Pop Culture: Finding Meaning and Purpose in the Neighborhood

There is a picture in my office that I look at frequently for inspiration. It was taken circa 1986 in the sanctuary of my home church where I was a student minister. Fred Rogers (yes, as in “Mister Rogers”) has his arm around me; he and his family were members of this congregation. You can see a drum kit and amps in the background by the Communion Table. On that fateful morning, the band in which I played guitar had performed an anti-nuke song I’d written as the “anthem”, and we played Little Richard’s “Lucille” as the Offertory. It was a church willing to stretch the boundaries of liturgy… to say the least.

As a kid, I received Mister Rogers’s affirmation while watching his TV show, so having the Mister Rogers in the congregation on Sunday mornings watching me was somewhat daunting. “Would he really like me as I am? Did he really want to be my neighbor?” In the end, it was an honor to know Fred Roger as a fellow worshipper and as a supportive member of the church to which we both belonged.

Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who utilized the medium of television for his ministry. For him, the congregation happened to be on the other side of a cathode tube. I was privileged to perform a tribute to him ten years ago on the 30th anniversary of his work with children. March of this year marked the fortieth anniversary of Fred’s TV ministry. Sadly, Fred Rogers died in 2004, but his wife Joanne continues his work through Family Communications in Pittsburgh, PA.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood instilled and nurtured spiritual values in countless children via television. The inherent self-worth of the person, tolerance and respect for others, a sense of wonder for the beauty of the world, creating meaning and purpose were all communicated at a child’s level of understanding. He built his ministry on a foundation of childhood development, and underpinned it with a theological foundation. Interacting with Trolley, Henrietta, or Dr. Bill (based on one of Fred’s seminary professors), viewers were invited to transcend the TV screen and become neighbors through a (then) nascent technology. The lives of many children and adults were touched and shaped by Fred Rogers via this particular medium of pop culture.

Photo: Gene J. Puskar, AP

The descendents of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood are today’s social networks, sites where one can create a “second life”, cyber-spaces where people attain neighbor status through the emergent technology of the Internet. Many of us are immigrants to this new world; many more are natives. All of us are seekers of pretty much the same thing: meaning and purpose. Pascal Boyer suggests that humans are created to have a spirituality, so whether we’re religionists or atheists, we all strive toward the transcendent. Religionists tend to seek their source for meaning in a Transcendent reality (God), while atheists tend to find purpose in a Humanistic trajectory. (Admittedly, this is grossly simplistic, so my apologies to both groups.)

However, these differences are meaningless when it comes to pop culture. When Yael Naim’s “New Soul” introduces the new MacBook Air, I hear a deeply religious message and my thoughts bounce back and forth from Martin Buber to Paul Tillich to Teilhard de Chardin — theologians who looked at life from a faith perspective. Others could be thinking of humanity in the cosmic scope of things, and recall the writings of Arthur Clarke, Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein — authors who looked at the world from a humanistic perspective. Still others may be inclined to throw their PC notebook at the TV because the songs drive them crazy. (Confession: Even as a Mac evangelist, that’s my reaction.)

Pop culture, by its very nature, addresses human themes through mass media. For me, the difference between what Fred Rogers did and what the Coen brothers do is not all that great. OK, Javier Badim’s character is a lot creepier than Mr. McFeely. But the message of humans struggling to make meaning and find purpose in life cannot easily be pegged as “religious” or “non-religious” when pop culture is the vehicle by which that message is communicated. While “Christian music” is big business, it is not pop music because its intent is not to reach a non-partisan audience. Christian music is not “pop” music, it is “Christian” music. Duh.

Take Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love”. I can hear two songs at once here: during Lent and in the context of “passion” stories, I hear a Christian love song; and I hear a passionate song about human love. My experience and the context sends me “into the mystic” while another listener may be… in lust. Is there a big difference? Not really. When the Jonas Brothers sing “When you look me in the eye / I see a glimpse of heaven”, I think about St. Paul telling the Roman church that he can only dimly see God now, but will see more clearly in the presence of the Divine. The theologian Paul Tillich deciphered the world “christically”, i.e. a sacramental representation of the Divine in all things. Is it then possible to understand pop culture in a similar way? I think so; I do it all the time and have done so for decades.

