Know Thy Pop Culture
Engaging the philosophy of pop culture is both missional and prophetic, bringing Christian thought to a rapid-fire topic and truth to a fallen world.
4 min. read
March 7, 2018

In Redeemer’s Philosophy major and minor, students learn experientially by joining public conversation on a topic that dominates both the web and water cooler — pop culture. My students and I have together authored almost 30 chapters in books such as Jurassic Park and Philosophy (where we develop a brief Christian argument for limited animal cloning), Star Wars and Philosophy (where we discuss the nature of a just ruler by comparing Plato’s philosopher-kings and the Jedi), Alien and Philosophy (where we argue that some exposure to violence is part of good childhood education) and Wonder Woman and Philosophy (where we present a Christian perspective on enhanced interrogation).

Through projects such as these, we are engaged in what Reformed philosopher and 2017 Templeton Prize winner Alvin Plantinga calls “Christian philosophical and cultural criticism.” In such criticism, a philosopher seeks out the “mental atmosphere [of a work],” as C. S. Lewis called it. The philosopher uncovers, for example, the beliefs and principles in a work that might run in opposition to Christianity. Such criticism also involves apologetics since, as Lewis also insists, “Good philosophy must exist if for no other reason than that bad philosophy must be answered.” And if we know anything about Lewis, we know that he was interested in engaging bad philosophy and theology in both low- and high-brow works.

“Popular culture is claimed by Christ, and we would be poor servants indeed if we were to neglect this influential area.”

To engage in this sort of outward-looking project, we must first look inward. A proper view of the self and a proper view of creation require knowledge of God. The now well-known phrase “know thyself” was first inscribed in an Egyptian temple in Thebes during the time of the biblical exodus. In that same temple, the body is described as the “temple of the god.” For these Egyptians, then, to “know thyself” — to be genuinely self-aware — was to be aware that there is a being and power greater than one’s self.

Of course, non-Christians can, by God’s grace, have the knowledge of much of our world’s reality, and yet be ignorant of God’s being. For Christians, Christ is the creator of our minds and the source of their renewal. Through Christ, we are able to more fully and accurately discern the nature of creation, to see the scope and depth of the historical fall and to consider how redemption might take hold.

Reformed philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd argued that the phrase “know thyself” ought to be written above the entryways of every philosophy department. Philosophy, Dooyeweerd explains, works foundationally in all academic disciplines. The grounding of the Christian in Christ shapes the direction that our philosophy takes, and this scholarship applies as broadly as the creation itself.

“The philosopher, like both the missionary and the prophet, is engaged in bringing truth to a fallen world.”

H. Evan Runner (a Reformed philosopher after whom the endowed chair in the Philosophy department is named) once described the Christian philosopher as a “prophet” — one who should boldly take the truth of God revealed in Scripture and nature to a lost world. While the word “prophet” might not be the most apt here, perhaps the Christian philosopher engaged in cultural criticism could be described as a “missionary.” The philosopher, like both the missionary and the prophet, is engaged in bringing truth to a fallen world.

But, like the missionary and unlike the prophet, the philosopher is more humble about his or her knowledge — more teachable — often learning from the culture that he or she engages, even while seeking to bring salt and light to it. The philosopher engaged in cultural criticism is not restricted only to academic areas that are deemed “proper” or “respectable,” but, like the missionary, goes where the Lord calls. “Every square inch of the universe,” say both C. S. Lewis and Abraham Kuyper, “is claimed by Christ.” Popular culture, then, is also claimed by Christ, and we would be poor servants indeed if we were to neglect this influential area.

For Thales, the first Greek philosopher and the one who imported the phrase “know thyself” to the West, knowing thyself was not just about knowing the divine aspect, but about the awareness that the self is very much a limited, fallible and dying thing. Thus, the right-thinking philosopher walks humbly in his or her work, never snobbish in what he or she investigates because love of, and obedience to, the Real, the True, the Good and Beautiful — God — is ever the goal.

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