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Jeff Rioux

Conference on Engaging Popular Culture

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I am planning a conference for Nov 11-12 on what a thoughtful engagement of popular culture can look like. Understanding context will help understand why I'm planning this, and what form I hope it takes.

I work at a Christian college that has changed its philosophy of student activities. Before I took this position, only CCM artists were invited to perform concerts and films were chosen with the help of a moralistic family guide that gave us a film series appropriate for kids aged 8 and under. We now try to engage the best that popular music and film has to offer, and have hosted concerts by Wilco, Nickel Creek, Bob Dylan and others and have a film series with more artistic merit and depth, appropriate for a college age audience. This change has not been received well by some students and alumni. My hope is that this conference can create a campus conversation around these issues.

I'm looking for feedback on all aspects of the conference: title, theme, suggested topics for workshops, format. Here are the details:

Title

I don't have a title yet. Suggestions? I was thinking of something recognizable from a song or a film that gets at the tension (or the need for reconciliation) between the church and popular art. Or it could be something generic about popular culture, faith, mind, God, etc.

Description

This conference will explore a mature Christian engagement with the popular arts. The theme of the conference is

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This sounds great. Are you able to say which college is hosting this forum?

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For now I'm chipping in with "Good Luck!"

I will hopefully be able to contribute a little more once I've churned the matter over somewhat.

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I've always found it fascinating that our Christian colleges are called "Liberal Arts" when they often aren't either liberal or arts-friendly. I have a friend who is president of one of our colleges who speaks of the "liberating arts." I have no idea if that is original or everybody in the Christian college realm now speaks that way.

Anyway, since you want to use popular culture allusions, I would suggest something like these to prime your pump:

War with the World?

Mr. and Mrs. Christian

Charlie and the Christian Educational Factory

Harry Potter

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I'm guessing this is Messiah.

Yes. I'm not sure why I was vague about that.

War with the World?

This has potential as a subtitle for a more generic title, I think. Something like "Christianity and Popular Culture: War with the World?" Maybe. I don't know how much I want to emphasize the tension versus emphasizing the need for reconciliation.

Of course, NOW Jeff tells me there might be a hostile audience...

Oh, did I forget to mention that? wink.gif

I hope the hostile part of the crowd shows up, but its hard to market in a way to make it sound appealing to them. There are students who understand what we are doing at Messiah, and they'll be there. There are also students who love what we are doing, but don't understand it. They are not necessarily being thoughtful about it, but they like it because its more similar to the music they listen to and films they watch.

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Jeff,

My favorite of my suggestions is actually "Revenge of the Myth." If we want to get honest about what is forming our culture it is more the cinematic myths than the biblical teachings. My 20-somethings in the congregation lit up when I began my sermon on the mustard seed last Sunday with the picture of Will Smith holding his first little finger-weapon - which had the recoil of a large powerful weapon.

I know the college types might jump on the scholastic meaning of myth

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If we're talking about Christians stuck in the subculture:

Christians and Culture: The Infernal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I have a question? Why are we encouraging POP culture? It's like trying to get starving folks to try McDonald's.

If Christians hate pop culture, GREAT! Their hate is in the right place, just for the wrong reasons.

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I have a question?  Why are we encouraging POP culture? It's like trying to get starving folks to try McDonald's.

There are several answers to this question:

1. We don't have to encourage pop culture - they are already soaking in it. The conference is trying to help them do something they already do, but to do it more critically and thoughtfully. We couldn't avoid pop culture if we wanted to (just like we couldn't stop eating forever just because we want to), so I interpret my role to be to help students who will participate in culture which is produced for a mass audience to choose wisely (ie, if you have to eat quickly, pack a lunch or choose Subway over McDonald's).

2. If the question is why pop culture instead of high culture, that answer is simply that that is not my role. The faculty of our School of the Arts (who I respect very much) do this in their courses (and gen ed requires everyone to take at least one) and in their other programming (lectures, theater performances, gallery shows, etc). I think there is a lot of overlap in the issues facing Christians and the arts and Christians and the popular arts, so I've included members of the arts faculty in my brainstorming and planning for the conference. For example, Ted Prescott, a sculptor and member of our faculty, has an essay in a book called "It Was Good" dealing with identity, how Christians who are artists have identities in two subcultures which often conflict in their expectations, their definitions of beauty, etc. This does not only speak to the experience of the artist, but of the participant, I think. I had hoped he could lead a workshop on this topic, but he'll be out of town.

