The Bible as Pop Culture

Essay by defy.gravityUniversity, Bachelor's April 2010

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Jennifer Squires


English 384

Noel Chevalier

Monday, December-07-09

The Bible As Pop Culture

The use of the Bible in secular and popular culture is as common in this age as it ever was. Musicians, writers, film directors etc are capitalizing on familiar stories like never before. But the Bible and pop culture co-exist in the same world and while pop culture is capitalizing on the Bible, the Bible is also capitalizing on pop culture. From references in songs, to fictionalizations of Biblical accounts and even portrayals of Biblical concepts on film, the Bible is present in pop culture and its message is getting across to the masses because the Bible is a large part of pop culture.

The first step in this process is to discover what exactly is meant by secular and pop culture. The latter, pop culture, specifically deals with what is popular in a given culture at a given time.

Often pop culture is made up of aspects (values, practices, beliefs) of a secular culture. For most people, secular culture means the absence of religion, which is neither a true nor false assumption. Coined by George Holyoake in 1866, secularism offered a substitute for religion with it's basic school of thought that "supernaturalism is based upon ignorance and is the historic enemy of progress" (Benson, 86). Holyoake contested that secularism neither confirms nor denies theism, rather it provides a superior ethical system with a much broader appeal for society. In his essay Considering Secularism, Iain T. Benson counters Holyoake in that by remaining ambiguous regarding a stance on theism, Holyoake is actually denying the idea of a God and thereby putting religion and secular culture in a hostile relationship with one another when in reality religion and popular culture must work alongside each other.

Conrad Ostwalt also challenges Holyoake's notion of secular culture as the absence of religion by asserting that evidence does not support the preconceived notion of society that religion and secular culture and thus pop culture are existing in an antagonist relationship and in fact they can exist side by side: "in fact, in most cases if not all, as with Christianity since at least Constantine, religion and secular culture exist in a tandem relationship" (Ostwalt, 3). This ideology is mirrored from the works of Michael Foucault. Foucault theorized that religion and culture mutually inform each other and that "contemporary culture is born out of religious traditions" (Foucault, 33).

Foucault's assumption that contemporary culture has religion to thank for its development is certainly true if one examines the past of Christianity. In the Middle Ages, religion was the culture and remained so until roughly the Victorian era when the world evolved much more rapidly (industries, trade, literacy) and opportunities outside the life of the church flourished. With the rise in literacy, due in large part to the Printing Press, the Bible was translated into the vernacular of the people and was made more available than ever and since one could read it, one was free to interpret it without clerical aid. With this interpretation came independence from the church as an institution and ideas in secular culture to emerge. While religion may have stopped being the dominant cultural force in the 1800's, it still played and is playing a large part in shaping the values of the people.

Contemporary culture uses the Bible in a variety of ways: from the subtlest of allusions to expansions of it to full blown presentations of it and even reactions to it. Expansions of the Bible include literary works such as John Milton's Paradise Lost and Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage. These works are modern retellings of Biblical tales, freely interpreted and freely added to. Milton and Findley adapt the Biblical text in order to secularize it: they move away from the sacred to expand and focus on the storytelling capabilities of the Bible. Milton and Findley fictionalize Biblical stories under the assumption that their audience will recognize the source text and where their work departs to fill in perceived gaps in the Biblical account.

If writers bringing the Bible into popular culture are assuming this recognition, it must be evident that religion has remained in the culture and that secular/pop culture has something to gain from the Bible. Roger Scruton defines culture as a source of emotional knowledge that instructs society on what to do and how to feel. The Bible is not based in hard fact, but rather on faith, which is an aspect of emotional knowledge. According to this definition, the Bible is a tool that can aid in the instruction of culture's emotional knowledge. There must be some universal truth, other than faith, in the Bible that secular works try to tap into.

