Review: Don’t Stop Believin’ (in pop culture)

Robert K. Johnston, Craig Detweiler, Barry Taylor, eds. Don’t Stop Believin’: Pop Culture and Religion from Ben-Hur to Zombies, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2012 xi + 215pp. £14/$20

Departing from the typical collection of essays, Don’t Stop Believin’: Pop Culture and Religion from Ben-Hur to Zombies takes an encyclopedic approach to the intersection between religion and culture, offering brief introductions to topics ranging from young adult literature to daytime television to professional sports figures. 101 entries, organized chronologically, were selected on the criteria of cultural and religious impact, often inextricably connected.

The book begins with the warning that, as demonstrated by the appropriations of Journey’s anthem by various groups and projects, it is impossible to definitively predict what will remain influential for many years into the future. The strength of this book lies primarily in its careful curation of a diverse range of topics that challenge the reader to engage more fully with religious themes wherever they may be found in pop culture, as well its explanation of methodology, which receives direct treatment in the final chapter, ‘The Mystery Discerning Business.’ In just a few short pages, Robert K. Johnston (co-editor of the book along with Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor) critiques the cautiousness of both the conservative and the reformed approaches to pop culture and ends by presenting a more positive view. The former, though not without occasional benefit, results in disengagement with the culture and what it has to offer in terms of refinement and clarification of religious convictions. The reformed response, on the other hand, does not seem to go far enough in its appreciation of the ability of the Holy Spirit to reveal God in contemporary culture, in powerful and specific ways. Rather, Johnston offers a third way, which he argues follows the biblical narrative in recognizing that natural revelation through popular culture (though not salvific), ‘are examples not of a reverberation of God’s past action but of God’s continuing, present revelation to mankind’ (Johnston 214).

It is Johnston’s method that is employed throughout the book: a typical entry outlines the background or career of the subject, and touches on or introduces possible religious implications of the work. With few exceptions, the majority of the writers are able to strike a balance between introduction of the person or work and subsequent assessment of the relationship between the particular pop culture icon and religion, with many religious themes beginning to emerge across the genres and decades. For example, the elevation of baseball player Mickey Mantle to godlike status touches on a desire for the superhuman and the Harry Potter series explores the danger of the selfish quest to become the superhuman, while Nelson Mandela, the iPod, and reality television each uniquely address and influence the relationship of the individual and the community.

Don’t Stop Believin’ skillfully presents insightful analysis of various pop culture icons. It is refreshing to see such a clear, concise, and accessible contribution to the study of theology and the arts. Although it focuses on American popular culture, the current global availability and influence of American media allows for translation and assessment of its content and methodology.


Review by Hillary Bylund


  • Hillary Bylund balances interests in pastoral ministry and theological study. She grew up on a farm in Oregon, studied Biblical Languages and Theology in Chicago, and is currently completing her M.Litt. in Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews.

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