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Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture

Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture

by William D. Romanowski
Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture

Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture

by William D. Romanowski

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Grounded in Christian principles, this accessible and engaging book offers an informed and fascinating approach to popular culture. William D. Romanowski provides affectionate yet astute analysis of familiar, well-loved movies and television characters from Indiana Jones to Homer Simpson, and he speaks with historical depth and expertise on films from Casablanca to Crash and music from Bruce Springsteen to U2.

Romanowski's confessional approach affirms a role for popular culture in faithful living. Practical, analytical approaches to content, meaning, and artistic style offer the tools to participate responsibly and imaginatively in popular cultural activities. An engaging read, this new edition introduces students and thoughtful readers to popular culture--one of the most influential forces in contemporary society.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781441200808
Publisher: Baker Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/01/2007
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

William D. Romanowski (PhD, Bowling Green State University) is professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College and is a widely respected speaker on subjects dealing with American culture and the entertainment industry. He is the author of Reforming Hollywood and Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life, and coauthor of Risky Business: Rock in Film.
William D. Romanowski (PhD, Bowling Green State University) is Arthur H. DeKruyter Chair in Communication at Calvin College and speaks frequently on subjects dealing with American culture and the entertainment industry. He is the widely respected author of a number of books, including the award-winning Reforming Hollywood and Eyes Wide Open.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Legions of Christian consumers who claim to want uplifting dramas about missionaries may, in reality, prefer to watch Friends, Disney, MTV and the Atlanta Braves with everyone else.
Terry Mattingly, Scripps Howard News Service

Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas wrote a story in 1999 about a South Carolina movie exhibitor who decided to stop showing R-rated movies at his theater and offer only family-oriented pictures. Within a month, however, ticket sales dropped from 2,000 to 1,200. During the holiday season, when families usually turn out for Hollywood spectacles, profits were off 50 percent in November and 32 percent in December. The exhibitor became "rather cynical" and booked R-rated films again: "You can't make people want something they don't want," he concluded.

    The owner of a major Hollywood studio reached the same conclusion as early as 1916. He polled theater owners and reported that "instead of finding that 95 per cent favored clean pictures, I discovered at least half, and maybe 60 per cent, want the pictures to be 'risque.'... They found their patrons were more willing to pay money to see an off-color than a decent one." Religious reformers in the first half of this century would not have been the least bit surprised. They believed that human nature is sinful, so people will always demand the explicit and sensational. And they reasoned that if mass entertainers were to be profitable, they would have to cater to the public's desire for the lurid andsalacious.

    Beginning in the 1980s, however, Christian reformers began to assert the opposite of their historical counterparts—they said the majority of people want clean and decent entertainment. (The South Carolina movie exhibitor apparently believed them, at least for a while.) The problem, according to these critics, is that the entertainment industry lost touch with the hopes and attitudes of this "family values" audience. An increase in family-oriented programming, they maintain, will send profits up and controversial elements like profanity, sex, and violence down and out. Moreover, citing surveys showing that a majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians, they argue for popular art that reflects "the biblical perspective shared by most Americans."

    To explain the strategy behind Christian music's crossover into the mainstream market, a Word Records executive in 1984 cited statistics showing that just under half of all Americans were in some way involved in church, roughly 100 million people at that time. But only 10 percent shopped at Christian book and record stores, where most Christian recordings were sold. "That means we still have a huge untapped market in that 90 million," he said. "It is for all intents and purposes a secular market that's not going to be offended by our message. That's where our next thrust is going to be." The crossover projects of artists like Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, and others are designed to appeal to that broader Christian community—not the unsaved listeners of Billboard's Top 200 Albums. Two decades later, industry insiders are still trying to make inroads with the churchgoing audience.