Granted, it’s hard if not impossible to see all of pop culture in a “christic” way. What do you do with Pulp Fiction, Lil Wayne’s “Lolipop”, or any number of pornographic movies? On the other hand, what do you make of the rape and torture and violence in the Bible? (To wit: As I write this, Ziggy Marley’s “In the Name of God” is on Last.fm.) For me, these biblical stories provide a narrative about human existence and how humans make sense of (or excuse) acts of violence (committed by and to them). They are stories not be duplicated, but to be told to the tribe (neighborhood) as tribal members make sense of the world in which they live. Isn’t all pop culture an expression of the existential dilemma humans face? Our ancestors sat around flickering fires at night and told tales and created myths; we sit around imperceptible flickering pixilated screens and commune on Facebook and MySpace and Second Life and blogs. Maybe wikis are just the latest form of tribal story-telling.

Postmodernism has many nuances, and I’m not sure we can agree on what it is or means, but at its core I understand this worldview to be person-centered: human experience and personal construction of meaning-making take priority over rationalistic, authority-based meaning. Conservative critics of postmodernism claim that the logical outcome of this worldview is a “me first” or extreme self-centeredness, i.e. the world revolves around me and my interests. Contextual ethics or situational ethics replace a universal ethic. But we do construct our own meaning with pop culture and religion despite (and in spite of) the critics. Context and experience are everything. One person finds Feist uplifting, while another… watch out plasma TV! The King (Modernism) is dead. Long live the Queen (Post-modernism)!

Yet, we cannot escape that we are also communal beings. It takes more than a village to raise a child in this modern world. It takes a world to raise a child. Maybe it even takes a child to raise a world. Our interconnectedness is evident in our online communities, community-based organizations, places of worship, P2P sharing, et. al. It’s now pretty trite to repeat it, but here goes anyway: We live in a global village from which we cannot escape. While our meaning-making is personal, it’s always constructed in some form of community. In The Village, M. Night Shyamalan depicted a community in seclusion (and denial) from the violent, malevolent world. When this film was released in 2004, such a quasi-utopian community was possible to imagine, but in 2008 I can’t conceive of this even being remotely possible. Anyone with Google Earth could find these xenophobes in about 2.3 seconds!

Now, to bring it all back home: I remember the day I first heard “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I remember who I was with and where I was — with my best friend in his green Maverick driving down a road in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania. The memory is sensational — visceral, neurological, emotive. It is both personal and communal. My neighborhood on that day was on four wheels doing about 50 mph. Your neighborhood might be going 400 mps on a MacBook. We construct our meaning from where we are, from who we are, and what we’ve done and where we’ve been. The “mixtape” for our contemporary neighborhood is an admixture of the best and worst of the music of our lives, and it is tribal music at its core. What satisfies our soul is the communal, pop nature of the music — the music that allows us (even encourages us) to find our place in the world and to derive meaning from “where we are.”

As far as I can determine, I was the sole journalist to cover Bob Marley’s last concert on September 23, 1980 at the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was a stringer for the Beaver County Times, and I’d covered many shows before, many of which I dreaded. However, this assignment was different. During and after college, I worked at a record store (Flo’s Records) and we’d broken sales records for Marley’s Live album as an import. So I was ready for this gig. My review quoted a passage from the biblical book of Exodus and made frequent references to spiritual highs (and the all-pervasive fragrance of ganja). Marley’s concert was a religious experience for me and, I dare say, a spiritual high even for the non-religious in attendance. The performance took me beyond myself (transcendence) and was enchanting (prayer-like), his skanking was joyous (spiritually uplifting), and his call for justice inspirational (prophetic). If church were only a wee bit like this. And it’s this that makes popular culture important, because people as disparate as Fred Rogers and Robert Nesta Marley — using the media of pop culture — invite us to be connected to something bigger than ourselves and make sense of our human condition.

Institutional religion has many horrible elements that have no redeeming value, but so, too, does pop culture (cf. The Cowsills, Jackass, Britney Spears). But the human person has the capacity for doing great good and for creating wonderful works of art. Popular culture is a means for expressing the narrative of the human situation and for constructing meaning and purpose for one’s life. It’s quite true that you do not need to attend worship to be religious or to have a spiritual life, but I believe it is equally true that we find great meaning and purpose when we do it in community. That community can be a house of worship, in a concert venue, with a TV audience, via digital downloads, or through Web 2.0.

I completely resonate with one particular line from Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender”: “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby / Than we ever learned in school”. Anti-authoritarian? Sure. Personal? Yep. But please note the “we.” Won’t you be my neighbor?

Doug Gebhard is an ordained Presbyterian Church (USA) minister currently serving as the pastor of a church in North Carolina. Prior to pastoral ministry, he worked in the record business, was a stringer for a western Pennsylvania newspaper, and played guitar in a Pittsburgh-based band. His biggest claim to fame was getting trashed in The Village Voice in 1981 by another Pittsburgh musician. He deserved it. Mea cupla.