Spirituality and Popular Culture

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by Vincent Miller, Ph.D

See the end of this article for a more comprehensive Study Guide.

Any discussion of spirituality and popular culture requires a detailed consideration of the nature and function of popular culture. What is popular culture? How is it “popular”? How is it “culture”?

This essay considers the changing nature of the word popular as it has been used in theological and pastoral thought. It contrasts traditional popular culture and religion with the “commercial” popular culture with which we are primarily involved today. It then analyzes commercial popular culture from three perspectives: as a set of meanings, as a formation in cultural habits of engagement and use, and as a space that encourages certain kinds of interaction and discourages others.

Common Histories

Popular culture and popular religion share a common history. Both have long been viewed with suspicion by elite culture and clerical theology. Indeed, the pursuit of the spiritual life has been very much undertaken in contrast to the questionable faith of the mass of believers.

The religion practiced by most Christians in the history of Europe was an unruly blend of surviving paganism and magical understandings of Christian rituals. Against this, both Protestant and Catholic reformations were secretly allied—aiming for a deeper Christianization of Europe.

It was only after centuries of religious reform, modernization, and industrialization eroding peasant culture and traditions that elites began to romanticize popular culture as a bearer of what was being lost in modernity. In Michel de Certeau’s words, popular culture could be revered as the “beauty of the dead” only after it had been politically defeated. Missionary practice conformed to this negative evaluation well into the twentieth century. Indigenous cultures and popular Christianity were viewed with suspicion.

Paul VI broke with these assumptions. His 1967 encyclical on development, Populorum progression, called attention to the loss of traditional cultures. His 1975 exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi called for the “evangelization of cultures” that would embrace and permeate particular cultures with the gospel, rather than being applied as a “thin veneer” that ignores the particularity of people’s lives.

In 1979 the Latin American bishops at Puebla offered a positive evaluation of popular religion as a “storehouse of values that offers the answers of Christian wisdom to the great questions of life.” Such an approach to popular culture has been developed extensively by North American Latino/Latina theology. Scholars such as Orlando Espin and Roberto Goizueta have argued that the religion of the people handed on through the generations in a rich network of beliefs, symbols, and rituals provides an important theological stream within the broader Catholic tradition.

This focus on the handing on of popular religion between generations—popular culture as a tradition—is a significant contrast with other uses of the term. In contemporary usage, “popular culture” signifies precisely what is not handed on in family and community. The mid-twentieth century saw the emergence of a youth culture marked by distinct music, cinema, dress, etc.   Different generations now come of age with radically different cultural formations.

Such culture is still “popular” in contrast to the high cultures of classical music, literature, and drama. But it is no longer produced nor handed on by the people themselves. It is produced, marketed, and distributed by professionals. For this reason, it is helpful to distinguish it as “commercial popular culture.”

A Collection of Meanings

Even though “commercial popular culture” is produced by new forms of elites and distributed through commercial channels, it still functions somewhat like traditional popular culture. It provides a storehouse of symbols, attitudes, values, and narratives that form the backdrop of people’s everyday lives.

The influential “Frankfurt social theorists” spoke of popular culture as “mass culture.” The standard plot lines and predictable comic gags of mass-produced entertainment stripped culture of any critical edge, turning it into a tool to pacify the masses. Subsequent schools of cultural studies offered a much more nuanced read of commercial popular culture. Some is meaningful, uplifting, and challenging. Studies of how consumers understand and use popular culture find that audiences are often quite critical and creative.

A pastoral engagement with popular culture requires knowledge of its contents and attention to how it is interpreted and used. What types of music, television, films, and internet media are popular with a community? One of the most fundamental challenges is encouraging a group to think about the contents of what it hears and views.

The attraction to a given cultural object must also be classified. Some works are popular because they express something profound that people identify with—for good or ill. In that case, its meanings, symbols, and values can be engaged and critically correlated with the Christian message. Perhaps they are deeply compatible, and so the given work can be used as a dialogue partner or vehicle for discussing a Christian theme in the spiritual life.

The themes of love and fear running throughout the Harry Potter series are a case in point: the power of Harry’s mother’s sacrificial love; the fear that undergirds Voldemort’s power and binds the Death Eaters together; Voldemort’s fear of mortality vs. Dumbledore’s and Harry’s acceptance of it.

There are, of course, other works that present no such opportunities for correlation. Insofar as people are attracted to certain central themes, they must be alerted and challenged to the anti-Christian content. Celebrations of radical individualism are often wrapped in moving sentimentality or heroic bluster (e.g., Out of Africa or Atlas Shrugged).