    Right from the start, contemporary Christian music was included in the programming on the family-friendly network PAX TV. "We're really going after a mainstream audience [so we can] introduce the rest of the TV world to contemporary Christian music," a network executive said. According to one report, founder Lowell "Bud" Paxson's decision to establish an alternative to "the 'violence, sex and obscenity' on network television," was a result of his Christian faith. "I don't think we're here to replace the church," he explained, but evangelism is still a driving force. The greatest challenge for Christian broadcasters, he said, is "Getting the message of Jesus Christ and the Bible, God's Word, to these people—the churched and unchurched—in such a fashion that it gets ratings." By all appearances, PAX TV is counting on the large population of people who claim to be Christians to tune in for family-oriented syndicated shows like Touched by an Angel; Christy; I'll Fly Away; Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman; Diagnosis Murder; Promised Land; and Highway to Heaven.

    Likewise, family-friendly film critic Ted Baehr wants to clean up Hollywood by persuading studio executives to market to "the vast majority of moral Americans." Baehr points out that "all the research I've seen confirms that Christian families watch movies just as much as unchurched families." And noting a 1991 poll showing that "86.5 percent of all Americans are believing Christians and another 2.5 percent are Jewish," he writes, "it is financially prudent for Hollywood executives to understand and target this vast audience if they want to survive and prosper."

    The Dove Foundation, a nonprofit, pro-family group, employs the same rationale. Dove President Dick Rolfe petitions Hollywood for more "wholesome family entertainment" based on the existence of "the huge untapped market of consumers who want exciting movies, but without explicit portrayals of sex, violence and profanity." Even if Hollywood is making more family-oriented films, he contends, "it will take years to get the supply anywhere near the demand."

    For these and other entrepreneurs, that "untapped market," that "vast audience" of Christians is the winning ticket—a huge audience not only for Christian and family-friendly popular art and criticism but also for advertisers and merchandisers. In a typical week, around one-quarter of all adults has some contact with Christian media through television, radio, books, or magazines. (Of course, some individuals considered The Paul Harvey Report and Rush Limbaugh—Live! to be Christian radio programs.) But so far, media experts have been largely unable to successfully exploit that market. Producers have not been able to galvanize the family audience into a consistent and driving force in film or television. The vast majority of people in the United States who claim to be Christians listen to very little contemporary Christian music. This must be frustrating for Christian media critics whose stern warnings against "secular" productions are apparently ignored.

    Baehr's Movieguide, for example, gave the blockbuster film Titanic an "Extreme Caution" rating and concluded:

While everyone can enjoy the beauty of the set and appreciate the tragedy, moral Americans may be offended at the foul language, brief upper female nudity, implied fornication, and some scary scenes. On the other hand, families protect families, a Christian church service is held and a priest recites prayers and the Bible. Titanic is not for children, but those who are not offended by the foul language, nudity and fornication may be moved by this tragic tale.

   Obviously there are some people who value this kind of criticism. One reader "found it offensive" that a film reviewer for a Christian magazine would promote Titanic, "a movie he admits has nudity and strong language," and there are others who think that immoral elements nullify the overall value of a film. "We can find a few movies that perhaps have some positive values but those are negated by throwing in partial nudity, sexual references, and profanity," Bill Johnson of the Michigan American Family Association said. "True Christians don't want the negatives, regardless of how small the amount." However, considering Titanic's record-shattering box-office performance worldwide, there must be an incredible number of people (including "moral Americans" and even "true Christians") who, despite warnings about offensive elements, were not disturbed enough to stay away.

    Then who is this "vast audience" of Christians who show up in survey after survey? What bearing does their Christian faith have on their lives and, in particular, their understanding of popular art and culture? And why have "Christian" productions been able to do no more than scratch the surface of this potential audience?


    Survey after survey shows that most Americans are religious, and that among the religious, most see themselves as Christians. But the same surveys reveal a wide range of opinions about what it means to be a Christian. Sixty-seven percent of the adult population in the United States—that's two out of every three adults—say they have made a "personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today." But only 41 percent of these same people say they are "absolutely committed," while another 44 percent say they are "moderately committed" to the faith. Moreover, only one-third of the adult public identifies themselves as a "born-again Christian"; two-thirds of all Americans had no idea what the term "evangelical" means.