Ostwalt explains that despite the Bible's faith aspect, it is a secular text; it has become secularized. By this he means that the sacred text of the Judeo-Christians has become a text of secular culture, stripped of it's sacredness through constant and intense scrutiny by the scholarly community. As a result of this secularization, culture is left with a Bible that is barren and unable to reveal truth to the masses because it has been presented to them as a book with no special attributes through pop culture mediums.

For instance, in the music industry Biblical allusions are rampant. They are present in every genre from rap to country to rock to indie. In the rap world, T.I's lyrics in "Dead and Gone" say "I'm blessed to say the old me dead and gone away … the old me's dead and gone." are a direct reflection of 2 Corinthians 5:17 "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." Garth Brooks, arguably one of the most influential country artists of all time, sings about unanswered prayers in that "Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers." Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" single contains literally dozens of references to Biblical stories including, but not limited to, John the Baptist, Jesus walking on water, and the Great Commission. Canadian Indie artist Lights writes about her search for a saviour and that "I'm down on my knees … I just want to run to you / And break off the chains, and throw them away" which is another obvious allusion to prayer and Psalm 107:14 where the psalmist describes God breaking off the chains of His people.

What these examples prove is that the Bible must have something to offer secular culture despite the barren land that culture has made it. But what exactly that is is tricky to pinpoint. Ostwalt claims that human beings are inherently spiritual and religious. In today's technologically advanced culture, music is everywhere and perhaps society is trying to fill the spiritual void in their lives with music and by offering spirituality from the Bible through music, society is being exposed to the Judeo-Christian spirituality away from institutionalized religion. But this still doesn't explain why non-religious people would discuss inherently religious ideas in pop culture. It is possible that T.I, Garth Brooks, Coldplay, Lights and others are building on the tradition that came before them where everything was about religious beliefs. It's tradition, it's comfortable and for the most part it's universal.

There is only one way to answer the question of why use religious ideas in pop culture and that is to ask another question: what is the intent of the author, for lack of a better term. And the only way to answer that is to go straight to the source. Unfortunately, musicians (the aforementioned ones included) have remained tight-lipped regarding the Biblical allusions in their lyrics. Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay, has said of "Viva La Vida" that "it's always fascinated me that idea of finishing your life and then being analyzed on it. And it's that runs through most religions" (Youngs). With that being the only explanation Coldplay has given on the widely ambiguous song, their audience is left to their own interpretation and that is precisely the point: let the audience decide.

If secular artists want to use religious references but refuse to explain them further, then their intent in using them must be to let their audience interpret the lyrics on their own. This effectively mirrors the current relationship with the Bible as a sacred book, thanks to the advancement of the Bible as a freely interpretable text in the Victorian era. It's up to the interpretation of the individual to find the meaning and truth in it and these artists are encouraging their audience to do the interpreting of the Bible like they themselves have already done.

In the case of films and religious content, reference the Bible can hardly be ambiguous. This is especially true in the highly popular 'genre' of recent films: the apocalyptic genre. Ostwalt explains that "among theological images … non has received more popular attention recently than images associated with the end of the world" (Ostwalt, 157) These films secularize the theological concept of the end of the world, fictionalize it, interpret it and fantasize it in order to present their findings in the realm of popular culture. Films such as 2012, Armageddon and Independence Day recapture and reinterpret the story of John's Revelation.

Apocalyptic films take the Biblical account of the end of the world and fictionalize it according to the pop culture values of the day. "Pop culture is intrigued by what the Bible has to say about the apocalyptic and eschatological -- predictions and descriptions of impending end times of life on earth as we know it" (Clanton). In the case of 2012 the film, the apocalyptic concept is centered around Nostradamus and the Mayan prediction of the end of the world in 2012. Pop culture is obsessed with this 2012 phenomena because 2012 is fast approaching. The 1996 movie Independence Day twists the end times story to involve the fascination with extraterrestrials that was popular at the time. The decade of the 1990's alone gave pop culture 49 films centred around aliens. Apocalyptic films are dominated by the rejection of a supernatural being as the cause of the end of the world and as such, they have had to search for other causes. 1998's Armageddon described the end of the world being brought about by a meteor. The 1990's were at the tail end of the growing fear of nuclear weapons and Armageddon successfully portrayed how nuclear weapons have the potential to become the agency of deliverance for the whole world, rather than the agency of destruction.

