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March 15, 2001

Looking for God in Pop Culture
William D. Romanowski
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For Calvin College professor William Romanowski (left) the question isn't whether or not Christians should interact with popular art and culture. Christians, he says, are already fully invested. They have cable TV and satellite dishes. They own VCRs and can spend more time online than in prayer.

In fact, a recent national study of Protestant pastors found that many are more likely to watch secular television programs than Christian ones. The study (by Ellison Research of Phoenix and cited in the February/March issue of NRB, the magazine of the National Religious Broadcasters) said 63% of the ministers surveyed said they watch secular television programs almost daily, while just 20% said they watched Christian channels or programs at that rate.

So, for Romanowski the question is how can Christians critically engage, evaluate and even transform popular art and culture as Christians.

It's a question that forms the basis of his new book, "Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture." The book, published by Brazos Press (a new Baker imprint) in Grand Rapids, serves as a guide for interpreting and evaluating popular culture as a Christian, a pursuit Romanowski thinks is critical.

"Christians display such a wide variety of attitudes towards popular culture," he says, "everything from unthinking condemnation to blind consumption. Others appropriate and create Christianized versions popular art forms-contemporary Christian music or movies like the one based on the Left Behind novels."

Romanowski thinks none of these approaches makes sense from a Christian point-of-view. "Each of the approaches (condemnation, appropriation and consumption) has some merit," he says, "but they tend to turn Christian criticism of the popular arts into an overly simplistic appraisal based on good or bad, right or wrong. They don't allow Christians to evaluate popular art beyond the most superficial level."

In the book Romanowski suggests a cultural landscape via which Christians can engage popular art. The basic features are:

  • God is at work in the world and an invisible spiritual realm exists
  • Believing people inhabit this landscape and faith is integral to all of life
  • Human sin is real and evil exists
  • God offers forgiveness and the possibility of redemption

He cites works that recognize these realities-everything from American Beauty and Schindler's List to Pretty Woman and Titanic. He also contrasts the Christian cultural landscape with a Hollywood worldview, which often recognizes forgiveness and redemption but does so in human terms, apart from God's grace. Hollywood, he says, is very melodramatic and sees the world in black and white. Its faith is in the goodness and triumph of human nature.

"It's what I call the Wizard of Oz syndrome," he says. "Dorothy and her friends have within themselves everything they need to secure their own destiny and salvation, and their journey helps them realize that. As Christians we realize we don't do it on our own. We need God. It's a very different way of looking at the world."

Romanowski says Christians have not learned to distinguish redemptive aspects of popular culture, determine appropriate Christian participation and develop tools for constructive criticism. So, in calling his book "Eyes Wide Open" he deliberately played off the title of the recent Stanley Kubrick film, "Eyes Wide Shut." His point is that Christians need to have their eyes open when they take in pop culture, seeing both the bad and the good that is there. He also believes Christians need to have a worldview that allows them to see, as Ephesians says, with the "eyes of their heart," meaning from the perspective of faith.

Throughout the book Romanowski calls on the heritage of the Reformed faith, which compelled him as a college student and eventually drew him to Calvin's faculty. "Culture is a gift from God," he says, "as well as a religious duty and obligation; we are to delight in and care for the creation." He takes issue with Christians who draw lines between religious and non-religious aspects of life, an action that ultimately confines faith to the personal and private.

He also takes a hard look at who the "Christian" audience really is in a chapter entitled "Christians Who Drink Beer." Romanowski concludes that the Christian audience isn't nearly as large or hungry for family fare as some might like to believe. "Christians," he says, "are promoting a marketplace strategy that does not reflect the realities of the marketplace."

"Eyes Wide Open" suggests a different kind of Christian approach to popular art and culture that religious leaders, media critics and people working in Hollywood already have found appealing. Ralph Winter, producer of The X-Men, says he "loved the broad perspective of Eyes Wide Open, especially as a Christian working in the film business." Barry Landis, a VP for Atlantic Records calls the book "Thought provoking and true." And Brenda Bos, who works in TV, says "As a Christian in Hollywood this book revitalized and legitimized my 'calling' in the entertainment industry."

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Contact Phil de Haan.