    Americans swear by the Bible; over 80 percent believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. But apparently they don't read it. Only twenty percent of Americans have read the whole Bible, 17 percent read it daily, and nearly 50 percent of those surveyed rarely or never read the Bible. Fifty-nine percent said they didn't have time, and 40 percent said the Bible was too hard to understand. Americans believe in the power of prayer (82 percent), but 53 percent agree that "all people pray to the same god or spirit, no matter what name they use for that spiritual being."

    What about the Great Commission, the command Jesus gave to his followers to "make disciples of the nations"? Eighty-four percent of adults "could not even hazard a guess" as to what the term meant. And John 3:16? Sixty-three percent of the population had no clue what it refers to, and only half of those who said they were born-again Christians knew it as a verse from the Bible addressing salvation.

    Nevertheless, 81 percent of Americans believe in the existence of heaven and 61 percent think that is where they will go immediately after death (another 15 percent said purgatory). Sixty-three percent believe in hell, but only 1 percent believe that will be their final destination. No surprise there. When asked, "Which of the following do you believe are in heaven?" along with angels and Saint Peter, 43 percent said harps, and 36 percent halos. All things considered, it is easy to see why George Gallup Jr. concludes, "The stark fact is, most Americans don't know what they believe or why."


    Based on extensive polling, George Barna identifies seven faith groups in America. The four Christian categories are:

  1. Biblical Christianity: full acceptance of the authority of the Bible, total trust in Christ for salvation, involvement in evangelism, active participation in the life of a church, desire for intense spiritual development, life informed by faith principles, moral absolutes exist.
  2. Conventional Christianity: total trust in Christ for salvation, involvement in church life, appreciation for the Bible, general privatization of faith, life only vaguely influenced by faith views, morality is relative.
  3. Cultural Christianity: universalism and works-based theology, nominal church involvement ("Christmas Christians"), nonpracticing, Christian in name and (perhaps) heritage only, morality is relative.
  4. New Age Practitioner: faith as a private matter, religious principles from variety of sources, no centralized religious authority, deity intermingled with self, more focused upon religious consciousness than religious practice.

    Within the first two categories at least, there is a sizeable, if somewhat nebulous, group composed of evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics, who are more or less affirming of contemporary culture. Earlier generations might have rejected many of the values and practices of the dominant culture. Today, however, drinking, dancing, movies, popular music, and television are commonplace, even among evangelicals, who "are becoming more like their fellow Americans in their comfort with popular culture," as one scholar observes. I've heard that one Christian entertainment executive calls them "Christians who drink beer."

    That they generally accept established practices and standards in society puts them, to one degree or another, in harmony with the prevalent cultural attitudes and values. Like most Americans, they tend to privatize their faith, confining religion to family and local congregation, while conducting their affairs in business, politics, education, social life, and the arts much like everyone else. While they may work hard (and even in excess), they do so primarily for personal gain and fulfillment and probably do not think very much about their vocation as a calling from God. They tend variously to value personal spirituality over organized religion, individual over ecclesiastical authority, and to be tolerant of other faiths.

    These Christians know the joys, the trials, and the temptations of life; they are not immune to problems, and their lives are not free from tensions and struggles. A level of uncertainty colors their world, which is propelled by continual change, new technologies, an increasingly global economy, and shifting political ideologies. They search for meaning—to be certain about how to live and to understand why things happen as they do—and the popular arts help them navigate through life. These Christians do not think of pleasure, passion, and personal gratification as sinful, but value leisure and do not disapprove of entertainment. According to a 1993 survey, over 80 percent of those evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Roman Catholics who attend church almost weekly or more also go to the movies. If they are parents, they want to establish and maintain good media viewing habits for themselves and their children. They have some concern about the effect the media might be having on families and society.

