Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture (Detweiler & Taylor, 2003)

“Jesus is my Homeboy.”

In postmodern America, the answers to life come in many forms and through a multitude of channels. This plethora of culture begs the question: where do we, as Americans, look for answers and how do we receive them? Matrix of Meanings attempts to find what’s right in popular culture, “identifying and understanding what millions of teens connect with,” and discover how “God shines through even the most debased pop culture products” (p 8). The book is a Biblical analysis of American popular culture, written by two young theologians from Fuller Theological Seminary with worldly resumes. Detweiler and Taylor address the religious qualities of our media-saturated entertainment industry. Instead of looking at popular culture through the moral eye of the established church, they “start from theological scratch (142),” reconsidering the Old and New Testaments. An example of this alternative readings addresses pop music, which involves the marginalized crowd by taking religious discussions to street level or, in biblical terms, the marketplace. Jesus embraced the marketplace and viewed it as a venue for sharing ideas. Detweiler and Taylor revive this approach and turn to the popular culture marketplace for a new perspective on Christianity.

We write for those with a love for P.O.D., a passion for The Matrix, and a commitment to Friends. Rather than attack pop culture, we’ve chosen to adopt the directive captured on the provocative poster for American Beauty. We want to “look closer,” to examine where God might be lurking in the songs, shows, and films kids continually return to for solace and meaning… We turn to pop culture in our efforts to understand God and to recognize the twenty-first-century face of Jesus. (9)

Although the writing in this field has been extensive, Matrix crystallizes a new theology for America youth, referencing modern prophets and scriptures to reach a fast-paced, commercial-indoctrinated generation. In order to properly understand the impact of pop culture on the consumer, Detweiler and Taylor “aim to create a theology out of popular culture rather than a theology for popular culture (16).” They construct a parallel gospel fashioned by postmodern, capitalist trends wherein parishioners are consumers, celebrities represent the new priesthood, cool is the overarching virtue and the church (or building of worship) has been transferred to homes, movie theaters and sports arenas around the world. The most compelling feature of thisnew doctrine is the Ten Commandments of Advertising, including such mantras as, “Break The Rules,” “Be yourself,” and “Prioritize your Life.” Matrix of Meanings begins with a deep analysis into advertising’s effect on American belief structures, citing the Volkswagon campaign of 1960 as a quantum shift in advertising. It featured a VW Beetle with the caption “Think Small.” Previously, advertising told consumers what to buy; now, by equating consumption with rebellion, it informs consumers how to think, act and feel, advice originally disseminated only by religion (66).

According to Detweiler and Taylor, there are at least three ways of dealing with changing cultural contexts: resisting change, repackaging old truths, and reconstructing practices by acknowledging changes and embracing new culture (293). Matrix of Meanings succeeds in accomplishing the latter by searching for spiritual expression in popular culture. The authors refer to this as ‘common grace,’ the omnipresent quality of God that is accepted and commercially rewarded in our society. Religious messages are cited from popular films including Dead Man Walking and American Beauty, television shows like The Simpsons and The West Wing, and musicians including Madonna, Bono and Nick Cave. “Common grace subverts preconceived notions of how, when, and through whom God chooses to communicate. It makes God bigger and the evangelist’s burden lighter (17).” The appearance of ‘common grace’ is the contemporary embodiment of Bible stories and teachings. It is here that a new generation finds answers to life’s questions.

This book is written for a large audience. It takes a simple, logical, historical approach to theology and pop culture, describing major theories for the reader who may be unfamiliar with either field. Taylor uses Theodor Adorno’s 1941 essay, “On Popular Music,” to establish the timeless nature of pop music and its effect on the masses. It includes an extensive description of ‘postmodernism’; a common term in cultural studies, but can be ill defined in pop culture and unfamiliar to many readers. Scriptures are regularly quoted and summarized, allowing the inexperienced theologian to draw his or her own conclusions as to the religious implications of various texts. Matrix of Meanings reaches out to a section of American youth who have steadily drifted away from the teachings of the church. It reveals the religious inclinations and undertones of popular texts and stars in order to appeal to the pre-existing affiliations of this cohort.

