“I’m Your Savior, So Praise Me Maybe.” :Pop Culture & Religion

By Chumani Chamberlain '21

February 2019 Issue 

      Scrolling through your Instagram, your eyes are drawn toward multiple Instagram posts filled with the latest fashion, breaking news, sports videos, etc. Behold, your eyes float toward a Christian meme with Jesus at the center surrounded by a halo. On the top are written the famous Carly Rae Jepsen lyrics “Hey, I just met you and this is crazy,” at the bottom, the meme creator changes the lyrics to, “But I’m your savior, so praise me, maybe.”

      This meme is just one example of how pop culture has intersected with modern religion, but does pop culture impact religion in a positive or negative way?  

      According to a recent Pew Research Center survey conducted in December 2017, 90 percent of Americans believe in some kind of higher power. Within that 90 percent, 56 percent claim their faith is “in God as described in the Bible,” while another 33 percent claim they “believe in another type of higher power.” These new statistics raise questions on if pop culture has also had an influence on society’s belief in a higher power.

      Mrs. Via, a religion teacher and the Director of Service Learning and External Engagement at the Upper School, expressed how Megachurches around the world have used pop culture to include “audio visuals” within weekly church services during worship and sermons.

       Locally, Fairfax Community Church in Fairfax, Virginia has an annual sermon series known as, “At the Movies.” For four weeks the congregation dives into the spiritual interpretation of four well-known movies through Biblical principle and pop culture.    

      According to LifeWay Research, 73% of churches “use social media to interact with their congregation, the majority of churches with an online presence are already using social media as a growth tool.” Within Fairfax Community Church, The Hangar and The Hub are the student ministries for current Middle and High School Students. Co-Pastor to students, Jess Uitvlugt, explains how the use of social media within the Hangar and the Hub have influenced their students to learn more about Jesus even when they are not in church: “we can use the variety of media to teach or to communicate.” She explains The Hangar uses “social media during the week [to post] videos or music or other content in our messages.”

      Co-Pastor to students, Kyle Cooper, shared how he does not “think pop culture has influenced most mainstream religions theologically. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and others have not changed what they believe or teach fundamentally because of popular beliefs. That being said, I think religion is experienced differently because religion has been drawn into public dialogue about what’s right, true, and absolute. Sometimes religion is really illuminating, other times it misses what people are looking at.”  

      Via explains how pop culture and music have played a role within today’s Christian music: “I think when we can see pop culture influencing religion...in some religious communities it is through music such as contemporary Christian music being influenced by pop music...I think there are some people who are real traditionalists who don't like contemporary Christian music because it sounds like ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’, but other people like that and I think that it reaches to people who may not be interested in church or religion.”

       Currently, Christian contemporary music is highlighted by artists such as Lauren Daigle, Toby Mac, Hillsong United, Elevation Worship, and so many more artists who have climbed to the top of the charts. Recently, Lauren Daigle’s new album Look Up Child made history as it ranked #3 on the Billboard 200 charts, and her album debuted with the biggest sales week for a Christian music album in nearly nine years. Daigle’s album brought contemporary Christian music to light both within pop culture and social media towards the end of 2018.

       With the rise of Christian contemporary music on the charts and the popularity of megachurches around the world such as Hillsong Church, religion is highlighted in various areas of popular culture. Originating in Sydney, Australia, Hillsong Church has arguably become a strong pop culture icon. Their worship music has a presence within many church services around the world, 1.9 million instagram followers, and comes up on the Instagram feeds of many celebrities such as Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, and Kevin Durant. Since the Church’s creation, Hillsong has arguably become a model for how other churches can incorporate modern technology and pop culture in their own congregations. In turn, people have questioned if pop culture has influenced religion.

      Uitvlugt gives her point of view: “First, I think pop culture is speaking into questions of meaning, purpose, morality, wisdom, etc. that people used to look to religion to answer. Religious institutions, rather than taking their place as the leaders on these issues, have instead allowed themselves to be less vocal and take a backseat to the conversation, offering reactions to culture instead of being the leading voice.”

      When asked if she believes pop culture has had a positive or negative influence within today’s society, Uitvlugt described how one of the biggest positives pop culture brings to the church and student ministries is how the worship team uses a “variety of musical styles we use to worship (pop culture pushes worship music to push its creative edge in our church).”

      When asked a similar question, Cooper dove into how “mainstream media” may affect “what Christianity and other religions really teach, is often distorted. For example, the celebrity Chris Pratt attends Hillsong Church. Someone tweeted about it saying Chris Pratt attends a homosexual hating church.  Others chimed in to say ‘you mean every church.’ Now it’s not true that Christian churches hate gay people, but that’s the perception.”

      In response to the survey by the Pew Research Center, Cooper specified how he believes those stats reflect how he thinks “People want hope. The lack of hope, in our culture drives the media and people to keep looking for hope.  Everybody wants answers and find it hard to not believe that something is driving the universe.”

      In turn, Uitvlugt explains how “Most people are willing to believe in a deity because faith traditions in this country have made that belief convenient- be a good person and you and the deity are on good terms...This is the influence of pop culture, but it’s not pop culture’s fault. It’s the fault of the institutions responsible for teaching true faith. Everyone says they believe in God if God doesn’t require much of you. But if God requires sacrifice, obedience, forgiveness for your enemies, love for your neighbor, etc (as I believe God does), then suddenly it’s less en vogue to believe in God."

      Via and Uitvlugt were asked how they believed Jesus would feel about pop culture today. Via expressed how “Jesus doesn't seem to be the person who was interested in trends or pop culture.” Via continues by stating “I feel like Jesus is also like a joker figure, and I think Jesus had more of a sense of humor than we give him credit for. I think he would relate and identify most with comedians who speak truth to power and people who uphold power dynamics. And that is the role of the joker to call out the king and to make people question social norms and dominant cultural narratives and that I think he would appreciate most of all.”

      Uitvlugt explains how “Jesus was the master of using references that everyday people would understand to teach about complex issues and topics like the kingdom of God...I think Jesus would use pop culture in his teachings and parables today in a similar way.”