3. If the question is why POP culture (with the worst connotations for "POP" that one could conjure in their mind: Britney Spears, Armageddon, Fear Factor), the answer is that we are not encouraging that. But you may be pointing to a problem. Does the term "popular culture" (I try to avoid "pop culture") communicate to many people that kind of stuff (Britney, etc)? I use popular culture to refer to music, film, television, advertising, magazines, comic books (I know that it also refers to sports, fashion, the internet, but I don't talk about those things). By popular art, I mean art made for a mass audience, as in popular music and film. But what I want is for students to be excited about quality popular culture, which I hope a conference like this can encourage. But are these terms distratcting?

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I would have thought as well that the role of engaging popular culture is largely the same as engaging with "the world". It's about meeting people where they're at, and seeing what the existing values of teh majority compare with the gospel and a biblical worldview I would have thought.

Sounds like a great onference. Oh for a private jet...

Matt

P.S Dan - Infernal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is genius (envy, envy, envy)

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Jeff Tweedy has confirmed - he will be performing at the conference on November 12. Glenn Kotche, the drummer for Wilco, will be opening (and joining Jeff for the encores). The early word is that Jeff won't do the conversation because he doesn't do things like that on the days of shows, but I will try a few more times before I give up.

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One suggestion: have you considered adding a session or two by one or more good, general cultural historians? Hopefully there's someone available who is better than the TV "talking heads" whose erudition is as shallow as a mud puddle.

It's all too easy to get culture-bound, and unable to see the real reasons behind trends and problems, whereas a thorough grounding in, say, nineteenth-century pop culture makes at least some of it that much easier due to a somewhat different perspective (see e. g. CS Lewis's essay on reading old books). Otherwise you can end up like a mackerel trying to deal with the concept of salt; it's assumed along with the rest of the environment, so it goes unnoticed. I can bore you with numerous examples, but hopefully you get the idea already.

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One suggestion: have you considered adding a session or two by one or more good, general cultural historians?  Hopefully there's someone available who is better than the TV "talking heads" whose erudition is as shallow as a mud puddle.

It's all too easy to get culture-bound, and unable to see the real reasons behind trends and problems, whereas a thorough grounding in, say, nineteenth-century pop culture makes at least some of it that much easier due to a somewhat different perspective (see e. g. CS Lewis's essay on reading old books).  Otherwise you can end up like a mackerel trying to deal with the concept of salt; it's assumed along with the rest of the environment, so it goes unnoticed.  I can bore you with numerous examples, but hopefully you get the idea already.

My problem with the "cultural historian" approach is that it suggests a dispassionate, analytical approach that makes me want to take a nap.

Don't get me wrong. As Christians we do need to think critically about popular culture. Obviously we cannot unthinkingly accept whatever the world throws at us. But I want to leave room for joy, and I'm not sure where that fits in the cultural historian's taxonomy. I want to leave room for being surprised, shocked, challenged, deeply moved, and grieved by art, for becoming a less self-centered person, for becoming more thoroughly engaged with those around me. Art can do all those things. That cannot be quantified, and it doesn't fit neatly on the Schaefferian aesthetic grid (Good Art/Good Message, Good Art/Bad Message, Bad Art/Good Message, Bad Art/Bad Message). I don't want to pin down and label art, or understand it in its 19th century context. I want it to explode within human hearts, and I want people to believe that this is God-ordained, not something to be feared, but something to be welcomed and embraced --something like grace.