American youth have experienced a complete dissolution of borders in a wired/wireless age, making them hyper-aware of what is available outside their local communities. They are looking for answers that can withstand their ever-changing environment; a belief structure grounded in reality. Detweiler and Taylor present a plan of action to bring young Christians back to the church. It demands the reevaluation of the scripture so that it may address issues that affect this elusive generation. These subjects include rebellion, sexuality, and mythological miracles. Taylor emphasizes the spectacular violence of God’s wrath as represented in the Bible and its similarity to the spectacular violence permeating our popular culture.

Matrix of Meanings is an interdisciplinary text written for individuals searching for spirituality while entrenched in popular culture and religious readers looking for connections previously hidden between the scriptures and popular texts. It addresses the love/hate relationship of Church and Hollywood and questions the animosity between these two primary culture makers. Instead of fueling this debate, the discussion focuses on the Church’s influence in the creative process. The secularization of art, starting with the Renaissance, has influenced some of the greatest saints of pop culture including six of the most celebrated filmmakers in history: John Ford, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma (157). The authors encourage the Church to look at pop culture not as a competitor but as another voice through which God may preach.

Pop culture is divided into eight categories. They are, in order of impact: advertising, celebrity, music, movies, television, fashion, sports, and art. The authors recognize the infinite interweaving of these categories and tackle the web of popular culture head on. Each chapter addresses the narratives and ideologies disseminated through these entities, the consumer’s interaction with them and how this interaction parallels that of religion. For example, Detweiler discusses how time spent with the television mimics the weekly rituals of mass, how the need for sports stars parallels the search for a savior, and how the cult of advertising causes consumers to believe, complete with mantras and deity (or celebrity) worship.

The categories established by the book are open to dispute; certain media forms have been neglected in this analysis, including books, video games and the Internet. Harry Potter entered the discussion only in reference to a recent trend towards mythology (also evidenced by The Lord of the Rings and the Matrix movies). The lack of analysis regarding books is pronounced, as the Harry Potter books encouraged a shift back to reading and media conglomeration made Britney Spears a best-selling author. The silence regarding video games was just as regrettable considering that topics including violence, judgment, and justice permeated the discussion.

The Internet is a difficult entity to dissect from any angle, but the new medium changed the methods by which citizens and consumers obtain information and forced religious groups to modernize. Potential parishioners can find the answers to life’s questions in the Bible or on the Internet and the Church must be available at both ends. The Internet offers alternative religions a virtual space of worship; one can even become an ordained priest within weeks by completing an online program. This need to upgrade the technology arm of the Church in order to compete with American popular culture was not addressed.

Matrix of Meanings presents various theories to increase the popularity of the church through methods tested by pop culture. The authors look to secular marketing strategies including the revival of baseball and the success of television and advertising in the dissemination of ideas. They question Church officials’ disapproval of reality television: “It offers viewers an unvarnished portrait of our capacity to lie, cheat and steal (215).” Recognizing that the first celebrities were preachers and televangelists, the authors pose the question: What would Jesus do? Would he have a website or a talk show in postmodern America? The Bible must be reevaluated and repackaged for a new generation demanding more: more excitement, more suspense, more humor, and more emotion. These traits exist within the texts but have been unintentionally deemphasized over the years. “We hope to let Jesus, having been hijacked, bound, and gagged by his “defenders,” out of the oppressive box of “churchianity” as we rediscover him in the church of pop culture (316).”

In their attempt to draw previously hidden religious meaning from popular texts, Detweiler and Taylor have ignored the prominent debates surrounding religion in popular culture today, including Bush’s divisive use of religion and the recent molestation scandals that have rocked the church hierarchy. Although the choice to avoid these subjects seems better suited for the direction of the book, which is looking to separate itself from the seemingly monolithic church establishment, these topics are important representations of Christianity in culture and affect the faith of many churchgoers.
The most glaring gap was the lack of discussion around homosexuality. In postmodern America, we are raised to respect individuals regardless of sexual preference. Our popular culture clearly accepts homosexuality and rewards it with commercial success, evidenced in such programs as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Will and Grace. But Detweiler and Taylor leave this subject untouched.

I found this book an absolute delight to read. It was observant, clever, funny and presented new theories in an easy to understand manner. As a member of the addressed audience, a young American knowledgeable about popular culture with limited religious exposure, at no point did I feel lost, confused or eliminated from the discussion. Although some subjects were not addressed, it is an excellent introduction to theology as it relates to American postmodern society. Detweiler and Taylor have managed to accomplish their set goals: exposing the word of God through popular culture to individuals who may have not intended to listen in the first place.

About charisselpree

The Media Made Me Crazy
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