Good afternoon folks! On this warm winter day I thought it’d be nice to bring you something fun. Over January Term I took this super cool class called “Theology and Pop Culture,” taught by Adjunct Professor Jessica DeCou. Our class was a pretty lively bunch from all different backgrounds (diversity? at McCormick you say?) and it was truly a pleasure learning from Jessica and all those in the class. Because I had so much fun, and I think Theology and Popular Culture is a subject worthy of attention by seminarians, I thought I’d introduce you to Jessica and have her explain why her field of study is such a big deal (plus lots of fun clips for you to watch!)
Wes: Tell us who you are and a little about yourself.
Jessica: I am a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School, completing a dissertation on Karl Barth’s theology of culture and its import for the study of popular entertainment. My hobbies include watching TV and … um…
W: What got you interested in theology/pop culture?
J: Remember Scrooged (Love that movie, by the way – Bill Murray is a rock star), when the Ghost of Christmas Past brings Bill Murray to the realization that most of his childhood memories were actually things that happened to kids on TV? That’s me. As a kid, I spent most of my time with TV (“television: teacher, mother, secret lover,” as Homer Simpson so rightly put it). After school, I’d do homework while watching reruns of Three’s Company and Bosom Buddies, then later I would watch reruns of M*A*S*H or The Rockford Files with my grandpa. To this day, I still remember the prime-time schedules for certain nights of particular seasons (e.g. 1986 CBS Mondays, 1987 NBC Thursdays, 1988 NBC Saturdays). And, as an adult, I’ve found that there is a relevant TV theme song for every life lesson (how much better would the world be if we all just embraced the theme to Diff’rent Strokes – God bless you, Alan Thicke).
Being raised by two Pentecostal preachers did not inhibit my love of popular culture. At church, my grandma would often take popular songs from her youth and adjust the lyrics to turn them into gospel songs. My mother and aunt would do the same on their sheet music for love songs of the 70s and 80s.
Growing up in this kind of environment meant that I had to think theologically about popular culture from the start.
W: Here’s a three parter – You taught a class this past J-Term entitled “Theology and Pop Culture.” What does theology have to do with pop culture (or vice versa)?
J: We are all consumers of popular entertainment (and those who claim they aren’t are lying). And so, in today’s media-saturated environment, developing critical tools for engaging pop-culture is essential not only for theologians and clergy, but for all who seek to understand the relationship between their faith commitments and their responsibilities as cultural consumers.
Moreover, I strongly believe that popular culture has unique contributions to make to human flourishing, such as encouraging play and fellowship (but I better not spoil the whole plot of my dissertation just yet).
W: What made you want to teach this class?
J: It is every doctoral student’s dream to teach his/her dissertation. I’m just grateful McCormick was willing to give me the opportunity.
W: Why at McCormick?
J: An ongoing problem in academic theology is that this kind of work is often not very useful or relevant to clergy or their congregations. Working with the Louisville Institute has really helped me to recognize the need for regular, meaningful conversations between theologians working in the academy and theologians working in ministry (and, yes, I believe every minister is also always a theologian). The eventual objective of even the most theoretical research is to have some practical import for the “real world” – all theology must be, in some sense, practical theology.
So, I felt that the best way to make my own work relevant was to try to develop a course on the subject specifically with ministry students in mind. In other words, I was hoping that the course would be just as much a learning experience for me as for the students. And that’s exactly what happened. It was pretty great.
W: So you’re a tv buff – what is your favorite show (or shows) on right now?
J: Too much to choose from. Let’s see…
Breaking Bad (AMC) – because it’s not only the greatest drama on TV right now, but I also like to think of it as the darkest comedy in TV history (I was going to link to an example, but I thought better of it).
Parks & Rec (NBC) – because Ron Swanson, that’s why.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX) – because of the implication (better not link to this one either…).
Southland (TNT) – because it sometimes gives me nightmares.
Louie (FX) – just because.
Justified (FX) – because it has the best villains on TV. FACT.
Mad Men (AMC) – because we’re all supposed to say we like it, even when it’s boring (what?).
Cougar Town (ABC) – because penny can is the best game ever.
W: If you could only watch one tv show for the rest of your life, what would it be?
J: The questions keep getting harder!
I suppose I would probably end up choosing Deadwood (since I still watch it all the time and can’t seem to tire of it). But I’d also have to consider something more silly and fun, like Better Off Ted. Or maybe even Lost since, unlike the other two short-lived series, it has 120 episodes to choose from, although far too many of them feature Jack and/or Kate (they’re the worst!).
W: In class it was pretty apparent you really like both Louis C.K. and Jimmy Fallon. In a fight between them (we ask the same thing about super heroes, so why not comedians?), who would win?
J: Hmm… Are we talking UFC, WWE, professional boxing, or just a street fight?
Jimmy Fallon’s got a lot of speed – he’s energetic and nimble. But it seems very possible that Louis C.K. has a vast emotional caldera that could erupt at any moment. With that in mind, I guess I’d say:
UFC = Louis C.K.; WWE = Fallon; Boxing = Fallon; Street Fight = Louis C.K.
W: Back to theology - last October you wrote an article on Zombies – what exactly do Zombies have to do with theology or religious life?
J: Zombies are an odd case – they elicit creativity and playfulness in a way unlike any other mythical/literary creature. You have people enacting make-believe zombie apocalypses, making Amazon lists for surviving the real deal, writing legal codes for the protection of (or abolition of) zombie rights, and so on. My favorite was the couple who killed a zombie in their wedding photos.
Surely, then, this phenomenon has theological significance, right?
So, I guess the reason I wanted to write about them was because I wanted to understand why they stimulate these very constructive human attributes. I still haven’t figured it out, though. My best guess is that, by forcing us to consider questions of enormous existential/ethical/theological/philosophical significance (e.g., what it means to be human, what it means to live and to die), they elicit an appreciation for human life and incite people to (as Barth would put it) “seize our limited time as a unique opportunity.” Just a theory…
A big thanks is in order to Jessica DeCou! Thanks for having this chat and for coming to McCormick to share your research and your awesome video/game making skills! For those of you who are now craving more from Jessica, read another article from her about Karl Barth and Craig Furgeson.
Have a great weekend!