Pop culture and spirituality without religion

David Bowie used religious imagery in his "Next Day" video(Photo: Adam Bielawski)

Pop artists are fond of provocative religious imagery, but Ted Turnau says that should not be surprising for Christians and rather than getting offended, they should be looking for ways to come alongside today's secularised pop stars to help them use such religious imagery appropriately.

Turnau teaches cultural and religious studies in Prague, his adopted city, and in his latest book "Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective", he expounds the importance of engaging in popular culture because of its influence on many aspects of society.

He believes the use of religious symbols reflects the desire people have for spirituality but not for religion.

"We want something spiritual, but we want our freedom and we hate religious authority and the abuses that we know go with it," he says.

In the last few decades, post-Christian Western societies have seen large numbers of people leave the church. These people "have largely lost their way" and explored other paths, says Turnau, but "besides proclaiming their freedom to live as they please and endorse an increasing number of alternative lifestyles, there really is little by way of positive direction for living".

Ted thinks most people looking to live a good life end up concluding that "consumerism makes a lousy life-philosophy" and they turn inevitably to spirituality. But again, he stresses, they want it on their own  terms.

"Many popular cultural figures grasp at religious symbols in a gambit to find something meaningful, while also attempting to domesticate it to their own perspective."

High profile artists like David Bowie, Lady Gaga and Madonna have used religious imagery in a way that has upset Christians or just left them plain confused. Much has been written about Lady Gaga's song "Judas" and the many ways it can be understood.

"In the age of Madonna and Lady Gaga, this kind of use of religious imagery is to be expected," says Ted.

A lot of the religious imagery used by pop artists seems to make the point that there is "corruption in the church, but Jesus is OK". David Bowie is no exception with his video for "The Next Day", which portrayed religious figures in debauched scenes and a prostitute experiencing stigmata.

Bowie expresses a strong cynicism towards institutionalised Christianity while "still entertaining an escape clause for Jesus", Turnau believes.

"I don't want to simply dismiss it as shock and titillation. We are in a period where religious imagery is at one and the same time seen as toothless - Christianity is tired, it has had its day - and potentially explosive, and deeply divisive."

The video is clearly critical of religious leaders. Gary Oldman features as a corrupt priest dancing with prostitutes. On the one hand, there are the pastors and priests who look good on the outside, but on the inside they harbour corruption, Turnau notes.

"We Christians often look better than we actually are," he admits. If Christians did not "act so stiff, so conformist, but have the freedom to be ourselves, to be approachable, to be human, perhaps there would be less occasion for cynicism", he argues.

Yet there are still things that can be learned from it, he says. For one thing, Turnau appreciates the moment when the prostitute, played by Marion Cotillard, finally turns in devotion towards Jesus.

She is "disreputable on the outside, but literally allows her inside passion for Christ to come outside".

"Grace breaks into this scene and disrupts the order of the day," he says, which is for him a very relevant way to look at grace: "Grace, when it comes, is often messy and disturbing."

By contrast, Jesus appears in the video devoid of authority, he notes. Jesus is portrayed as a prophet "who is not in power, but instead stands outside of the religious institution".

Turnau sees a challenge for Christians in being able to communicate that Jesus does in fact have spiritual authority over the church and that Jesus is the head of his church, even with all its faults and flaws.

"We must find ways of showing that Jesus is for the church and in the church," he says.

It is easy for Christians to judge and get offended but Turnau thinks that is just a waste of our time and energy.

"We must rather see what is trying to be said through such images, without necessarily approving of the way they are used.

"Getting upset at secular people grasping at religious symbols is rather like getting huffy over a drowning man grasping at the floating branches floating by. He's making use of what's available. He may be doing it all wrong, but quite possibly it's all that he knows."

Importantly, Turnau wants Christians to see beyond the provocative tone to the opportunity "to come alongside such people and their fans, and enter into relationship with them".

He concludes: "We need to walk them through how to do it right, how to use these symbols with the proper respect and affection that we know so well."