    In sum, these Christians are not hostile to the mainstream culture, but are familiar enough with it to recognize Christianized versions for what they are—sanitized and usually inferior imitations, so most Christian popular art has limited appeal among this group. VeggieTales might entertain their children, and they probably listen to some contemporary Christian music and spot evangelical programs while channel surfing, but Christian productions represent a small part of their pop-culture diet.

    This has puzzled Christian record executives for some time now. As one put it, "Why is our served market so small in proportion to the number of Christians?" There was speculation for a time that it was inferior production quality, a lack of exposure for the music, or poor and limited distribution, but the industry has largely overcome these problems and is still only reaching a small percentage of people who profess to be Christians. A Christian record executive once admitted, "Even if the music product measures up on so many levels—creatively, artistically, commercially—there's still the spiritual dimension, and sometimes at least, our Christian agenda continues to be an obstacle." Mainstream record executives have told Christian bands that their explicit Christian content limits their crossover success.

    Some will argue that many people don't listen to Christian music because they are hostile to hearing about God, but even those who make a claim to the faith are not avid listeners. There is a more persuasive explanation. If you listen to most contemporary Christian music, you would think that all Christians do is worship and evangelize; of course, if you listen to Top 40 radio, you would think that all people do is fall in and out of love. But it seems that one reason why so many Christians pay little attention to Christian music is that they are already firm in the faith and don't need to be evangelized. They don't want to be preached at, but instead want popular music and stories that are fun and entertaining, artistically good and sometimes innovative, but that are also concerned with addressing the issues of life with artistic flair. And wouldn't it be great if there were popular artworks that were stylistically innovative, thematically interesting, and that brought a Christian perspective to bear on important issues? But since they don't find much of that at Christian book and record stores, they shop at the mainstream outlets. In this sense, they are like what one observer of British culture called the "post-evangelical," in that they "look at culture more positively and testify to feeling more stimulation—even spiritual stimulation—from 'secular' sources than they do from sources within the evangelical subculture." If you talk with Christian young people, for example, you will find that in many thoughtful ways they are truly inspired by non-Christian recording artists like the Dave Matthews Band and Counting Crows. Clearly the music these groups produce captures a sense of religious longing and daily struggle that resonates with young believers. Likewise, it is not surprising that the gritty issues of life raised in popular films like Good Will Hunting or The Matrix speak meaningfully to many devoted Christians.


    There is little doubt that despite the admonishment of ministers and media critics, Christians consume their share of mainstream popular culture. They go to movies (even R-rated ones), rent videos (even the director's cut), watch Must See TV, and purchase CDS that top the Billboard charts. Considering all the warnings we get about the potential dangers of the popular arts, if Christians are not going to completely abstain, then you might think they would want to be "as shrewd as snakes" in discerning today's entertainment.

    But people apparently are often willing to pay for what they disapprove of. For example, in one survey, three-fourths of single Christian adults thought "movies containing vulgarities, explicit sex, nudity, and antibiblical messages had an adverse effect on their moral and spiritual condition," but at least half of these same people approved of films that included these very ingredients. People might share attitudes about the popular arts—that television is having a negative effect on individuals and society, that most movies aren't worth the price of the popcorn, that pop singers and Hollywood celebrities have too much influence with young people—but these attitudes do not necessarily reflect their behavior. These same people still go to the movies, have more than one television set in their homes, and purchase videos and CDS.

    I think there are two issues at work here. Despite fears and warnings about the potential dangers of the entertainment media, most people believe that they are personally immune. Other people might be negatively affected, but they are not. Those who are convinced that the "worldly amusements" do indeed threaten their own moral and spiritual purity usually avoid mainstream productions as much as possible and limit themselves to Christianized versions.