Dan Buck asked earlier in this thread if a conference on popular culture wasn't inherently misguided (I'm paraphrasing here; my apologies if I've misrepresented you, Dan). I'm assuming that his intent is that we should instead be directing students to "high art," the accepted canon of painting, music, film (if that isn't too much of a modern phenomenon) etc. that has stood the test of time and entered the pantheon of unassailable greatness. My response is, "Fine, do that too." Those works are considered great for very good reasons. But I would also say that it would be unfortunate at best, tragic at worst, to minimize or underestimate the impact of popular culture from a spiritual standpoint. Sure, there's crap. Sure, there's popular material out there that can lead people astray, that can influence them to make bad choices, to believe lies, etc. But, in my case, there is also Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Van Morrison, Dylan, Sigur Ros, Sufjan Stevens. And hundreds of others. My point is not to create a new canon, the next generation of "high art." My list will look different from everyone else's, and not because I'm a relativist, but because I'm a unique human being, as is everyone else. They're products of popular culture, one and all. But they've enriched my life in amazing ways, helped me understand love and the loss of love, the longing for community, for relationship, death, what it means to be a child, what it means to be a parent, and a hundred other real-life issues I face as a Christian. And that's what I hope students at this conference will embrace. If a cultural historian wants to talk about that, then I'd be interested and I'd manage to stay awake.

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I have to name this thing for a copy deadline, and I am still not comfortable. I'm thinking of going with:

Faith and Popular Culture: War with the World?

Here's what I like about it:

-suggests tension, but the question mark also asks is this appropriate, which the conference answers with a big "no!"

-plays off of the film's title

-first part is simple, can be used in future years

-I like "Faith" better than "Christianity" or "Church" - I don't like the word "Christianity" and though I like "Church" better, it is often misinterpreted ("I hate Church" vs "I am the Church")

What do you think?

I also could like something more like one word or a phrase that earned a reputation for being a quality thing. Cornerstone, Greenbelt, Glen Workshop. These titles are not very descriptive, but we know they are good because of their reputation. But that makes it hard to market at first, no? Thoughts? Suggestions?

Somewhat related, but not really: Crystal Downing is a professor of literature and film at Messiah, and she is leading a workshop on the film War of the Worlds. The film will be shown that weekend at Messiah. In her workshop, she'll be talking about adaptation from novel to cinema, and what a remake can tell us about our society, values, etc. Don't know if that has any effect on the appeal of the use of "War with the World?" The workshop won't be dealing with that question (war with the world?), so it pretty unrelated, I think.

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Jeff,

I know you've debated this through the thread and not trying to reopen that discussion. But just from a literary perspective I don't like the modifier of "popular." I also agree that the question mark makes the title so you might want to emphasize it. I would suggest it: "FAITH AND CULTURE: War with the World??

Denny

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By the way Jeff, I never responded, but I thought your responses were adequate and assuaged my concerns about the direction of the conference. I wish you well. (Not that you needed my blessing) smile.gif As for title, I agree with Denny that you REALLY need to hit that question part hard, or those that will be the most interested in your offerings will have a knee-jerk reaction. The two question marks might work.

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How about:

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Pop Culture

Or forget the movie title thing altogether

Christians in Pop Culture: Worldly or Wise?

Or

What Would Jesus Netflix?

or

If God had cable...

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Jeff,

Finally got around to reading this thread, and I'm groping around on the floor to find my jaw and reattach it to my head.

Your plan sounds fantastic. Wow. Wish I could be there. The Tweedy love-in would be enough to have me checking my calendar and my available travel budget, but the rest sounds good too. I wish you the very best. Keep posting the details as they come together. I'll want to help you get the word out.

Something is happening on Christian college and university campuses. Ten years ago, I couldn't show a clip from Jesus of Nazareth without causing a ruckus. And last week, I showed Three Colors: Blue in its entirety, strip-club scene and all, and I haven't received a single complaint. In fact, the response was enthusiastic, and the post-screening discussion was full of small epiphanies. Aslan is on the move.

The Other Jeff

Edited by Jeffrey Overstreet

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My problem with the "cultural historian" approach is that it suggests a dispassionate, analytical approach that makes me want to take a nap.

Don't get me wrong. As Christians we do need to think critically about popular culture. Obviously we cannot unthinkingly accept whatever the world throws at us. But I want to leave room for joy, and I'm not sure where that fits in the cultural historian's taxonomy. I want to leave room for being surprised, shocked, challenged, deeply moved, and grieved by art, for becoming a less self-centered person, for becoming more thoroughly engaged with those around me. Art can do all those things. That cannot be quantified, and it doesn't fit neatly on the Schaefferian aesthetic grid (Good Art/Good Message, Good Art/Bad Message, Bad Art/Good Message, Bad Art/Bad Message). I don't want to pin down and label art, or understand it in its 19th century context. I want it to explode within human hearts, and I want people to believe that this is God-ordained, not something to be feared, but something to be welcomed and embraced --something like grace.

