- Mainline Churches and Popular Culture: An Introduction to a Special Issue
The study of the intersection of religion and popular culture has grown exponentially in past decades and, gradually, has developed into an independent and increasingly recognized field of study. A constantly growing scholarly literature has now coalesced around the subject, including edited volumes highlighting the diversity of the field (e.g., Forbes and Mahan 2000; Mazur and McCarthy 2001; Lynch 2007; Lyden and Mazur 2015; van Nieuwkerk, LeVine, and Stokes 2016; Partridge and Moberg 2017) as well as detailed monographs aimed at developing more cohesive approaches and interpretive frameworks (e.g., Partridge 2004, 2014; Chidester 2005; Lynch 2005; Possamai 2005).
This scholarship has typically been based on a broad and inclusive understanding of culture that strives to avoid binary and hierarchical–typological understandings that differentiate between, for example, “high,” “low,” “folk,” “popular,” or “mass” types of culture. Focusing, in particular, on mass-mediated popular cultural forms such as film, television, popular music, comic books, computer games, and so on, several studies have highlighted the present-day mass-mediated popular cultural environment as a de-traditionalizing and re-sacralizing force that has developed into an ever more central resource and environment for religious exploration and practice for increasing numbers of people today (e.g., Partridge 2004; Hoover 2006).
Following these developments, the realm of popular culture has become central to an adequate understanding of contemporary transformations in the religious field as a whole. Since its beginnings, a notable part of the study of religion and popular culture has focused on the appropriation of various forms of popular culture by religious groups. The bulk of all previous work in this area has focused on evangelical communities and/or some aspect of the so-called evangelical popular culture industry, especially in a North American context (e.g., Howard and Streck 1999; Hendershot 2004; Luhr 2009; Woods 2013). This is not surprising considering how North American evangelical communities have long been at the forefront of Christian engagements with popular culture—a trend that has been continued by Pentecostal and charismatic churches in the Global South. But the impact of the present-day mass-mediated popular cultural environment has also become increasingly visible in traditional and institutional “mainline” Christian church settings. Following the general long-term decline of institutional mainline Christianity across the Western world and the gradual erosion of traditional structures and mechanisms of religious socialization, many mainline Christian churches now find themselves gazing toward the realm of popular culture as a possible avenue through which to remain culturally relevant and to reconnect with younger age groups.
Currently, ongoing transformations in the general character of institutional mainline Christianity, however, have only received a limited amount of scholarly attention. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that the scholarship on contemporary Christianity in the West on the whole has directed a disproportionate amount of attention at various types of non-denominational, cross-denominational, or “post”-denominational evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic communities at the expense of a more sustained focus on the changing [End Page 1] character of long-established institutional mainline churches (e.g., Wuthnow and Evans 2002, 2; Stausberg 2008, 314; Coffman 2013, 4). This tendency has been even more pronounced when it comes to the scholarship on Christian communities’ various engagements with popular culture.
This special issue is motivated by a desire to counter this trend. It is grounded in the firm contention that an adequate understanding of currently ongoing transformations in mainline Christian religious life and practice in the West is contingent upon an open recognition of the ways in which the survival and persistence of mainline churches has become ever more closely “related to their ability to generate subcultural worlds of media and popular culture through which adherents feel part of a wider collective, learn and maintain particular sensory and aesthetic regimes for encountering their vision of the sacred, and find reinforcement for particular ways of seeing and acting in the world” (Lynch 2010, 552). The impact of popular culture on contemporary mainline Christian life and practice constitutes a highly notable, but thus far largely overlooked, facet of contemporary institutional religious change that raises...