The Church and Pop Culture 6

Church and Pop Culture, Lecture 6 Evangelism
Developing a Christian Worldview in a Pagan Nation


Ethics 111 – 3 Credit Hours
1994, Jefferis Kent Peterson
Lecture 6 & Final Paper Instructions
The Rev. Jefferis Kent Peterson


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Why Christians Have Trouble Communicating with Contemporary Culture
The tradition of Judeo-Christian morals and values which informed this culture for 200 years has been displaced in the last 35 years. Assumptions about the existence of absolute truth, God, right and wrong, were shared by the vast majority of Americans, even if there were minor disputes about what those truths were. There was a consensus of moral values which allowed a cohesive social, political, and legal policy. Disagreement was allowed and accepted within specific parameters, but beyond those accepted social and moral norms, there was the expectation of community judgment and disapproval. Homosexuality, adultery, divorce, and unwed pregnancy all brought immediate disapproval and social ostracism. The family unit and community values were upheld by the unwritten social contract: the moral consensus of the community.

Obviously, there are problems and were problems with these norms. Black Americans, Catholics, and Jews were not as easily accepted into the mainstream of cultural life. However, even among those disenfranchised groups, the moral norms of the larger culture were still believed and accepted.

In contemporary culture however that moral consensus has been broken down and there is no longer an agreement on standards of behavior or upon over-arching principles of truth supported by God. As a result of the decline of consensus, other values which were subdominant in the fabric of American life have become primary. The belief in individual freedom (and “rights”) has taken precedence over the concern for the welfare of the community. The concern for the social whole has been lost in the pursuit of self-interest. As a result, practices that were condemned previously are now applauded: divorce, adultery, fornication, etc. The pursuit of individual “happiness” has become a supreme value by which all behaviors and values are judged. Divorce is now acceptable, for example, because it furthers the pursuit of individual happiness. No thought is given to the social consequences of such a legal and moral policy: alienated and unsocialized, angry children who grow up with dysfunctional relationships, lacking affirmation, encouragement, and love; single mothers who cannot earn enough to provide for their children – which increases poverty.

The inner, moral restraints that once held society in check have been removed, and the fragile social contract that makes us one people and one nation is greatly threatened.John Adams, in his first year as vice-president under George Washington said:

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our constitution was made only for a moral a religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

The inner, moral restraint that caused people to put the welfare of family and country above self has been removed, and now the primary value is unbridled selfishness. The logical result of this change in values is the destruction of the social contract.

But even more devastating than the breakdown of moral consensus to the American culture is the change in philosophical and ethical principles that underlie the values and morals of the nation.

Because no one agrees on ultimate truth, because there is no agreement that there is a God who upholds absolute standards of good and who judges evil, there has been a breakdown of communication between Christians and non-Christians. We are not speaking the same language as the culture. We are speaking of things that were understood and accepted 50 years ago, but the people of this generation just respond, “huh?” The loss of a shared worldview makes Christians ineffective in witnessing to this generation. While the Christian still operates with traditional assumptions as to right and wrong, God, and truth, when he speaks to a non-Christian, he is often speaking a different language. Or worse, he may be using the same language, but all the words have different meanings than what he intends. Unless we come to see and understand the shift in worldviews, we will not be able to speak their language and bridge the gap.

While a Christian assumes that there is an absolute truth which must be respected, the average American believes there is no absolute truth. He believes there are many ways to god, if he believes in a god or gods. However, because there is no consensus upon who or what that god is, all beliefs are necessarily relative and lacking in final authority.

To the non-Christian, Tolerance and Pluralism are primary values. The American value placed on individual freedom becomes something very different when attached to non-Christian worldviews and norms. The Founders of the nation believed that denominational beliefs were a matter of conscience, not to be enforced upon the religious by the State or by a State religion. But under the new humanism, where all truth is relative and where no one knows or can know absolute truth, religious people must be open to and accept all interpretations, beliefs, and values as equally valid. Because there is no real or ultimate truth, all beliefs are merely personal opinions, so to get along in society, “we must be tolerant of others and their opinions.” The non-Christian has no standard by which to judge the relative and varying moral and religious claims with which he is faced. So he accepts them all by allowing everyone to have their own religion and morals. He is a “good” person, the non-Christian believes, because he is Tolerant of others. Rather than arrogantly assuming to know the truth, he knows he doesn’t, so he is willing to let everyone else have their own opinion (Pluralism – there are many truths but no ONE Truth).

As a result of this worldview, Christians are just one group among others. Sure, they have their opinion, but their claim to truth or their opinion about the truth has no more validity than any other person. But because fundamentalist Christians won’t go along in accepting Tolerance and Pluralism as supreme or ultimate “good,” in contrast to liberal in canada people, Christians appear to be narrow minded, bigoted and arrogant. Because they dare to uphold a single truth which questions the value of Tolerance as a supreme or primary good, Christians become a threat to the order of contemporary society.

