Meet Our Teachers: Three Stooges, Harry Potter, Homer Simpson

(Listen to the Dick Staub interview with Heidi Neumark about her book, “Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx,” today at “The”.).

There’s a new survey out that again shows the dominance of pop culture as America’s most influential teacher. Among the findings in the press release:

¢â‚¬¢ Americans are more familiar with the Seven Dwarfs, The Three Stooges, Harry Potter, Homer Simpson and Superman than the news of the day, world leaders or classic literature according to a new national poll¢â‚¬¦

¢â‚¬¢ When asked to name two of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs and two of the nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices, 77% of Americans polled were able to identify two dwarfs, while only 24% could name two Supreme Court Justices.

¢â‚¬¢ When knowledge of classic literature was compared to popular animated series, 60% of poll respondents were able to identify Homer as the father of Bart Simpson, while only 21% could name one of Homer’s epic Greek poems. Knowledge of government did not fare much better with 73% of those polled able to name all three of The Three Stooges, while only 42% could name the three branches of government.

Today pundits will differ in the meaning of these findings. The Neil Postman crowd will bemoan the “dumbing down” of America¢â‚¬¦The “communicate like the Apostle Paul at Mars Hill” crowd will be arguing for better cultural literacy¢â‚¬¦the “let’s use film to tell the stories” to influence culture will trot out this and dozens of other stories and can even ballast their argument with a quote from Plato, “Let me write the songs of a nation and I care not who writes its laws¢â‚¬¦”

On the obvious front we have Mark Burnett , award-winning reality TV producer and creator of AOL’s Gold Rush for which the poll was commissioned said, “”America thrives on pop culture – clearly these poll results support that. People absorb this information like sponges, and our game, Gold Rush lets you turn all of that accumulated knowledge into gold.”

On the slightly more interesting front Professor Robert Thompson founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture and Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University proclaimed, “These results are not about how ‘dumb’ Americans are, but about how much more effectively popular culture information is communicated and retained by citizens than many of the messages that come from government, educational institutions and the media. There are important lessons to be learned here.”

As one who aspires to be a culturally savvy Christian (preorder your copy now at amazon!), let me remind you that our relationship with culture is holistic and interdependent.

1) We are called to communicate in culture and this survey reminds us that today’s common language is popular culture. Learn the language your audience speaks!

2) We are called to create culture and great artists advance the medium in which they work Shakespeare, Mozart and others took the form of the day and nuanced it to a greater, richer use. Create don’t imitate!

3) We are called to “counter-culture.” When Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw dangerous developments shaping up in Germany, he was determined to mount a “theological resistance” not primarily a political one. Popular culture does represent a “dumbing down,” a mindlessness and as such, while as communicators and creators we embrace the positive opportunities, as countercultural aliens, we address the theological issues head on—mindlessness is incompatible with loving God with the mind, inordinate attention to diversionary entertainments is inconsistent with rolling up our sleeves and addressing societal ills and loving our neighbors; technology’s upside is matched by a dehumanizing downside¢â‚¬¦ The emergence of popular culture and electronic media poses opportunities, but it also represents a dangerous development.

We are created in the image of God with extraordinary spiritual, intellectual, creative, relational and moral capacities¢â‚¬¦let’s prove it by living rich, fully human lives, demanding more of our age’s teacher and accompanying our demand with active participation

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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