Monday, December 10, 2007

Spiritual Leaders, Critical Thinking, and Pop Culture

Once again, with The Golden Compass now showing in theaters, the debate over popular cultural production's supposed hostility to religious faith (and particularly Christianity) is again rearing its ugly head. The pattern is all too familiar. People of faith, particularly Christians, meet such cultural productions with claims of religious intolerance, if not persecution. And it is all the more stark around Christmas time, when some Christians feel particularly persecuted because cashiers at Wal-Mart don't wish them a Merry Christmas as they pass through the checkout line. But I digress ... the subject I really want to get into is the role that religious leaders play in the so-called "culture wars." It seems that whenever a controversial cultural production, such as The Golden Compass, or Harry Potter, or The DaVinci Code enters the mainstream of our society, some religious leaders feel it incumbent to their duties to dictate how their flock should approach such productions. Should we read the His Dark Materials Trilogy (the first book of which is The Golden Compass), the Harry Potter series, the DaVinci Code novel? Should we see the movies based on them? Usually, such religious leaders never refrain from offering their opinion on the subject, sometimes going so far as to declare a spiritual mandate of sorts on what a "good" Christian must do. And, generally, these mandates are exhortations that we avoid these dangerous books and films and that we keep our children away from them, too.

The irony of such kinds of mandates from religious leaders, as I see it, is that someone has to read the books and see the movies in order to be informed enough to know whether or not to discourage the flock from reading and/or viewing them. I have a number of reactions to ministers/priests when they do this. First, I am always somewhat insulted that they presume to know better (or can know better) than I as to what constitutes appropriate book reading and movie viewing. Second, I get put out that they seem to think that it is somehow o.k. for them to read controversial books and watch controversial movies. And third, I get especially huffy if they haven't read the book or seen the film, and yet still presume to tell me that I shouldn't do either on the basis of some secondhand reaction.

I know that most religious leaders are well-intentioned, but I'd rather that they restricted themselves to doing their jobs in the pulpit in interpreting the meaning of scripture, and then let us decide through our God-given minds and critical thinking skills, and based on the meaning of scripture they provide, what is appropriate to consume in our popular culture as opposed to what is not appropriate to consume.

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