of the two, ritual action and ritual myth or story, the action is the most basic and is usually found in many cultures. Many cultures have washing ceremonies – bathing, baptism – what makes it specific is the story behind the action which gives it meaning to the local group. In the Thanksgiving Story, we repeat the ritual action (the Celebration every forth Thursday of November) and we retell the story (ritual myth) which helps define our unique cultural identity as a nation. Obviously, for Native Americans, the story has quite a different meaning.


In order for us to determine whether a piece of pop culture is hindering or helping the church, we need decide whether it is communicating a set of moral values or a world view which is in conflict with the church. In other words, does the pop cultural item have RELIGIOUS SIGNIFICANCE?

First, we must determine whether the pop cultural item uses ritual. Does a particular set of actions always accompany the pop cultural item? For example, in the Super Bowl, we see actions that are repeated, without which the game would not be complete: flag raising, singing of the national anthem, there are always two teams and only two teams in opposition.

“Unless the actual use of a piece of pop culture involves this ritual aspect, we need not look further for any religious meaning.” because there is no story being told.

Second, if the item or event involves ritual, what is the mythic story associated with the ritual action?

Every religion attempts to establish a story which reveals the truth about the world. In order to establish this world view, the religion must address basic human needs and understandings:

Every community, as it faces the world, is threatened by death, meaninglessness, and disorder. Every religion tries to answer this threat by giving order and meaning to life through the use of its ritual action and story. Ritual action uses symbols, such as the flag or the Eucharistic Cup, to present us with a particular view of the world. That particular view of the world is supposed to bring us a sense of comfort and meaning as we face life’s trials or when we face threats to the life of community. As we rehearse the story through ritual actions, we are incorporated into the story of the group. The story of the particular group becomes our own story. For the Jews who rehearse the story of the Exodus every year at Passover, the story of the Exodus becomes their story. Even though they were not actually there, by participating in the ritual and by claiming the history of the group as their own, they derive their identity as part of the Jewish people. When persecution comes to them as a people, they can look back to their ancestors and identify their sufferings in Egypt. It may not make the persecution less painful, but it does give meaning to their identity as a hated minority. They are persecuted by the world because they are loved by God.

As Americans, we participate in the same rituals which give us an identity as a people: the reenactment of the 4th of July celebration, with the fireworks and the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner,” and the rehearsal of the story of our struggle for independence incorporates each of us into the American heritage. I don’t know about you, but most of my ancestors did not come over until after the Revolution, but I know that Revolutionary War and the struggle for independence is my story too. I am an American, and proud of my heritage. For every American, the story is the same. For Christians, we come to share the same beliefs about life through the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. His story has become our own.

Every year, during the Super Bowl, the sports commentators rehearse the story of the history of Super Bowls, from number 1 to – -. The importance of this national event cannot be fully understood unless we are aware of the history. Before there was a Super Bowl, there was not best team in the nation. There was no WORLD CHAMPION. The importance of the Super Bowl only hits home, when we realize that this is the clash between the two best teams, only one of which will win and ultimately be the world champion.

The Super Bowl has become the High Holy Day of American Civil Religion. Everyone watches the Super Bowl. It is watched by millions of people at home, and almost 1/2 billion world wide. The streets are silent, businesses come to a halt, and even crime almost completely disappears during those 4 fateful hours, especially if it is the team’s home town. Not only is it a sporting event, but the Military are always there with a color guard; thus the nation acknowledges the supreme importance of the event by honoring it with its military services. The President must make his obligatory call to the winning team. And for many people, the Super Bowl is more important than the Presidential Elections. I remember when Carter was running for reelection against Reagan, and he was trying to look good, by associating himself with the winning team. So he went into the winner’s locker room after the game, and no one was paying any attention to him. No one wanted to talk to him. No one really cared – after all he was only the president, THIS WAS THE SUPER BOWL!

So in order to interpret a piece of pop culture from a religious point of view, there are 5 questions we need to ask:

1) What is the pattern of actions which are invariably repeated? (Ritual actions: hand over heart, tossing the coin, etc.) If these actions were not repeated, we would feel like it was incomplete.

2) What are the ritual symbols? The physical objects and gestures?

3) What basic aspects of human existence are addressed? In football, for example: competition, being #1, winning vs. being defeated.

4) What is the story or explanation of this action? The story of previous Super Bowls, and how the even got started.

5) What is this ritual say with its symbols and actions about the meaning of life? What do the rituals and symbols affirm or express? How do they transmit the identity of the group as it faces the ultimate threats of death, disorder and meaninglessness.

Assignment: Take a particular aspect of pop or contemporary culture, analyze it and identify these 5 elements of ritual religion. Briefly comment on it from the perspective of the questions raised in number 5.

Nelson: pp. 111-162 (chps. 5 &6).

TV: pp. 33 -86.

Myers: 53- 102.

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