Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Theological Engagment with Popular Culture: Surely We Can Do Better

The latest Harry Potter film hit the theaters last weekend, and it did very well financially, as throngs of Potter fans filled theaters across the country. But as with the previous films, and the books upon which they are based, a small chorus of evangelical voices have begun to complain, raising concerns of alleged evil and Witchcraft, creatively packaged as a means of desensitizing young people, opening doorways into the occult. (As an aside, I am not aware of similar concerns raised by Christians in previous generations with the magical framework and Witches in The Wizard of Oz, or the Wizard in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. It would make for a fascinating cultural study as to why the lack of concern then, but the uproar now.)

It will remain to be seen whether similar concerns will be raised with the December release of The Chronicles of Narnia. Typically, fewer evangelicals raise concerns over the magic of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, but assuming their arguments are valid in Potter contexts it would seem inconsistent not to apply it to fantasy written by Christians, but that's a big assumption. I am not encouraging critique of either of these authors. I am simply noting an inconsistency.

It is not my intention with this post to weigh in on the long-standing Potter controversy in conservative evangelical circles. Rather, I would like to make a few suggestions for how evangelicals might more positively engage popular culture.

1. Remember how stories function. One of the main arguments against Potter has been the alleged occultism and Witchcraft found in the books and movies. But before rushing to judgment it will be helpful for us to remember how stories function, whether in the form of literature or film, in drawing upon sources to tell their tales. C. S. Lewis stated that, "Within a given story any object, person, or place is neither more nor less nor other than what the story effectively shows it to be. The ingredients of one story cannot 'be' anything in another story, for they are not in it at all." (C. S. Lewis, "The Genesis of a Medieval Book," as quoted by Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide [HarperSan Francisco, 1996], 430.) With this important consideration in mind, it would seem that even if we grant that Rowling draws upon actual elements of Witchcraft and occultism in her stories, these elements take their meaning as they are defined by the author in the story, and it is a mistake to confuse them with their meanings outside the framework of the story.

2. Rethink evangelical engagement with popular culture. If one were to conduct a "person on the street" poll and ask the average person what evangelicals view positively in popular culture, I believe it would be a short list. We are known more by what we are opposed to rather than what we affirm. In response to popular culture evangelicals tend to either a) oppose it, b) ignore it, or c) create their own version of popular culture. I'd like to suggest another alternative, and that is a more positive and theologically balanced engagement with popular culture. Evangelicals whine and wring their hands over the success of things like Harry Potter, but whose fault is that? Where are the evangelicals incorporating creativity with their spirituality in our generation like Lewis and Tolkien did for previous generations? And we desperately need evangelicals with academic training in culture (including popular culture) and theology that integrates these disciplines in order to develop a practical theology for creative cultural engagement in the West in the twenty-first century.

As our culture continues to explore its fascination with story, image, and cinema, evangelical critiques of the type frequently directed at Harry Potter will exacerbate our increasing estrangement from popular culture. Let's rethink this thing and not dig our hole any deeper.

1 comment:

fairyhedgehog said...

How very sensible. I hope you will be listened to.