Conference: The Christian Evasion of Popular Culture

Back when Neal DeRoo was writing up his response to Jamie Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation, 2nd ed., he mentioned he was organizing a conference on popular culture. Some of the speakers, he said, would be familar with readers of churchandpomo. The topic, to say the least, is of great interest to many of us. So we invited him to send us a write-up on the conference when it was just around the corner so we could support his efforts and get the word out. Check out the following from our friend Neal:

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“Culture” is an amorphous, vague thing that is next to impossible to pin-down. It is only slightly better than a child’s sense of “they”: “But mom, if I do that, they will laugh at me.” Similarly, Christians tend to make a lot of our decisions based on what “culture” will do: “This culture is going to hell in a hand basket and that’s why God is punishing it” or “We have to do this to keep the Church relevant to our culture.” Both the idea that the Church can avoid culture, can hide from it somehow, and the seemingly opposite idea that the Church must engage with culture share a common problem: in both cases, Christians assume a certain distance between the Church and this thing called ‘culture.’

But the Church is not distinct from culture. It is thoroughly infused with cultural products, artifacts and institutions. The Church, any church, requires human interaction, and therefore requires using the products of previous human interactions: language, customs (as simple as a hand-shake or a smile as a greeting and as complex as guidelines for institutional decision-making), reference points (we’ve got to talk about something), and so on. As Christians, we should not call for the Church to engage culture, but rather to engage culture better, which means, in part, to be more self-aware of the ways in which it has always already been engaged by culture, by what Michel de Certeau calls the “practices of everyday life.”

While we tend to think of “popular culture” as referring only to the entertainment industry (films, TV, music, video games, and so on), it more accurately refers to all those cultural elements that are popular because they shape the lives of so many people. While TV shows or movies may be a part of that shaping, formative process, so, too, are our customs regarding food (what we eat, how we eat it, and how we produce it), fashion (what we actually wear, not just what some guy in France thinks we ought [or haute?] to wear), and functionality (what technology does for us, what it doesn’t do, and how we decide on that). As Christians whose lives are thoroughly enculturated, we have not avoided culture so much as we have evaded dealing with it directly and purposively.

In response, from November 1-3, 2012, Dordt College, with support from the Andreas Center for Reformed Scholarship and Service (ACRoSS), is hosting a conference entitled The Christian Evasion of Popular Culture that will feature panels on topics ranging from food to fashion to philosophy. The conference will also host an art show, a concert by the band kindlewood, and keynote addresses from Peter Rollins, Tony Jones, Elaine Storkey, and our own Jason Lief (who some of you might be familiar with from his contributions to the blog The 12). I hope you will forgive the shameless plug, but I think many of you who read this blog will be interested both in what we’ll talk about at this conference, and with some of our interlocutors (especially Peter Rollins and Tony Jones). I just want to invite you all to join us for this event, and encourage you to spread the word to anyone else who might be interested. Please visit the website or contact myself (neal.deroo@dordt.edu) or Jason Lief (Jason.lief@dordt.edu) for more information.