The Harry Potter series presents us with another line of analysis required when engaging popular culture. Whatever its deep themes, its storyline is cast in the myth of the special child—Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, The Princess Diaries, The Matrix, etc. The underlying mythic structure may attract us more than the other content. Sometimes these other attractions should be engaged in themselves; sometimes they can be used as an entré to broader discussion of the content of a work.

Audience reception of a given film or song is quite complex. For example, JoEllen Shively studied Native American viewers of John Wayne’s The Searchers. Although the film depicts the European conquest of Native Americans, many viewers identified with John Wayne’s character—not for what he did in the film but for the quality of his character. His portrayal of a rugged, courageous outdoorsman resonated with their traditional values. Thus, a pastoral engagement with popular culture must take into consideration different attractions and be careful not to assume that viewers embrace the whole of a given work.

A Training in Habits

The very individuality of these engagements suggests the difference between commercial popular culture and traditional popular culture. Both are shared repertoires of images, songs, and stories, but contemporary popular culture is much more a matter of individual reception. We encounter popular culture not through our families and neighbors but through commercial media.

Commercial popular culture treats culture as a commodity, and we often encounter commodities without knowing their origins. Of the myriad things we consume daily, for example, we know nothing of the hands that made them, the soil in which they were grown, the journeys they have made into our lives. It is not that we do not care; we do not know. The consumption of commodities trains our imaginations in shallow engagement. We are comfortable evaluating things with little knowledge of their full context.

Commercial popular culture brings these habits to the cultural realm. The popular song “Natural Blues” by Moby was a case in point. The dance song was built around a sample of the voice of Vera Hall recorded in her kitchen by Alan Lomax in 1959, singing the spiritual “Trouble So Hard.” The song is a lament: “Oh Lordy, trouble so hard….nobody knows my troubles but God.” Moby’s song was enormously popular, featured in many soundtracks and commercials.   Hall’s voice brought a note of emotional authenticity, but listeners never learned of her story or of the religious and musical tradition out of which she sang.

Encountered momentarily within the broader media flow, culture is reduced to fragments of meaning that consumers piece together in their own contexts.

These habits influence attitudes toward religion. Just as we expect to be able to instantly understand a commodity or fragment of culture encountered in commercial popular culture, contemporary believers expect that religious traditions will give themselves to easy comprehension. The commodification of religion looks a lot like the way of being religious that we find most comfortable these days: spirituality. We prefer to speak of spirituality rather than religion. We are suspicious of ties to communities and institutions. We are all expected to be seekers, developing our own religious visions as we pass through life, drawing elements from the many traditions we encounter. As we evaluate religious beliefs and practices, we hold on to what we find meaningful and leave behind what we do not. We focus on the individual’s relationship to the Divine and are suspicious of any outside interference in this relationship.

There is a lot that is good about spirituality in this sense. It can generate greater individual responsibility for religious commitment, rather than passive belonging or relying on religious leaders. Spirituality emerges in a time when more laypeople than ever before are literate. They have access to more religious material than ever before—indeed the riches of all the great religious traditions.

These positive aspects of spirituality come with serious costs. When we encounter religious culture in this way—removed from traditional and communal contexts—we lose two important things.

First, we lose the web of interconnections among religious beliefs and symbols that make up a religious tradition. These connections correct inadequate and extreme interpretations and weave doctrines and symbols into a holistic worldview. Commodified pieces of religious traditions are less likely to be complex, to make demands upon us that challenge us to live differently. They are ground down, like shiny, polished stones—more likely to conform to the pre-existing shape of our lives rather than to challenge them.

Second, we lose the connections between beliefs and the practices, communities, and institutions that weave them into not just a worldview but a way of being and acting in the world. This seriously hinders our sincerely held, private spiritual beliefs and values from having a transformative effect upon our lives. We embrace a hundred profound things, but can’t seem to change our lives. For that we need complex and shared beliefs and practices, community support, and challenge.

A pastoral response should seek both to make the complexities of tradition accessible and to communicate that the fullness of a tradition is known only in a lifetime of reflection and practice.   (This of course presumes a community in which such wisdom can be shared.) Traditional methods of interpretation should be taught as well: i.e., lectio divina and the Liturgy of the Hours as ways of reading Scripture, the particular postures and attitudes of liturgical prayer, etc.