This begs the question of what we are trying to accomplish here. Are we trying to engage the culture, or the "popular" part of it, in the service of the Gospel? Or are we like the hippies in the lightbulb joke, hoping merely to "hang out and groove on the experience"? If the former, than we had better learn cultural analysis, however soporific we think that it is. Otherwise we'll make the mistakes that so many of the "mainline" churches make when they try to be "relevant", namely doing things which might have made them sort of hip ten years before, but only look dated and silly when they try them. If the latter, we may as well pack it in and get to Greenbelt, where they have been doing it well for many years.

Regarding nineteenth-century context: evidently I made the reference too obscure. You may want to look up Lewis's essay for a better presentation. In fact the idea was to attempt to analyze our culture's set of presuppositions and assumptions by comparing it with a familiar culture with a different set, and taking note of the differences. It might then be somewhat easier to target our efforts, rather than "drawing a bow at a venture" and hoping we hit something.

But I would also say that it would be unfortunate at best, tragic at worst, to minimize or underestimate the impact of popular culture from a spiritual standpoint. Sure, there's crap. Sure, there's popular material out there that can lead people astray, that can influence them to make bad choices, to believe lies, etc.

Precisely; that's why we need to analyze it, to find out what has influence, and which doesn't; and to put it to work. Most popular culture, like most advertising, is rubbish; it is nonetheless very influential - as a body of work, in its social context - for all its wretched quality. If we won't even try to understand, among other things, why and how this is so then we are likely to expend a great deal of effort to no benefit.

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This begs the question of what we are trying to accomplish here.  Are we trying to engage the culture, or the "popular" part of it, in the service of the Gospel?  Or are we like the hippies in the lightbulb joke, hoping merely to "hang out and groove on the experience"?  If the former, than we had better learn cultural analysis, however soporific we think that it is. Otherwise we'll make the mistakes that so many of the "mainline" churches make when they try to be "relevant", namely doing things which might have made them sort of hip ten years before, but only look dated and silly when they try them. If the latter, we may as well pack it in and get to Greenbelt, where they have been doing it well for many years.

I'm thinking in print here. I haven't fully resolved these issues, and I appreciate your comments. But permit me to disagree somewhat. Let me respond in terms of popular music, the area of popular culture with which I am most familiar.

At the risk of coming across as a hippie grooving on the experience, I think the cultural analysis has already been done to death. And I think it still largely misses the point. Maybe it's just me, but after reading Schaeffer, Van Til, Rookmaaker, and a whole host of L'Abri thinkers for decades, I think I get the point. I understand presuppositional analysis (I'm not sure it really helps much in a post-modern world, but that's a different issue; I do understand it). I understand the whole Schaefferian approach to the arts, and I'm thankful for it, because as a young Christian I was taught to think in precisely the ways you're describing, and it gave me a worldview that acknowledged the possibility that Christians could actively engage in the arts. There's certainly value there; I don't dispute that. But I also find that those ideas don't translate very well to popular music. The paradigm is wrong. It doesn't fit reality.

Want to play presuppositional analysis on The Ramones? Okay, let's start with the immortal lyrics "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" Hmm, not much there. We could move on to the verses (They

Edited by Andy Whitman

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The problem with art is that it does not exist outside of the culture in which it exists. I would suggest that our response to art depends at least on what we bring to it as it does on what it brings to us; and that is determined largely by our cultural environment. That in turn has a lot of factors going into its makeup. No doubt lots of people on this board can slice and dice this a lot better than I can, but it's rather obvious, at least to me, that if we're going to reach those influenced by popular culture we have to have some idea where the audience is coming from, and how we're going to reach them. Marketing is something that we learn in business school, and it can be very useful. To market, however, you have to understand the target market, as well as the product, to determine how they fit.