    Also, like most people, Christians generally think of the popular arts as entertainment, downtime after a long day, or a social activity to be enjoyed with friends. They don't think too much about the films and videos they watch or the music they listen to. When it comes to movies and television shows, a lot of people don't get much beyond a thumbs-up, thumbs-down approach. The old American Bandstand standard—"It's got a good beat and you can dance to it"—suffices for determining musical quality.

    I have met many Christians who told me that they don't really know how to discuss a movie or television show very deeply or talk about the latest CD. They think theft faith should matter when it comes to popular art, but in the absence of distinctly Christian critical tools, they simply defer to vague personal tastes and preferences. People like or dislike particular movies, concerts, or TV shows, but are not always sure why and sometimes even seem to feel guilty about their enjoyment. As we would expect, many people are uncertain about what they are experiencing and what effect it might be having.

    There is no doubt that the popular arts have some kind of effect. But what is the nature of that effect? The persuasive power of the popular arts comes from their roles and capacities as art. As representations of life, the popular arts can influence behavior, shape attitudes and opinions, and inform perspectives.

    Social science research shows that whatever impact the popular arts have is not universal but particular to individuals and, in some sense, communities, and is mediated by a host of variables. We might have very different reactions to popular artworks based on age, personal temperament, viewing skills, gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, family and neighborhood, education, community standards, political perspective, or social and economic status.

     Also, it is not an isolated movie, song, or television program that has an effect on viewers. It is the cumulative effect of viewing the world portrayed in the popular arts that has the power to persuade—over time and with the influence of many, many films, TV shows, and CDS. This leads us to one of the most frequently debated questions about popular art: Does the entertainment media reflect or shape society?

    To argue that popular art reflects society is to oversimplify what is really a complex process. Popular artworks are a reflection of society insofar as they address contemporary issues and treat them in ways consistent with current perspectives, but the popular arts are never merely a reflection. In the course of representing or portraying our lives and culture, the popular arts popularize and glamorize the ideals, values, attitudes, and beliefs that exist within our culture. In this way, the popular arts contribute to the power of culture to shape lives. The popular arts reflect a culture they help to create.

    It is important, then, for Christians to be able to understand and critique the dominant worldview in the mainstream popular arts. One way we can make progress in this is by establishing communities capable of discernment and active interpretation. Scholars call such a community an interpretive community. An interpretive community is made up of a group of people—friends, teachers, pastors, church members, reviewers who write for publications or websites, and others who share a common vision for engaging popular art. We read in Proverbs, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Prov. 27:17). This kind of community can mitigate the influence of the popular arts by helping people learn how to recognize and evaluate the perspectives they encounter. It can also demonstrate that the popular audience is actually structured into different taste groups that represent various worldviews and different strategies for interpreting popular art.

    Before we can get into the ins and outs of popular art, we have to consider the relationship between faith and culture. This issue is as central to a Christian approach to popular art as it can be contentious and confusing. In Clueless, a movie about high-school life, Chef (Alicia Silverstone) is asked, "What's a Monet?" She responds: "It's like a painting, see? From far away, it's OK, but up close, it's a big old mess." Trying to understand the dynamics of faith, worldview, and culture can be a lot like that—the closer you get, the more it seems to be a big old mess. Nevertheless, a perspective, that vision of life an individual or interpretative community holds, is fashioned through a complex process involving faith, culture, and worldview. Ideas about culture not only set parameters for Christian involvement but also shape the character of "Christian" popular art and criticism and determine what the legitimate roles are for popular art to serve. Insofar as all popular artworks are embedded in cultural perspectives, the distinct features of a Christian perspective provide a standpoint and framework for interpretation, reflection, and criticism.

    How do we go about cultivating Christian interpretive communities? We begin by understanding that the whole world—and all that is true and beautiful in it—belongs to God.

Darwin's God
Evolution and the Problem of Evil

By Cornelius G. Hunter

Brazos Press
A Division of Baker Book House Co

Copyright © 2001 Cornelius G. Hunter. All rights reserved.

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