By Alix Beeston
ADM’s 2017 Visiting Fellow explores pop culture’s obsession with religion. Growing up in a conservative Christian family in the United States, Alissa Wilkinson hardly ever watched television or went to the movies. But now, working as a cultural critic at Vox and Associate Professor at The King’s College in New York City, that’s exactly how she spends her days. And she’s more convinced than ever that popular culture deserves the serious attention of Christians in contemporary society. “I was drawn to this work mostly because I began spending time around Christians who were faithful makers of art and culture — writers, actors, filmmakers, painters,” Alissa recalls. “They helped to show me that making good art and thinking well about it is an essential part of bearing God’s image in the world.”
Not only that, but telling stories and making art can be ways that people work through the deepest questions of human existence: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What’s wrong with the world, and who can fix it? These questions, Alissa points out, are the same ones that religion seeks to answer. “TV shows and films don’t always engage those questions through explicitly religious means. It’s often more implicit, a kind of searching, a wrestling with what our purpose is or what our relationship is, as finite beings, with the transcendent.” Alissa has seen this searching and wrestling become a stronger and stronger impulse in pop culture. “For a long time, religion was peripheral to the stories on our screens (with notable exceptions such as 1981 Oscar winner Chariots of Fire). But now, at least in America, there is an increased openness to and interest in religious questions, which seems to coincide with the rise of religiously unaffiliated but still spiritually interested people. “People are realising that religion isn’t an optional extra, a hobby or an accessory, in people’s lives — but is, instead, a vital and fundamental part of who we are as humans,” explains Alissa. “Now religion is everywhere, whether in TV shows like Rectify or in films like Silence. Even raunchy comedies like Sausage Party are dealing with explicitly religious questions. They might not always address them in ways that some Christians are comfortable with, but they aren’t ignoring religion anymore. And often the answers they come up with are surprisingly nuanced and complex.”
Alissa’s openness to watching and writing about films like Sausage Party— a computer-animated film notorious for its innuendo, profanity, and drug use — does make some Christians uncomfortable. But for her, there’s real value in engaging with works of art that reflect points of view we don’t personally agree with — even when we find those perspectives troubling or confronting. “There can be a tremendous amount of fear among Christians, when I think the right attitude is to see these things as a welcome challenge and a way that we can love our neighbours.”In fact, pop culture can help us to learn how to live well in a society that is fractured along the fault lines of belief, class, race, gender, and politics. “One of the strongest trends in recent television and film is a frank treatment of what it means for people who are part of a religious community and people who aren’t to live side by side — and whether this is even possible,” says Alissa. “This is a live question in America right now, particularly with the revelation that white evangelicals voted very differently in the 2016 presidential election from black, Hispanic, and Asian Christians, let alone those who are Muslim or Jewish or not affiliated with any faith.”
Art, as Christian thinkers from Francis Schaeffer to Daniel Siedell have argued, doesn’t have to teach us anything in order to be good art. Actually, when art tries to teach us things, it can often fail to be any good. But if there is anything Christians can learn from pop culture, according to Alissa, it’s what it’s like to live in someone else’s shoes. “When I watch a movie like No Country for Old Men, for example, I learn a lot about what it is to think about the nature of evil through a worldview that is more or less nihilistic, because this is the window onto the world often used by its directors, the Coen brothers.” “Or I can watch a movie like [2017 horror comedy] Get Out and come to understand something of how the world looks through the eyes of a black American. I’ll never be able to authoritatively know this, of course. But taking an hour and a half to get myself out of the way and just experience the story helps me grow in knowledge and, hopefully, compassion and empathy for my neighbour. This is a way of obeying Christ’s second greatest commandment.”
Alissa will be in Sydney this October as the 2017 Visiting Fellow with Anglican Deaconess Ministries. She will deliver the ADM Annual Public Lecture, “Why pop culture is obsessed with religion,” on Thursday, 12 October, at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney. Book your ticket to the ADM Annual Public Lecture or find out more about other events featuring Alissa.
Alix Beeston is a literary and film scholar with a PhD in English from the University of Sydney. She was a 2017 Senior Research Fellow at ADM, and has recently become a Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature and Film at Cardiff University, Wales.