There is much debate amongst theologians about the exact definition or purpose of theology, however many consider it to be concerned with seeking truth. I am going to explore whether truth can be found in popular culture, and if so, whether it should not be sought as a source for truth independently.
Lynch defines theology as “the process of seeking normative answers to questions of truth / meaning, goodness / practice, evil, suffering, redemption and beauty in specific contexts.” 1. This shows theology to be an on-going process, implying that nothing is truly original and perhaps no conclusive answers will be ever be found. Contrary to scholars such as Astley 2, Lynch’s definition allows for believers and non-believers to seek answers, and thus equally partake in the process of theology.
Lynch lists four approaches to dialogue between popular culture and theology. Firstly, the applicationist approach, where existing theological beliefs and values are applied to questions raised by popular culture. Secondly, the correlational method, where questions from popular culture are correlated to answers from theological tradition; this method allows popular culture to set the focus. Thirdly, the revised correlational method, where theology and popular culture can each ask and answer questions of each other. Lastly, the praxis model which remains as open as the revised correlational method, but critiques both theology and popular culture based on their ability to promote liberation and well-being 3.
Lynch chooses to explore the revised correlational method as it “recognizes that truth and goodness are not the sole possession of one particular religious tradition or world-view” 4. This of course seems like an appealing way to seek normative answers in a pluralistic world. There are several issues with trying to do theology that is relevant not only for different faiths but also different cultures. Although truth may not be the sole possession of any particular religious tradition or world-view (considering it to be so certainly makes inter-religious dialogue difficult), what each religious tradition or world-view considers to be truth will vary.
The issue with truth is that it ultimately comes down to subjective opinions. “For those who believe, no proof is necessary: for those who do not believe, no proof is possible.” 5. For this reason those who want to find truth in popular culture will inevitably find it, but this does not mean it is normative for all. Lynch’s definition of theology acknowledges that it is a process that occurs in “specific contexts” 6. The fact that theology occurs in different contexts means that different conclusions may be drawn; if this occurs then I personally think that the theological validity should be decided by each faith community rather than society.
Interestingly, Lynch suggests that the revised correlational method should be informed by the praxis model in order to encourage relevant theology that avoids being overly abstract 7. Personally, I can’t help but think that the praxis method is inherently biased as it places more importance on answers that promote liberation than answers that are true. Although not mutually exclusive, there are times when these aims may clash.
In modern society popular culture can influence and reflect what individuals believe to be truth. This is especially apparent in young people where popular music is “a primary, if not the primary resource” 8. There are times when popular culture can reflect theological truths, explain theological ideas more accessible way, raise questions that theology has not yet fully answered, or even be a mouthpiece that challenges theology. I think it can be beneficial for theology to be scrutinised and challenged by popular culture. Despite this, I don’t think that theology should be led primarily by pragmatism or the zeitgeist of the time (for further comment on pragmatism and the church I recommend this blog by Mark Walley 9).
Clearly theological truths can be portrayed through popular culture, often in a fresh and accessible way. However due to the ever changing nature of society and culture I think it is irresponsible to consider popular culture a primary source for theological pursuits of truth.
1 Lynch, 94
2 Astley, 2
3 Lynch, 101-104
4 ibid, 105
5 Author Unknown, cited in Pafumi, 35
6 Lynch, 94
7 ibid, 106
8 Bennett, 34
Bennett, A., Popular Music and Youth Culture: music identity and place, Palgrave, 2000.
Lynch, G., Understanding theology and popular culture, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2005.
Pafumi, G. R., Is Our Vision of God Obsolete?, Xlibris Corporation, 2010.
Walley, M., The Deceitfulness of Pragmatic Arguments, The Grove Is On Fire, 19 November 2012, < http://thegroveisonfire.com/2012/11/can-we-ditch-the-pragmatic.html> [accessed 3 December 2012]