Religion and Pop Culture: Shotgun Wedding, Marriage of Convenience, or Match Made in Heaven? We’ve come a long way since Hollywood’s idea of religion was confined to biblical sand-and-sword operas; Irish priests and chaplains with twinkly eyes; and morally corrupt Protestant evangelists like Elmer Gantry. Barely a month passes without a movie or television show that portrays people of faith, often in a favorable light. By the same token, Christian creators of alternative culture have come a long way from showing Billy Graham studio movies in church basements; producing feel-good, uplifting television dramas for the Sunday morning broadcast ghetto; or publishing treacly books that sell only because they are “Christian.” Popular culture has experienced a seismic shift in the past two decades, thanks in part to the global market economy. Commercial producers now recognize that evangelical Christians constitute a lucrative, discrete market that will respond if the product appeals to them. And sophisticated evangelicals have learned that if their production values are equal to the marketplace, their movies, TV shows, music, books, radio stations, and stand-up comics can enable them to protect their constituency from the toxic popular culture. As an unintended consequence, the best of their creations can provide effective outreach for the unchurched. Join celebrated religion writer and astute media observer Mark Pinsky for a fascinating tour through this shifting terrain as he explores what lies ahead. Is this just a blip, or is there a fundamental change in American popular culture, one that integrates faith and religion as part of the landscape? Will ensemble television comedies and dramas now have “the Christian” as a stock character, the way many now have “the gay character”? If Christian movie producers like Walden, or commercial studios, produce a string of high-budget bombs at the box office, will this trend come to a screeching halt? With at least one comic book hero, a Mormon named “Cypher” from the New Mutants, and the incredible success of Napoleon Dynamite, will LDS characters go mainstream? It’s worked that way before for evangelical Protestants. Ned Flanders, Homer Simpson’s goofy next door neighbor, put a human and humorous face on evangelicals for people whose only previous exposure was to dour, cable TV gasbags. Although skeptical at first, church youth workers on college campuses found that young Christians had recognized in Ned a kindred spirit and had adopted him as a lovable mascot. At least one prominent Protestant mega-church pastor likes to wear a “Vote for Pedro” T-shirt. Mark I. Pinsky’s journalism career began in the 1960s at Duke University, where he wrote a column called “The Readable Radical” for the campus daily. After graduation, he worked for several underground papers before heading to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and respectability by earning his M.S.J. Mark spent most of the 1970s in the Southeast as a free lance writer, primarily covering racial and criminal justice trials and focusing on the death penalty for outlets like the New York Times. After living and working in China in 1982-83, his first regular, full-time job came in 1985, staff writer for the Los Angeles Times’ Orange County Edition. At the Times, he wrote about religion, the performing arts and philanthropy and, again, courts and criminal justice. Mark became religion writer and senior reporter at the Orlando Sentinel in 1995, specializing in coverage of evangelical Christianity in the Sun Belt.
Dan Wotherspoon, Bengt Washburn, John Hatch, Mark I. Pinsky