I was recently invited to speak to a church group about pop culture and theology, using movies and television shows to explore matters of faith. In the course of our conversation, I realized that many audience members were looking for something much more directional from me, something to tell them what movies they could show others to start conversations about faith. I stressed that, while using movies and television can be fruitful ways to instigate dialogue, there is no set formula to follow for creating conversations about matters of faith and that some people won’t necessarily understand cultural texts the same.
As a child of the 1980s, I sat through more than my fair share of youth groups and Bible studies that tried – usually badly – to explain the spiritual dimension of Star Wars or Star Trek. Usually these talks were given by well-intentioned youth leaders who sort of liked whatever bit of pop culture they were talking about, but thought they’d done their job if they shoehorned a Christian message. Occasionally, it was clear that the leader didn’t really know anything about the subject, but had picked up that the youth liked it. Almost all told us what to think and didn’t encourage questions or critical engagement. But texts, like people, are nuanced and complicated. You have to be prepared for people’s reluctance or inability to see what you see. You have to respect people’s perspectives and experiences that affect their understanding of texts.
Having taught English Literature and Media Studies for over a decade, one of the first things I tell my students is that I don’t really care if they like something we’re studying. In a broad sense, sure, I’d love it students feel deeply in love with every poem, novel, play, or movie I use in class, but expecting that is not realistic. What I need students to do is move past their own feelings about the text (what Roland Barthes would call the most indolent of readerly responses) and engage the work on a deeper level. Engaging texts on a theological level requires readers to move passed a superficial emotional response (I liked this, therefore it’s good) to see into a text, to draw connections that might not be immediately obvious. It requires engaging subtext and treating the text critically.
When it comes to using popular culture as a way to talk about God or faith, the goal is to get others to engage on this more critical level. However, sometimes the people who are trying to get others to see some “deeper level” cannot see past their own readerly responses. They treat valid criticism of texts as personal, responding with knee-jerk defenses that attempt to shut down other people’s experiences.
To illustrate, I brought up an experience I had a number of years ago as an example; this is where our conversation took an interesting turn. A few years ago, I taught a course on Fictional Apologetics of C.S. Lewis, and I had one student who didn’t have any previous experience with Lewis or the Narnia series. As we started discussing A Horse and his Boy, the student looked uncomfortable. When we went around and gave our initial impressions, he hesitated but said, “I know you all seem to really like this stuff, but I found this one a bit racist.” The student, who was Christian and of Middle Eastern heritage, went on to explain how he thought Lewis’s description of the Calormen, the Orientalized people who live in a neighbouring country, play on imperialist stereotypes of Muslims and project an idea of swarthy, evil outsiders. He respectfully, but earnestly, framed his concerns through his own experiences with being stereotyped. He never suggested that the stories shouldn’t be read, or that Lewis wasn’t doing other, important thing in the stories, or that the novels have no place in our modern world; he simply outlined something he saw as problematic and wished to discuss it.
The group to whom I was telling this story almost immediately started in with the same awkward defences my students had used. Like most of my students, this group had grown up reading The Chronicles of Narnia and were not prepared to accept the troubling charge of racism against something that was so beloved: they questioned whether “culturism” (the prejudicial attitude towards a particular culture) might not be a better word to describe what Lewis is doing than the more troubling label “racism”; they pointed out that Lewis was a product of his time; they suggested that the student was being overly sensitive; and they concluded that because Lewis has one “good” Calormen character who is ultimately redeemed, such accusations are pointless. All these defences – well-meaning as they could have been – undercut the student’s experience with the text while privileging their own readings. By attempting to shut down a line of inquiry they found objectionable, this group, like the students, prioritized their own positive experiences with Lewis’s stories at the expense of someone’s actual experience.
After the group exhausted their defences and justifications, I tried to unpack the reason I used this example to illustrate my larger point about holding pop culture texts lightly. I explained how the experience in that classroom changed that way I approached the novels and, more importantly, how I presented the novels when discussing them in class. Simply acknowledging that stories I grew up with and cherish could be problematic to others in ways that I didn’t see allowed me to be open to students’ concerns. Despite the initial awkwardness in the class, our conversation about The Horse and His Boy was much richer because one student brought his own lived experience to the text and the class. After the unhelpful justifications, we were able to discuss a wider range of topics than I had planned or that the book on its own would suggest – things like reconciling the abuse and violence of the Church.
I don’t know if everyone in that church was prepared to hear that we cannot assume our experience with a text, any text, is more authentic or important than someone else’s. Some people kept trying to get me to provide an easy-to-follow formula. But there are no easy answers. I continue to teach the whole Chronicles of Narnia, as their importance as influential works of fiction cannot be overstated. I tell classes how much these novels meant in shaping my thoughts and imagination and how they maintain a special place for me.
But, I also teach these novels differently, given this particular student’s experience with the text. Now, whenever I use any work of popular culture to explore matters of faith, I try to model the same kind of critical thinking I expect of my students. I hold these texts lightly, always aware that some people’s experiences will allow them to see different things. Some people might be unprepared to see what I’m trying to get them to see for superficial, readerly reasons: they don’t like sci-fi or fantasy, or they can’t stand an actor. But others won’t be able to see what I want them to see because of their lived experiences. And if I’m trying to persuade them of the validity of a spiritual reading, I have to be open to their reading as well.
Michael Boyce teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is Vice President Academic and Associate professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and has been published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness, and James Bond. He attends saint benedict’s table.