RELEVANT recently had the opportunity to chat with Dick Staub, radio personality, cultural critic (www.dickstaub.com) and author of the books Too Christian, Too Pagan (2000) and Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters (2005). Staub is a leading voice in the ongoing discussion about Christianity, culture and how each informs and is changed by the other. In this interview he speaks to these and other concerns within the Church today.
RELEVANTmagazine.com: I read somewhere that in the last five years there has been a huge increase in the percentage of churches that use mainstream film clips as illustrations during church services. Why do you think this is? Is the Church’s relationship to cinema just increasingly utilitarian—realizing how vital this "church of the masses" (to borrow a phrase from Barbara Nicolosi) is in reaching culture—or do Christians genuinely feel keener towards the film art form?
Dick Staub: As film becomes our common language and Christian communicators desire to connect with today’s audience, it is understandable that the use of film clips is on the rise. Unfortunately there is a cloud in this silver lining.
1) If the Church was creative instead of imitative, we would be "creating" contemporary media instead of piggybacking on and exploiting media created by others.
2) Because so much of contemporary media is mindless, we see superficial movies being used in churches to communicate truths that are deep and timeless; this can have a trivializing effect on faith.
3) Too often having demonstrated our inability to exegete the Bible, resorting to proof texts, we’ve now expanded our incompetence to incompetent interpretation and applications of filmic texts. The majority of evangelicals are driven by the redemptive mandate not the mandate of creation, so they see film as an evangelistic tool more than an artistic expression. I am encouraged that a remnant of mostly younger Christians are seeing film for the art first … may their numbers multiply.
RM: What can be done to curb the pop economy that is evangelicalism? And if a massive Christian market force is here to stay, is there any way to reconcile such a system with a faith that has integrity, depth and cultural legitimacy?
DS: As much as I detest it, zero time and energy should be spent on curbing "the pop economy that is evangelicalism." Instead our time should be spent changing appetites, which requires going deeper in God. It also requires recovering a theology of creation that accurately defines salvation as the restoration of God’s spiritual, intellectual, creative, relational and moral image imprinted on humans, instead of defining salvation as protection against hell. Hans Rookmaaker said Jesus didn’t come to make us Christian, Jesus came to make us "fully human." Those who are fully human have no appetite for the crap pumped out in culture and the Christian subculture. Fully human—created in the image of God—such souls hunger for God and a richer culture and set about producing it. This remnant of fully human individuals is the hope.
RM: Talk about your various endeavors and their purposes (CultureWatch, Center for Faith & Culture, the new radio show, etc). What do you hope to communicate or facilitate?
DS: Today’s media is consumed with hostile talk, political talk and frivolous talk. I think there is a need for illumination, more light and less heat. We just launched The Kindlings Muse which we describe as an intelligent, imaginative, hospitable exploration of ideas that matter in contemporary life.
It originates live from Hales Ales Brewery and Pub in Seattle’s Fremont District, is then edited into a podcast (thekindlings.com) and by FALL 2006 should be syndicated as a 2-hour weekend radio show. Basically we get interesting, intelligent, irreligious and religious people at a round table, discuss an issue then open it up to the audience for their thoughts. We’re also continuing to interview interesting, thoughtful creatives, known and unknown and cultural influencers, whether religious or irreligious.
My next book, coming out in January, is titled The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith & Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity-Lite. I can’t imagine anyone in faith or culture speaking to me after its release!
RM: It seems like increasingly in our postmodern, post-literate culture, Christians are beginning to expand their radars for "truth" to allow for the finding of it outside of scripture and the pulpit. Rob Bell, in Velvet Elvis, says that, "To be a Christian is to claim truth wherever you find it." Not that the Bible is passé or anything, but do you think our "imagistic" culture and subsequent new understandings of truth are good or bad things for the Church?
DS: I think there is value in coming from culture in to revealed truth because every generation needs to understand faith in their context. This is not, however, an argument for abandoning the mastery of Scripture. Typically, I find the next generation refreshingly culturally literate and abysmally illiterate in faith. Our goal is to be literate in faith and culture. Anybody serious about faith should be dual-listeners and bilingual—sounds like work and it is, but nobody said following Jesus would be easy!
RM: On your website you write, "Understanding and communicating beliefs requires learning the vocabulary of today’s culture." I don’t think you intend it to, but to me it seems that such a statement might invite a sort of utilitarian regression among Christians who seek to be culture-savvy solely for the purposes of broadening evangelistic appeal. (Basically doing market research to design a more appealing product.) There’s a difference between learning vocabulary for the love of words vs. for the sake of surviving in a literate society. So for what sake do you think we should learn culture?
DS: You make an excellent point, however the opening line is that we "understand faith" by learning the vocabulary of today’s culture. I mean by that, that my faith is enriched by truth wherever I find it, which is often in the work of thoughtful creatives. Nobody does a better job of exposing consumerism than Chuck Palahniuk in the opening scenes of Fight Club. Training Day is the best commentary on the verse, "the wages of sin are death." As I point out in my book Christian Wisdom of the Jedi Masters, it took George Lucas to give us the imagery and language of "the dark side."
RM:Your quote also advises that we learn the vocabulary of today’s culture. What of the criticism that focusing on "today’s culture" just reinforces a sort of anachronistic, pop-culture obsessed society with little or no historical perspective or basis on how "yesterday’s culture" has influenced the world?
DS: I could not agree with you more. My undergraduate work resulted in a double major in Philosophy and History. My seminary work concentrated on first century contextual issues of the New Testament. To benefit from exegeting popular culture, you need to put it in the broader intellectual and historical context.
RM: What area of "Christian media" are you most concerned about? (i.e. Christian music, Christian movies, Christian apocalyptic fiction, Christian talking-head politicos, etc …)
DS: C.S. Lewis said, we don’t need more Christian writers; we need more Christians who can write. Lewis and Tolkien wrote 50 years ago and are still influential today because their work had spiritual, intellectual and creative ballast. They would not have imagined operating in the kind of parallel universe that Christian media has become. They were mainstreamed. Last year alone their works sold in the millions.
At the risk of sounding uncharitable—50 years from now, how many copies of Left Behind and the Purpose Driven Life will be sold? Our popular culture is impoverished and the "Christian media culture" is satisfied to make money by serving crumbs off the table of that fallen culture, often dumbing down our faith in the process. Until we experience a spiritual, intellectual and creative renaissance, both culture and the parallel universe of Christian media will serve thin gruel, entertaining ourselves to death. I’m concerned about the whole Christian media enterprise.