“We do not realise to what extent we are a bad copy of what the world offers”
Journalist and theologian José de Segovia reflects on the evolution of culture in the last decade, how it has affected evangelical Christians, and what new challenges they face.
Protestante Digital · MADRID · 30 JANUARY 2020 · 10:27 CET
In the beginning of the last decade, chronicles were coming back to literature, biographies gained ground again in cinema, and an amalgam of TV series made their appearance.
Netflix started its expansion in Europe in 2012. One year later, its series House of Cards made us fantasise about the imaginary of politics. Later in the decade, Sufjan Stevens sang to the “Lonely man of winter”, and the book of Svetlana Alexievich resurrected the “Voices from Chernobyl”.
“It seems that survival lies in the variety”, says José de Segovia, a journalist and theologian in Madrid (Spain) who writes regularly on the Between the Lines column.
But the searching for new profits in business also opened the doors of cultural production in the so-called faith and values industry.
The recreation of the book of Acts or the life of New Testament characters returned to the screen, while in the literature authors reflected on the value of spirituality in the process of historical development. However, according to Segovia, “everything tends to normalise in a uniformity that, sadly, has become the greatest enemy of cultural richness”.
José de Segovia joins our series of in-depth interviews to review the main issues that have marked the decade, analysing what has happened in the field of culture.
“The great challenge of Christians is whether they are going to have their own Christian fantasy, oblivious to reality, or if they are going to face the reality of society from the perspective of Christian faith”, De Segovia says.
Question. In general, how do you see the development of the relationship between Christians and culture in the last decade?
Answer. I think that technological development has marked culture in general in this decade.
Christians have had a presence but, as it happens so many times, it has not been to make a difference but to imitate many of the models out there of social media, and its aggressive way of interaction, always looking for controversy and conflict.
If I had to highlight one thing about this decade, it would be the way in which apologetics was done, mainly seeking the element of conflict.
Q. How do you think the emergence of streaming platforms such as Netflix, HBO or PrimeVideo, the promotion of micro sponsorship, or the rise of independent publishing houses have impacted the cultural paradigm?
A. Those are the most significant issues, yes, at least at the end of these ten years.
No one would think at the beginning of this decade that streaming platforms were going to have an economic viability. Not so many years ago, people watched the series using illegal means. But we have seen how these platforms have been standardised because they have created what appears to be a substitute for television.
The television subsists, but just for a segment of the population that is not so familiar with the use of the computer - much programmes on TV is done now thinking about that sector of population. The middle-aged adult audience and the youth are going after the online platforms.
Micro sponsorship and independent publishers appeal to a bigger minority. It is a segment that continues to buy the impressive offer of books that are still available in the market. It seems that the few who read, read everything they can. It is also true that most readers are women. Many works are authored by women who are ware that the audience they are targeting is mainly female as well. The progressive dumbing down of the male reader, who increasingly lacks reading culture, is regrettable. They are not recipients of general literature.
Q. The decade began with an economic recession that announced serious effects in all areas, including culture. How would you define the survival of the sector at this time?
A. The normalisation of certain new platforms and the appearance of the podcast have been surprising. The radio survived television quite well, but now another type of access to all kinds of audio content arises, even in parallel to the irruption of YouTube.
It is a process that resembles what happened to music. It was said that the vinyl would disappear and everything would be on CDs. However, the former have survived, just as television will also survive online platforms.
This survival has a lot to do with the variety of the market. It is precisely that diversity which allows independent publishing houses to survive.
When there is a concentration in a small number of products, the cultural product has much less chances of survival. Internet allows access to many products produced for a small minority, which were very difficult to find in stores.
One thing that defines the changes of the decade is that now there is a specialised audience that is looking for very particular products. In summary, survival lies in the variety.
Q. Is there now a broader Christian audience that is willing to interact with, pay and consume culture?
A. It all still depends very much on the American market, where the publishing and audiovisual industry is concentrated. They are still the ones who set the standards and. With the growth of Christianity in the US, a market emerged.
It has gone from the small subculture in the 1970s, with the appearance of Christian radios, televisions and publishers - to reach the big cities and deep America.
All these products inevitably arrive to us, after arriving South America. By the way, Latin America has created a musical subculture called the phenomenon of the 'psalmists', a type of praise songs in which songs are very similar to each other. This evangelical musical subculture has its own circuit, and it works.
But I think this is really outside of what we call culture in general terms.
If we speak about cinema, religious audiences are one of the few segments which still go the theatres. In the US, megachurches buy thousands of tickets and help this faith based products have a huge box office impact. When you see the rankings, it is surprising that most of the titles are unknown to the general audience, but it is because such films are intended for a religious audience, and the producers sell tickets directly to megachurches.
These film production companies depend on the great studios of Hollywood, which has a sector called cinema of values.
Streaming platforms are also aware of this reality. For example, Netflix, in the face of complaints received by the Brazilian parody of a homosexual Jesus, has now started to offer a film about the apostle Paul.
This philosophy of “there is something for everyone” is growing. If you complain, they will give you what you want. That is how there are more and more films oriented to this type of ‘spiritual audience’.