A Place

Popular culture continues to change rapidly. The anxieties of previous generations about mass culture and passive consumption need to be revised in an age of popular cultural production.   Blogs, Facebook, YouTube, and other web-based means of sharing content make those with keyboards or video cameras their own producers. These new forms of popular culture hold great promise for the democratization of culture and global interconnection.

We must critically consider what these media forms allow. How much do they really allow us to share and communicate? In his 2011 World Communications Day message, Pope Benedict XVI cautioned: “In the search for sharing, for ‘friends,’ there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.”

The new “space” of social media also raises the challenge of a culture that can float free of the physical space of bodies, society, and environment. As Benedict asks provocatively, “Who is my ‘neighbour’ in this new world?” Social media can broaden our connections beyond the confines of our local places. They can also substitute for them—enclosing us even deeper in comfortable worlds of our own choosing.


If the forms of popular culture have changed over the millennia, their challenge to the pastoral work of the Church is constant because it is here that the gospel meets lived experience and culture. To turn away would be to fail the gospel and to write off culture.

What is needed is critical engagement that can question and challenge what is deficient and embrace and celebrate what is good.

Vincent Miller is the Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton. He is the author of Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. He is currently working on a book that engages the ethical, cultural, and theological consequences of globalization and new communications and media technologies.

Study Guide

This is the fourth article in the series titled “Spirituality: Grounding in the Mystery of God.” We live in a rapidly accelerating popular culture of distraction. Everyone demands our immediate attention. Speed and immediacy can prevent us from nurturing deeper relationships, particularly a relationship with God. How is spirituality influenced by various dimensions of popular culture? How does popular culture influence living a spiritual life amidst the cacophony of distractions? Dr. Miller believes that what is needed is critical engagement with popular culture. As catechists, we need to question and challenge what is deficient in the culture and embrace and celebrate what is good.

Discussion/Reflection Questions
1. What has been my experience of culture? Are there particular cultural traits that have been handed down through my family over the years? What impact do they have on my everyday life? My spiritual life? (Be specific.)
2. Why does Miller say that “popular culture and popular religion share a common history”?
3. What have Church documents stated concerning Catholic attitudes or dispositions toward culture?
4. What is “commercial popular culture”? What are the challenges it brings to catechetical experiences?
5. What does Miller mean by a “pastoral engagement” with popular culture? How might I apply this idea in my catechetical learning environment or classroom?
6. Miller illustrates examples from popular culture (Harry Potter) that can be used in a positive way for engaging in cultural conversations. Can I think of others?
7. How might I use film to engage in popular-culture dialogue with my students? What recent film have I seen that could apply to this question?
8. What does Miller mean by “the consumption of commodities trains our imaginations in shallow engagement”? (Give specific examples.)
9. What is the meaning of “commodification of religion”?
10. What problems develop when religious culture is removed from its traditional and communal contexts? (Give examples.)
11. What are the gifts and challenges of social media for nurturing our sense of spiritual communion within the faith community?

1. Design a series of home assignments that invite students to become more familiar with the meaning and impact of popular culture.
2. Develop a Time Project. Have students create clocks for each day of the week (7) on 8 ½” x 11” sheets of paper or in PowerPoint slides. During the coming week, have students monitor how they use their time: play, social media, eating, sleeping, praying, studying, etc. During the next class period a week later, guide students through a critical reflection on how popular culture influenced their use of time. How free do they think they are with their time? How dominated are they by popular culture factors? How could they become freer to be their more authentic selves?
3. Reflect on Miller’s statement “The consumption of commodities trains our imaginations in shallow engagement,” and test this reality in the lives of your students through guided conversation.
4. Create a lesson plan that highlights particular aspects or qualities of our Catholic spiritual culture. Demonstrate how these aspects or qualities are the glue that holds the faith community together. Discuss how students can become more conscious and engaged with Catholic spiritual culture.

Related Reading
Evangelii nuntiandi (“On Evangelization in the Modern World”). Exhortation of Pope Paul VI. vatican.va, 1975.
Miller, Vincent Jude. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. New York, NY: Continuum, 2005.
Novo millennio ineunte. (“At the beginning of the new millennium”). Apostolic Letter of Blessed Pope John Paul II. vatican.va, 2001.
“Towards a Pastoral Approach to Culture.” Pontifical Council on Culture. vatican.va, 1999.
Also, check out YouTube video clips on popular culture.

Copyright 2012, Bayard, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Bayard, Inc.

This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, December 2011.

Image Credit: Shutter Stock 538651057

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