And the Word Went Viral: Finding God at the intersection of Scripture and popular media
Near the end of the final book in the hugely popular Harry Potter series, the fantasy novel’s eponymous wizard hero willingly walks toward his arch foe, Lord Voldemort. Harry knows that this meeting very likely is going to bring about his own death, but he is bolstered in this lonely and terrify- ing journey by the presence of loved ones who have gone before him. Many Christian readers have found this story of the battle between good and evil, of the loving self-sacrifice of one for the salvation of many to be profoundly resonant with the Gospel. At the same time, many religious people have condemned the books for popularizing dark magic and the occult. Which is it—and why should readers care?
Human beings are a story-telling people. We know who we are through our stories: those we tell ourselves, those we tell each other, those that are told about us. Our relationship with God is no different, and the stories of Scripture draw us into deeper communion with our creator and help us to see ourselves as God’s beloved children. But so, too, can the stories shared through popular media. Books like those in the Harry Potter series remind us of truths that Christians confess, even though no fictional character could possibly serve as a stand-in for Jesus. How is this possible? And in what other ways does the Word come alive in popular media?
To answer these questions it is crucial to keep in mind that the Word is not only the divinely inspired text of the Bible; it is also, first and foremost, Jesus Christ, the eternal Word. In thinking about the ways in which we encounter Christ the living Word in popular media, we are encouraged by the knowledge that God already has promised to be with us there. There is no place where God cannot be, where God does not want to meet us; God is present even—perhaps especially—in the stuff of everyday, ordinary life.
“Popular culture” is an ocean awash in various kinds of media, too many to count, let alone name. It includes films, of course, and television, radio and books. But with the pro-liferation of online platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, stories now can be found anywhere and everywhere, with ever-increasing layers of meaning as music, image and movement are added to narratives.
Popular media can bring stories alive in ways that are quite different from reading a biblical text. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” for example, had a profound effect on many Christian viewers in part because of the way the film depicted the violence and brutality of crucifixion. Was such a depiction accurate? There is no easy way to answer that question, but many people—especially those Christians rarely exposed to torture and execution—experienced that film as bringing to life in new ways elements of the paschal mystery. Similarly, the Hollywood blockbuster “Noah,” even when sticking closely to the familiar biblical text of Genesis, struck many people as being an entirely new story, because its visual imagery and music drew attention to aspects of the story they previously had overlooked.
At the same time, Scripture holds unique storytelling resources that popular media lack. Popular media almost exclusively tell stories that follow a basic pattern of possess- ing a clear beginning, middle and end. On the rare occasions when they veer from this pattern, they may be heavily criticized. Many fans of HBO’s “The Sopranos,” for example, felt betrayed by the series finale, which cut off abruptly to a blank screen and left a bewildered audience wondering whether or not the main character survived.
Scripture, on the other hand, tells that most fundamental story of God’s presence breaking into our world, disrupting our taken-for-granted histories and embodying for us the “already but not yet” of God’s reign. This story is constantly revealed to us in new ways and may not follow a tidy narrative arc or lay to rest all our doubts and questions. But when read with the eyes of faith, Scripture offers us hope in the deepest meaning of that word, a hope that in fact our story has no end and is always unfolding into life, even beyond our passage through death.
The Word in the Modern World
While screen adaptations are particularly good at infusing the Bible with new emotion and resonance, popular media do not need to follow a strict biblical script to bring these stories into the modern age. New technologies have made various forms of media—video, audio, social—an increasingly ubiquitous part of our daily lives, while for more and more people, Scripture is conspicuously absent. What people know and think about the Bible today is just as likely to come from popular culture references as from the book itself. How the Word is represented and how it appears in popular media can tell us a great deal about how the good news is being spread and received in the 21st century.
Several such appearances can be found in “The Simpsons.” Over the television show’s 25 seasons, the Bible has been portrayed as a rulebook, a token of final judgment, a mechanism of wish fulfillment, a source of humor and an important literary work. Many of these representations are deeply problematic. But no matter how controversial or irreverent the image, the underlying portrayal of the Bible as something that is both present in daily life and that has authority and power actually is very helpful. Because the Bible is included in the show in an ongoing, normalized way, the Word becomes real in that fictional, animated world and thus relevant in the larger cultural landscape in which “The Simpsons” operates.
In one of my favorite episodes, Lisa Simpson stands up in the middle of a church that has been rebuilt to resemble a movie theater and confronts the pastor. He tells her that the church’s message is the same, they have simply “dressed it up a bit,” to which Lisa responds: “Like the whore of Babylon?” The entire episode is very funny, but if you catch the multiple biblical references (“money changers in the temple,” “Godcam,” “pouting Thomas”) it is also a sharp critique of the consumerism to be found in many Christian settings. Someone soaked in popular culture might be used to television series making fun of religion, but in this case a central character on the show uses biblical language to critique the very consumerism that television often promotes.
