It’s easy to count the ways that pop culture, at its worst, pollutes our media environment.
At the top of the list, I’d put mindless movies and video games that promise high body counts and reality TV shows that turn others’ messy lives into “entertainment.”
But at its best, pop culture can also educate, launch national conversations and deepen our sense of the world.
Take my beat – faith and values.
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Over the past week or so, I’ve been on the lookout for ways pop culture can contribute to our understanding of religion and, more broadly, the ethical issues we all face.
▪ “Downton Abbey,” PBS’ popular British import, can be entertaining as soap opera. But, more subtly, its weekly episodes make for riveting history lessons. We are shown, in meticulous detail, how oligarchies – small groups of rich people, the 1 percenters – ruled nations, steering virtually all the privileges (social, educational and financial) to those who lived upstairs and very few to the downstairs maids, cooks and footmen.
Recently, the show reminded us how prevalent anti-Semitism was in the 1920s. It came via a subplot about young love – Lady Rose of Downton’s Grantham clan becomes romantically interested in Atticus Aldridge. Over two episodes, we learn that Atticus’ family fled Russia to avoid murderous pogroms targeting Jews, that the family has shed its Jewish-sounding last name and that, while the Granthams are OK with the expected engagement of Lady Rose and Atticus, at least one blue-blooded Englishman in their company is not.
▪ The Super Bowl, the Oscars, the Grammys – Those are about the only times anymore when much of the nation gathers for the same event. The main interest: Who’s going to win? But a close second is: How will these onscreen people act in the spotlight? And when their behavior is boorish, a national conversation happens. Ask Kanye West, who won mostly catcalls during and after the Grammys for his disrespectful antics protesting Beyoncé’s loss to Beck for Album of the Year. Apparently, West got the message: He mocked his behavior a few nights later, on another high-rated telecast, the one saluting the 40th anniversary of “Saturday Night Live.”
▪ Speaking of “SNL,” last Sunday’s parade of past clips reminded us that some of its best bits over the years have focused on religion. Dana Carvey’s Church Lady was the definitive put-down of smug religiosity. Father Guido Sarducci managed to tweak the Vatican’s then-royalist trappings with his “Find the Pope in the Pizza” contest. And Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” was both touching and hilarious: “When you feel like the only kid in town without a Christmas tree/ Here’s a list of people who are Jewish just like you and me./ David Lee Roth lights the menorah/ So do James Caan, Kirk Douglas and the late Dinah Shore-ah.”