As for the books, while in the United States, at any airport, Christian books are next to non-Christian books, in our context there are a number of bookstores specialized in the religious literature, which do not sell very much. In addition, many are translations of American originals and of very poor quality: books that are similar to each other in the issues they address. The evangelical world is increasingly predictable. Many books for a Christian audience contain an inspiring message, but there are no genres or deeper themes. Everything tends to normalise in a uniformity that, sadly, I think is the greatest enemy of cultural richness.
Q. Are Christians still naive when it comes to relating to culture?
A. In Europe it is not as dramatic as it is in Latin America. But there are big churches that are supporting the release of such films and big concerts. Where there is an economic potential, there is an interest in sustaining it. That is what keeps it alive.
But there is also a group of believers who have no interest in this type of content and products. Two realities coexist, those who are fully within the bubble, and others that have come out of it but are not relating with culture from a Christian perspective. In other words, one side there is a Christian subculture, and on the other, an immersion in contemporary culture that does not connect with one's faith at all.
Q. Thinking about the concept of ‘popologetics’, used by author Ted Turnau. How do you think culture has impacted the church in these last ten years? And how has the church impacted culture?
A. With the term ‘popologetics’, Turnau addressed the problem of the abundance of philosophical apologetics, which always uses the great thinkers and academic trends that mark the intellectual tendency as references, but neglects popular culture.
There is often no interrelation between general popular culture and the world of apologetics. The challenge is still there. First, because the so-called high culture is always aimed at a limited audience, who have an academic training, the ability and the interest. But popular culture is what reaches most people. So, the challenge is to relate faith to film, music, books, series and everything that makes up the popular culture of our time.
But the church has gone the other way. It has adapted to popular culture and, again, the phenomenon of megachurches is simply the assimilation of popular culture in the Christian context.
It could be analysed from the scenography, the architecture (which emulates a concert hall). But there is also assimilation in other aspects. At the beginning of the decade (although its origin is found in the 2000s), the emerging church started this: the preacher would wear jeans full of frayed holes and t-shirts with provocative messages, for example. This does not have to be negative per se, but it is an external sign of this assimilation of culture. The traditional model of worship and preaching will probably not come back, although there are groups that try to maintain it.
Even many circles whose message is close to fundamentalism, with a very conservative and belligerent counter-cultural discourse, have taken things from popular culture.
There is also the political agenda, that has permeated the Christian sectors that are resistant to the influence of culture in the church. There has been a politicisation of these sectors of the church. Twenty years ago they did not talk about politics all day long as they do now. There have been very clear changes and transformations.
There are those who are very proud to be faced with liberal and progressive tendencies, which they reject, but then they reflect ways of acting that are on the agenda of the society surrounding them.
Assimilation occurs on both sides, but it is difficult to recognise it. We do not realise to what extent we are a copy, a really bad copy, of what the world offers us.
Q. If we are often a bad copy of culture, how can we face future challenges?
A. Exactly. We need to discuss whether we will continue to be that bad copy, if we will continue to be the Christian version of secular neoconservatism. We seem to have an identical agenda, literally point by point, of what social movements and political parties proclaim.
Another challenge is the complete banalisation brought by moral relativism, the emptiness of the politically correct way of thinking that has been established.
The rise of movements such as feminism and groups like the LGBTI, have led to a limitation in the freedom of expression. Many of the things that were part of our culture until recently are now unthinkable.
On the one hand, we are in an era when there is more freedom than ever, but on the other, there are considerable limitations.
I think that the dictatorship of the “politically correct” will tend to finish at some point.
Movements like feminism are constantly changing. The tendency of the LGBTI groups, of presenting homosexuality as a 'poser', in which everything is wonderful and the characters are always positive, goes real homosexuality, which has always been much more realistic, showing the dark sides of the inner conflict.
The great challenge of Christians is whether they are going to have their own Christian fantasy, oblivious to reality, or if they are going to face that reality from the perspective of faith.
The so-called spiritual messages and faith-based values products are very unrealistic. They are positive messages, in which there are no dark elements. The Christian characters do not have shadows, they are totally Manichean. I think this type of approach will have to be remade because it does not correspond to the reality of life. Francis Schaeffer said that the way to face the cultural changes of the 1960s, and of this new society in which we are in, was with realism and honesty.
And of course, we cannot change the Christian faith. This tendency to re-read the biblical texts towards something that is more open and accepting of social changes, will lead to irrelevance, because a faith adapted to the cultural beliefs, ends up depending on them.
Liberal Christianity always has the same limitation: Why do you really want to be a Christian if you try to accept everything people want? It ends up eliminating the Christian message because, according to this view, all it does is complicating people's life.
We have to be faithful to the Christianity that we find in the revealed writing of the Bible, but we must do so with the honesty that we often lack. We must recognise the reality of a fallen world, our own sin and the contradiction in which we live. But also be able to see the enormous hope and the incredibly liberating message that comes, not from some kind of Christian values, but from the life of Jesus himself.
This is the gospel and the message that the world needs us to communicate. The rest, in the end, will be irrelevant.