By: John Vest
In my Ed Talk at the 2016 APCE Annual Event in Chicago, I showed a clip from the original Star Wars movie and the trailer for the newest film, The Force Awakens. I used these clips to illustrate my point that faith formation and spiritual growth are grounded in experience. (You can see these clips and what I do with them in this post on my blog: “The Spiritual Evolution of Han Solo.”)
Almost all of my presentations, lectures, youth talks, and sermons incorporate some kind of pop culture reference. The examples that I choose—mostly drawn from movies, television shows, pop music, and comic books—say something about the kinds of cultural texts I turn to for entertainment and inspiration. Almost every teacher and preacher I know has their own canon of classic or pop culture sources that they draw from on a regular basis.
I use pop culture in my teaching and preaching because these cultural texts provide accessible and often well-known illustrations and examples of the themes or ideas I’m working with. But there is also something theological happening in these pop cultural references.
In the 1980s a group of theologians at Yale Divinity School—most notably George Lindbeck and Hans Frei—developed a theological approach that came to be known as postliberalism. Drawing heavily on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, these postliberal theologians understood Christianity as a narrative tradition with its own internal language, vocabulary, grammar, and practices. Christian faith should be shared and explained primarily from within its own internal logic without the need to constantly translate Christianity according to the terms of modern or postmodern discourse. Among Presbyterians, the late William Placher was an exemplary teacher in this theological tradition.
In many respects, postliberalism was a reaction to the theological approach of two prominent scholars at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Paul Tillich and David Tracy. Tillich, who ended his career in Chicago, developed a correlational approach to theology: questions were drawn from culture—Tillich was especially interested in existential philosophy—and answers were sought in the Bible and theology. Years later, Tracy expanded this approach into a critical correlational method in which cultural questions and faith traditions engage each other in a mutually critical dialectic.
Perhaps it is because I received my ministry training at the University of Chicago, but I’ve always been more interested in the Chicago school of correlational theology than the Yale school of postliberalism. While I value narrative approaches to biblical teaching and preaching, I’m also constantly mindful of the reality that we live in a post-Enlightenment and post-Christendom culture. As numerous studies—and our own experience—tell us, more and more of the people we minister to and with simply do not know the stories of the Bible or even the most basic contours of the Christian story. If we choose to ground our teaching and preaching exclusively in the internal language of Christianity, an increasingly large portion of the population simply won’t understand what we’re talking about. In today’s North American context, educating children, youth, and adults in the particular language of Christianity is better understood as a secondary endeavor.
Our first task is inviting people into the now-foreign narrative and spiritual worldview of Christianity. To do this, I believe we need to rely on the correlational approach of Tillich and Tracy. As we (re)introduce faith to our post-Christendom friends and neighbors, the first step is raising up the pressing questions of our time. Analyzing pop culture is the best way to do this. To be sure, some elements of pop culture are nothing but mindless entertainment—bread and circuses or the opiate of the masses. Yet I would argue that more often than not movies, television shows, and pop music reveal the themes, issues, and existential questions that most concern people today. Correlational theology begins by teasing out these cultural questions and then turns to the Bible and theology for relevant and compelling answers—or at least more spiritual questions.
The best example of this in the Bible itself is Paul’s speech to the Athenians on Mars Hill as told in Acts 17:16–34. While he begins his preaching in the synagogues among Jews and Gentile God-worshippers, Paul soon encounters a culture that is unfamiliar with the Jewish roots of the new Christian movement. So he begins his gospel presentation by observing the city’s many idols, taking particular interest in the shrine “to an unknown God.” From there he shares the biblical story of redemption in Jesus, though he does it in a way very different from elsewhere in Acts or in his letters. He never once mentions a biblical name or quotes a biblical passage. He doesn’t even talk about Jesus by name. In fact, the only source he quotes is one of the Greeks’ own poets. Yet he shares the gospel as passionately and authentically as he does anywhere else in the New Testament. Most importantly, he does it in a way that the Athenians are actually able to hear and understand.
This is why I think it is so important to draw on pop culture in our teaching and preaching. We need to begin where people are and speak in language they can understand. Then, once they have accepted our invitation to consider the world through the vision and way of Jesus, we can dig in and train them in the language and practices of Christianity.
After fifteen years of ministry in the Chicago metropolitan area, most recently as the Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church, John W. Vest currently serves as the Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He holds degrees from Rice University (B.A.), the University of Chicago Divinity School (M.Div.), and McCormick Theological Seminary (D.Min.), and has studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Information about his various ministry projects can be found at johnvest.com. An enthusiastic pitmaster, John dreams of one day achieving the mystical union of church and BBQ.