Much of popular culture is rubbish. It's always been that way. But I find that most thinking people aren't particularly interested in discussing it anyway. It is intentionally disposable, and I have no problem ignoring it. Apparently, neither do others. Perhaps that's why there aren't lengthy threads on the latest albums from Ashley Simpson or Clay Aiken on Arts and Faith. I would also say that I find hundreds of albums every year that are not rubbish, that to varying degrees contribute meaningfully to my life. And I would rather talk about that.

But rubbish is enormously influential. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that the trash on TV, radio, in print, or in the movies, or in advertising, is not. Trash is consumed in vast quantities, as a time-waster, if nothing else - the commuters on the T reading trashy novels or magazines, or listening to the latest pop drivel, show us that by their vast numbers - and like any form of propaganda, if it's repeated often enough to be half-remembered it can slip in under the defenses. In addition, better material often fails to gain an audience simply because the initial audience is too small to pay off against the market for rubbish. It's like Christian rock in the Albany NY area; it doesn't play on the secular stations because it's "preachy", and it doesn't play on the Christian stations because it's rock, and nobody else can afford to play it to whatever market it has. So it has essentially no influence at all there. One of the sorts of questions we ought to be asking is, how do we do something about this situation?

It is possible, in this conference, to focus on the dire state of popular culture, to track the historical ebb of Christian thinking as reflected in the arts, to note the hedonistic and relativistic trends that dominate in the popular media. And I'm sure you could show those things through a comparison of 21st century culture and 19th century culture. But I don't think you'd be doing anything particularly revelatory. I think most people -- certainly most students at a Christian college -- already understand these things.

I wish that I could take as hopeful a view of the analytical abilities of our up-and-coming students as you do. Unfortunately long experience of dealing with everybody from history profs down to bright high-school students has given me the impression that whle some of them can figure things out, all too many of them are clueless. Besides, it isn't the obvious trends which are the problem here; it's the changes in the presuppositions behind the trends which make the difference, and my observations of Christian analysis have convinced me that Christians in general are even more clueless than their secular counterparts. Hedonism and relativism have roots in other parts of the culture; they didn't simply spring up, and they are fed by subtrends and presuppositions which we would do well to study. I can give examples, but anyone reading this is probably already bored to tears, so I'll save them for later.

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I agree with Alan that "popular culture" is the correct term for your copy, Jeff. It accurately describes the spheres of culture up for discussion at the conference: contemporary music, contemporary film, etcetera. I'm not usually a fan of puns like "War with the World?" and remain skeptical of this one, but I don't have a better suggestion, either. I think you are right to want to establish a topical name for the conference that will have longevity as a "brand," but am uncertain how to accomplish that. (My dad's advertising-agent genes didn't make the leap to me, evidently!)

Phidippus, I hope you can understand that at a conference like this, the influence of popular culture (for better or, often, worse) is certainly under intense scrutiny and consideration. I work in a similar capacity as Jeff at another Christian college, and in workshops with students, we always try to use the music that students listen to already, which is usually crap. But we are not there merely to evangelize them about listening to better-quality music (although we do try to encourage that in other, more holistic ways)--we want to honor the fact that they find something to love in this music, even if it's Ashlee Simpson, and then we want to teach them how to listen more critically and discerningly. I'm not kidding when I say I have done workshops on the music of Clay Aiken and MercyMe, and the point was not to berate students for listening to crap, but to help them evaluate the culture in which they are immersed, one song at a time. Often, the result of such an education is that students slowly abandon the super-saturated, heavily-marketed music for what we would consider more substantial music (which, if I may refer to Mr. Whitman's fine treatise, includes "Blitzkrieg Bop" along with their modern equivalents).

Jeff, I'm looking forward to this conference so much--and it's great to hear that people like Andy and Alan will be there, too! Hurrah!

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The conference website is now up, and we are taking registrations.

www.messiah.edu/popular_culture

It was thrown together and just went up, so if you see anything that looks rough or could use editing, let me know. Suggestions and criticism are welcome.

As are registrations! Since I last posted, we've had more people confirm. With the Jeff Tweedy concert on Saturday night, Glenn Kotche, Wilco's drummer, will be opening. On Friday night, we've added a concert that will have both Sarah Masen playing, as well as Sam Ashworth (son of Charlie Peacock) with Matt Slocum (of Sixpence). David Dark will be presenting a workshop.

We're going to have a whole lot of fun. Don't you dare miss it!

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