But worse than rejection for our witness, we can’t get the world to agree upon a common set of values or principles by which we can discuss issues or debate what should be done in a society. Since the people cannot appeal to a common set of assumptions about good and evil, the people of this country no longer have any way of determining right and wrong. So rather than being the spokesmen for divine truth, Christians are treated as obnoxious and self important people who hold to a narrow and peculiar opinion. By far, the worst part of this disregard for the traditional moral consensus is not that Christians are considered WRONG, but that they and their opinions are considered IRRELEVANT to modern society, and so our beliefs carry no significance and can safely be ignored.

In such an environment, a Christian witness to the culture is impossible on a large scale, because it has no authority. It is for this reason that the Church’s opposition to homosexual rights and abortion is considered nothing more than an irritant: it is just the opinion of one small group of people among the many in the U.S trying to impose their personal views on everyone else. To free society from such narrow minded bigotry, these Christians need either to be trained to become more “tolerant” of others, or they should be forced into silence. But above all, they should not be allowed to affect social or political policy, for that would be imposing the will of a minority on the majority of Americans who believe Tolerance to be the only value which truly supports the American concept of freedom and liberty for all.

The problem most Christians face is that they do not realize the value structure and assumptions of those people with whom they are dealing in the world. They think they are speaking in clearly understood terms when they talk about traditional family values or about American Ideals, but they don’t realize that these concepts no longer mean the same thing as when the majority of the country upheld a Christian worldview and a common set of moral values.


Assignment: take a current issue or pop cultural value and analyze it from both a Christian perspective and a non-Christian one. Show how the values and assumptions about the particular subject differ or agree. Show especially if and when the tenets of ACR are in conflict with the tenets of Christianity.

Nelson: pp. 163-206 (chps. 7 & 8).

Hauerwas: pp. 196-229 (chps. 11 & 12)

Final Paper Due to Complete Course.

Information for use in preparation of final paper

Methodology for Religious Interpretation of Pop Culture:
Step one: Pop Culture as Ritual

The first question to ask is whether the particular pop cultural item being investigated has a ritual character. The answer this question, we must see how the pop cultural item is actually used. Do particular actions always accompany the pop event or item? In the Super Bowl, we see specific ritual features – rehearsal of the history of the contest ( Super Bowl 1 – …) always precedes the game; the American flag is always raised; the game must have a winner, there is always a gaudy half time “extravaganza,” etc.

Unless the actual use of a piece of pop culture involves this ritual aspect, we need not look further for any religious meaning, since religious meaning adheres to cultural symbols only insofar as they are involved in a ritual action.


Step Two : Pop Culture as Symbol

a. What are the unchanging patterns of the pop cultural event?

These patterns are part of the ritual aspect of the event. They will be either actions or objects, including people or groups of people, or representatives of groups of people.

These unchanging items which are part of the pop ritual are potential religious symbols. That is, somehow they help give meaning and structure to life: they refer to basic aspects of human existence like life, death, battle, sex, sacrifice, nourishment, attack, etc. In the Super Bowl game, the game serves as a symbol of competition, which is a fundamental factor of American belief systems and of our Darwinian view of the world (survival of the fittest). Remember that every cultural item is a symbol to same degree; i.e., it is a Model of existing social behavior and a Model for future social behavior.

b. What is the mythic story associated with the ritual action?

Every ritual action uses specific symbols which represent the story of the community. The “story” is a shared memory or interpretation of history which gives a sense of purpose to the contemporary community. Each Fourth of July Celebration is a “reenactment” of the story of the War for Independence from Britain, by which we became an independent nation. As we participate in the retelling of the story and the events associated with it ( like fireworks displays), that story becomes OUR story. Our identity as Americans is reaffirmed, and we identify with that shared history.

This shared story, which expresses the very identity of the community, comes to life through the ritual action. On Memorial Day, the President always makes a speech honoring the war dead, who have sacrificed so much for our country and our freedoms. He then visits the tomb of the Unknowns and places a wreath on it. The sacrifices of past heroes for our freedom and liberty become part of the cultural reaffirmation of the worthiness of our Nation. Our nation and our values are worth fighting and dying to preserve…

c. How do the ritual story and the ritual symbols point to the particular way the community is both threatened by extinction, chaos, and meaninglessness, and point to a force or power which protects them from m these three destructive forces?

In each episode of a family story (e.g.), Home Improvements, something threatens the family, whose wholeness and integrity is assumed to be absolutely essential. But by the end of the show, family harmony is always restored.


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