Letter from the Editor: Pop Culture Cults and the Cultists Among Us

Remember when planking was a thing? Countless pictures were posted on social media of people lying facedown in unexpected places, such as busy streets, escalators, supermarkets, and zoos. As participants clamored for the best plank ever, accidents and injuries ensued.

Other trends and fads have come and gone since the planking days, covering all elements of culture. We’ve seen selifies and selfie sticks, Gangnam Style, Netflix, Whole30, coloring books for grownups, CrossFit, La Croix, and Hamilton. Today, Pokemon Go is the current craze, with daily active users nearing that of Twitter—and that’s just in the first week.

We are inexplicably drawn to shiny new things that make us laugh, inspire, evoke hope, or instill a sense of status.

We are inexplicably drawn to shiny new things that make us laugh, inspire, evoke hope, or instill a sense of status. Christians have, in the past, bucked what’s popular, drawing distinct lines between themselves and culture. The lines are fading as of late, with plenty of Christians participating in fads that were once taboo. Or, perhaps, people of faith are just more willing to be honest about their pop culture involvement. Either way, Christians are not immune to the trend du jour. Some are rather harmless; others reveal deeper concerns of heart and soul that need tending to. This issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, titled Pop Culture Cults, presents features and support pieces pointing to cultural icons and artifacts with cult-like status.

Preston Yancey speaks to our tendency to revere popular personalities and jump on the latest craze in “Bought with a Price: ‘Fixer Upper’ and Our Relics of Comfort”:

“Despite ourselves we still manage to go looking for saints and relics even when we don’t claim to be. While Protestants want to call every believer a saint, we reserve a particular esteem for some of our more public faithful. The usual conference headliners, the bestselling authors, the reality television stars. While we might not call them saints in the Catholic sense, we nonetheless revere them all the same. We’ll stand in line for hours to get a minute of face-time with them . . . send emails asking for their prayers . . . buy their books, their albums, their home furnishings—their relics, if we’re honest about it, because there’s something about owning something that comes from them that we believe transfers to us something of them. There is something about them we want and, I think if we’re honest, that something has to do with what we believe their intimacy with God to be.”

Our desire to be associated with certain people and movements eventually influences our speech. What we say and how we say it is a product of those we listen to most. In “Rejecting the Cult of Christianese,” Caitlin Elliott considers our tendency toward group speak with her analysis of Hulu’s original series The Path:

“The problem in and of itself isn’t that Christians have a specific language set. All groups, when together long enough, develop a unified way of communication that may seem strange or unfamiliar to outsiders. The problem arises, then, when our use of these words takes on a life of its own and develops into a “cult of language” that perpetuates an insider vs. outsider mentality.”

Having a shared vocabulary isn’t wrong, but being aware of how it makes outsiders feel is needful. Our words tell others not only what’s in and what’s out but they also communicate who’s in and who’s out—the lines that tell us we’re included are the same ones that exclude others. Crossing these invisible cultural lines is happening more and more. Eric Bierker explores how craft beer has become acceptable among Christians as of late. In “Something Brew(ing) under the Sun,” Bierker opines:

“Drinking good craft beer is a libational refutation of Gnosticism—that is, pleasure derived from the physical world is intrinsically evil. Northup said that humanity, as image bearers of God, are to create and craft, beer or otherwise, and it is an essential part of our calling.”

Like beer, pop culture is often avoided out of fear that it is “intrinsically evil.” We fool ourselves, however, if we believe that being a few steps behind the rest of society means we are safe from cult-like behaviors. We produce sanitized, group-approved variations to fill the void.

The way we interact with cultural fads and trends—whether that be craft beer, vintage home décor, or insider language—matters. Whether we participate or refrain, the heart is involved and churning up all manner of motives and judgments. This is where the work must be done, down deep. The latest trends are calling, and how we respond says something about us.