We all have stories, and the stories we share today are passed on through pop culture, such as TV, movies, ads, and social media. These stories shape us; they don’t just reflect our culture but project and create it. This series explore how these pop culture “liturgies” form our identity by teaching us what we should value, what should do, and how we should live.

This Part 1 of a four part series on Pop Culture Liturgies. Access the rest of the series here:

Swimming Upstream | I’m Lovin’ It | Imagine | Story & Props


If you watch HGTV and then go look at houses for sale, you’re in for a rude awakening (at least if you’re in my income bracket). The homes on TV have fresh paint, contemporary backsplashes, the latest appliances, and master bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms (see, I’ve even learned the lingo).


But I recently watched a movie set in the 1960s and pointed out to my wife that they had our kitchen cupboards. I am sad to say, however, we no longer have shag carpeting in our house.


Now, I’m not saying home improvement is a sin. But what if a Lowe’s-dominated world (tagline: never stop improving) makes it hard to be content? And even harder to be self-aware and self-disciplined about the forces driving me to make home improvements?


Here’s a story recounted by David Foster Wallace that illustrates my point:


So these two fish are swimming along, and the one fish says to the other, “How’s the water?”

“Water?” replies the other. “What’s water?”


The point, as Wallace highlights, is that “the most obvious…important realities are the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” So why is it so obvious that we should make home improvements? That we should commit four (or more) years of life to college? That we should get married (or not)? Why do we love sports (or not)? The arts (or not)? Big city life (or not)?


Here’s one big answer: we are shaped by some kind of story that makes meaning out of the world and our lives in it. This story, however, doesn’t just drop in out of nowhere; it doesn’t just upload to our minds, Matrix-like, or come to us from the mouth of a sage philosopher.


Rather, we live out answers to the questions above because we are being trained as actors, functioning in a storyline of which we may be unaware. Our culture shapes us, cultivating actors who act according to script. As cultural actors, we base what we do on symbols and stories (what we do, as opposed to theory). For example, my young children know that we stand up and face the flag—a key symbol—when the national anthem plays. They’ve heard stories about George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and their roles in America’s history. And as far as what we do—well, what would the Fourth of July be without parades, grilling out, and fireworks?


These formative symbols, stories, and practices are what philosopher Jamie Smith calls a “liturgy”: regular ways of living and acting that shape and form our core identities. Becoming a trained actor precedes understanding the theory. In other words, before we ever encounter the political theory behind the Constitution or give a basic summary of the Bill of Rights, we are being trained in the basic script of being an American.


But the contemporary cultural liturgies that shape many of us are a bit strange. Author and poet Wendell Berry says to have a culture, “mostly the same people have to live mostly in the same place for a long time.” That is most definitely not our nomadic, postmodern culture. Indeed, our culture is largely indifferent and sometimes downright antagonistic toward traditional sources of culture: family, religion, and place.


If culture is constituted by what we share—family, place, religion—what exactly do we share in contemporary culture? In our “non-culture culture?”


Well, for one, pop culture. And I think pop culture, broadly understood, constitutes a key formative influence—a liturgy—in our current context. So the first step we need to take, analogous to the fish in Wallace’s tale, is simply to get a clue: we are swimming in the water of pop culture liturgies. Regardless of what we say we believe, the symbols, stories, and praxis of the surrounding culture shape our actions. Until we realize the constant current of influence, we won’t be able to take the next steps of considering exactly how—and into what—our contemporary pop culture liturgies are forming us, for good or for ill.


In other words, if we don’t acknowledge the water we’re swimming in, we’ll keep drinking the Kool-Aid.


This Part 1 of a four part series on Pop Culture Liturgies. Access the rest of the series here:

Swimming Upstream | I’m Lovin’ It | Imagine | Story & Props