The intent with apocalyptic films is almost too obvious: to scare the audience. But it's possible that as a by-product of a completely secular film, religion and the Biblical account gain credibility or at least are warranted scrutiny in order to understand where the concept comes from. It is in this way of using Biblical concepts with aspects of the popular culture that we are truly able to see pop culture and religion co-existing.

Despite the Bible's subject matter of other worlds, its task is to exist and be relevant in this world, therefore "religion is a part of the secular world just as religious institutions are by nature secular institutions (they reside in and operate in this world, not a transcendent one)" (Ostwalt, 4). It should not come as a surprise that religion seeks the secular world to express their values with a new vitality, outside the church because religion is competing with entertainment for attention and has therefore adopted pop culture mediums in order to thrive and ward of obsolescence. Religion uses TV, Movies, music etc to make religious teachings relevant for a modern audience. The tactic behind presenting the Bible in pop culture mediums is simple: tap into the culture and thereby Christianize it.

If religion has embraced the pop culture to stay relevant, why can the opposite not be said for pop culture? When pop culture opens up to religion, an invitation for a dialogue is being offered. This invitation does not exist when religion opens up to pop culture because "religion takes a reactionary stance toward the secular while the secular remains suspicious toward religion" (Ostwalt, 204). Ostwalt is saying that while religion has openly embraced aspects of pop culture, the same cannot be said about pop culture and it's stance towards religion. Pop culture is sceptical of the ultimate goal of the Bible in it's realm: to Christianize and convert.

But religion is sometimes sceptical of pop culture as well. When works like William Blake's Book of Urizen and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials explicitly and clearly attack religion, fundamentalists speak out against them. The mere act of attacking religion and the response from it's followers effectively puts up walls that ambiguous allusion and allowance of interpretation (i.e. through music and films as previously discussed) have strived to break down. Pullman and Blake are reacting to the Bible, albeit negatively, and out of that reaction has come creativity and from this creativity has come a change in perceptions.

Of the literary works mentioned (Milton, Findley, Blake, and Pullman), Milton and Pullman have successfully been able to skew the opinion of the Bible. Milton's account of the creation story is so eloquent and well written that it's difficult to remember where Milton ends and the Bible begins. His writing is so memorable that it's possible to confuse it with the 'real' story in the Bible. Pullman has been able to distort the normative perception of God as a supreme omnipresent being by presenting him as a decrepit that instead of looking after everyone, needs to be looked after. God is presented as a liar and the church as an institution interested in covering up this fact.

The evidence is clear that pop culture is fascinated with the Bible. With references, fictionalizations and reactions to what's written in its pages, the Bible is part of pop culture and there is something inherent about it that is applicable to all people. Secular and pop culture are not the absence of it, rather the result of the Bible.

Works Cited and Consulted

Benson, Iain T. "Considering Secularism." Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society. Ed. Douglas Farrow. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004. 83 - 98. Print.

Bin Talal, Hassan. "Religion in the Public Realm." Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society. Ed. Douglas Farrow. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004. 3 - 11. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Religion and Culture. Trans. Various. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Ostwalt, Conrad. Secular Steeples. New York: Trinity Press International, 2003. Print.

Scruton, Roger. Culture Counts. New York: Brief Encounters, 2007. Print.

"Joining Coldplay's musical journey." Ian Young, 6 June 2008. Web. 03 Dec. 2009 <>

"Movies, TV and The Bible." Dan Clanton, n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2009. <>

"List of films featuring extraterrestrials." Wikipedia, n.d. 07 Dec. 2009 <>