Even when biblical language is not explicitly seen or heard, the Word can be felt in stories that reveal compelling insights into being human. In every genre of music there are songs that evoke deep human longing and desire, heartache and brokenness, joy and consolation—evocations that draw us beyond ourselves and invite a recognition of transcendence. Bruce Springsteen’s album “ The Rising,” created in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, became a powerful prayer for many people. One of his most recent songs, “ This is Your Sword,” speaks of the coming “days of miracles,” and repeats the Gospel-infused refrain: “Well this is your sword, this is your shield/ This is the power of love revealed/ Carry it with you wherever you go/ And give all the love that you have in your soul.”
The Word is there, and the challenge is to recognize it even when God is evoked but not named. A simple and strikingly resonant practice much loved in youth ministry is to interpret a popular love song through the lens of God as love, the beloved or the lover. This way of hearing God in the words we use to describe our everyday relationships and deep longing for human connection has been part of Christian tradition since its beginning. Indeed, the Ignatian practice of reviewing one’s day in terms of desolation and consolation is often accompanied for me, personally, by snippets of songs that waft through my head.
Similarly, elements of popular culture—popular for the times, at least—appear throughout Scripture. The creation and flood stories in Genesis unfold in ways that parallel other ancient Near Eastern stories. Think of the parables Jesus told: oral stories full of images and characters from daily life. Or consider the stories of Acts—imprisonments, shipwrecks, daring escapes—that were also recurring elements in many Greek tales popular at the time the evangelists were writing. Much of what we know about the Bible historically grew out of comparing how its texts are similar to and different from popular myths and motifs that circulated in specific periods.
While the art of letter writing has been all but lost in this age of texting and email, handwritten correspondence was the social media of the first century. The letters from St. Paul can help us to see something important about Facebook and other forms of online interaction. Paul’s letters can be a difficult place to begin reading the Bible, but when read in the context of what we know about the communities he visited and the travels of the disciples, the apostle’s words spring to life with new meaning. Likewise, simply scrolling through Facebook posts, reading statuses and comments without any context, is an exercise in banality. But within the richness of the relationships found there, we see that these daily tidbits embody and can help sustain family and friendship—just as the epistles of the New Testament nurtured early Christian communities.
Create, Share, Believe
Finally, considering how popular media and Scripture interact requires us to recognize the ways our stories weave among one another, interpenetrate and elide, move in both elusiveness and illusion. We hide from ourselves; we hide from each other; we hide from God. But we also create, and in our creating long to share, and through our sharing come to believe. This “create, share, believe” circle of knowing God is particularly evident in participatory digital media. YouTube and Vimeo, Vine and Instagram, Pinterest, Storify and many more such digital tools make it possible for each of us, in the midst of our everyday lives, to draw from our experiences those moments that move us—a beautiful sunset, an inspiring speech, a touching quote—and to share them. In the sharing, social media make it not only possible but likely that we will contest and critique and create anew.
One widely shared example of this process is Jefferson Bethke’s spoken word piece “ Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”—a four-minute production posted on YouTube that spawned literally hundreds of similar pieces in response. The video was a thoroughly local production, but when such media strike a nerve, they can quickly become global— as this one did—giving new meaning to the term glocal and posing all kinds of challenges through context collapse. When media produced in one very specific context float on the sea of digital culture and wash up on very different shores not imagined by the producers, such context collapse can prompt an experience that is both deeply human and profoundly freeing. Or, paradoxically, such media can at times become a catalyst for the public performance of hatred, as a survey of any website’s comments section will quickly discover.
In the case of Mr. Bethke’s video, which has been viewed more than 27 million times, there was for a brief moment an international conversation that unfolded across multiple media as to the role of religious institutions in personal faith. Much of the outpouring happened because people found the video compelling but disagreed deeply with several of its assertions. There were videos made from a Catholic perspective taking to task Mr. Bethke’s ecclesiology, and from a Muslim perspective asking why he felt he had to uphold a nonrational faith and so on.
There is, of course, no example of context collapse around a story that is more powerful than that of Scripture. The Word entered human form in a very specific time and place and yet in doing so broke open all of time and space. Our very human attempts to make sense of the Word come crashing down on the shoals of our finitude. Engaging Scripture can be a profoundly freeing and hope-filled experience. But we also know, from painful experience, that Scripture has been read, heard and taught in terrifyingly oppressive ways. Encountering the Word in the midst of popular media always occurs in the midst of this paradox.
Perhaps keeping in mind some of the ways in which Scripture and popular media interact will point us more often towards hope and creativity, and help us to avoid using Scripture destructively. When we accept that the Word is not bound by any book or time but speaks through the stories and channels of modern life, new horizons of faith and communion can open up. To return to our original question, what if reading Harry Potter became an opportunity to “feel our way” into what sacrificial love can mean, for instance, rather than an occasion to draw sharp boundaries around Christian identity? Or what if we allowed ourselves to risk being transformed by the stories of Scripture, which offer critiques of the complacent lack of neighborly love too often found in social media? What if we could see and hear in the midst of viral videos something of the beloved community into which God is calling us? It is at those moments that we can meet Jesus Christ; in those spaces the Word can come alive, in the very heart of popular media.