Star Trek and the Church

Last summer, a friend of mine visited the "Star Trek Experience" in Las Vegas. While immersing himself in all things Star Trek, he struck up a conversation with another visitor -- a truck driver from Reno. Looking back on the experience, my friend realized that the conversation with its instant bond, common vocabulary, and vital interest in the subject was just like the experience that we as Christians call "fellowship." This observation applies to more than just Star Trek fans. Popular culture, particularly electronic media, is increasingly the only thing that many Americans have in common -- our one binding experience -- and, as such, it has emerged as the principal shaper of American culture. The process has been underway for nearly one hundred years. During the Battle of the Bulge, American sentries asked three questions designed to distinguish real Americans from German infiltrators. Two of the three questions were about popular culture -- an indication of the sway that sports, popular music, and movies held over the American imagination. This hold wasn't exclusive, as seen in the results of a 1948 survey that asked Americans which figure they most wanted to emulate. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Clara Barton topped the list with only fourteen percent of the respondents naming an entertainer. But by 1986, every person in the top ten, save President Reagan, was a movie or television star. This survey illustrates the increasing hegemony of electronic media over American consciousness. The emergence of this hegemony coincided with the weakening of other institutions that traditionally shaped what Americans thought and believed, like families, local communities, and especially churches. It's not a coincidence that the institutions eclipsed by popular culture and electronic media were those that exercised moral authority and trafficked in norms and standards. Our culture had rejected both. But rejecting these institutions isn't the same thing as rejecting what they traditionally provided -- ideas about morality and meaning. It simply means that something else, something probably ill-suited to the task, will have to take their place. That something is popular culture, especially movies, television, and music. If the only thing electronic media did was provide Americans with shared references and experiences, it would be a cause for concern. But it does even more. It shapes our ideas about what's important and what a life worth living looks like. Stated another way, it answers the question I asked in my book: How Now Shall We Live? Of course, it's hard to imagine someone less qualified to fulfill this function than the entertainment industry. But that's what's happened. And that's why it's imperative that Christians be concerned about more than vulgarity, sex, and violence in what we see and hear -- as important as these are. We need to understand both the messages contained in our popular culture and how media shapes our beliefs. Over the new few days, I will be addressing both of these questions. Given what's at stake -- who gets to answer life's important question -- I hope you will tune in. Together, we'll boldly look at electronic media. Not as mere entertainment, but as a culture- defining institution.


Chuck Colson


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