There was a time in American life, not so very long ago, when the only significant relation between religion and popular culture seemed to be the tedious symbiosis enjoyed by such envelope-pushing television producers as Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley and the conservative Christians who loved to hate them. The pattern repeated itself endlessly: Some line would be crossed (a bared buttock, a profanity, a dollop of anti-Catholic bigotry) and the Moral Majority or the Catholic League or the Traditional Values Coalition would mount a protest or a boycott, which in turn only ensured higher ratings for the television show in question and incentives for further envelope-pushing the next time around.
Today those battles are all but finished, and the religious side has lost. It was beaten in part by provocateurs like Bochco and the broader left-wing campaign against anything that even hinted at censorship. But it was also defeated by forces beyond the control of either artists or agitators. Technological change, above all, doomed the fight for decency in American popular culture, as every successive technological innovation weakened the power of regulators, moral and otherwise, while expanding the venues where human weakness could be exploited for fun and profit (mainly the latter). Russell Kirk famously called the automobile a "mechanical Jacobin," but the fissiparous, fragmenting effects of cable television, DVDs, and the Internet make the Model T look Burkean by comparison.
The result is the unrestrained and unrestrainable popular culture of today, where every concept, no matter how lowbrow or how vile, can find a platform and an audience. A television show that proves too violent for NBC ends up on Showtime; an FCC crackdown on a raunchy radio host only nudges him into a lucrative new spot on satellite radio; a community that manages to keep X-rated movies out of its theaters and video stores is just pushing money into the pockets of sleaze merchants who peddle their wares over high-speed Internet connections. Small wonder that America's movies and music and television shows make us enemies in traditional societies around the world--and small wonder, too, that many cultural conservatives, despairing of their country's future, embrace withdrawal from the world into a narrow, well-defended Christendom, where their families and their faith can be protected from the lowest-common-denominator swill that washes against the walls outside.
Yet religious believers have also profited in certain ways from the crack-up of the old middlebrow, PGrated common culture, even if it's sometimes hard to see the gains through the gore and exhibitionism. This is the great paradox of twenty-first-century popular culture in America: For all its profanity and blasphemy, the new culture arguably takes religions issues and debates more seriously than it used to in a more decent, less decadent era.
Or perhaps it isn't a paradox at all: There was a time, after all, when many religious thinkers were skeptical of the kind of mass culture that had its American heyday at mid-century, critiquing its homogeneity and complacency, tackiness and philistinism. They rose to the defense of the old dispensation only because the alternative--the mainstreaming of the 1960s counter-culture, with its contempt for every tradition and authority--seemed far worse. (The Bells of St. Mary's might not be The Divine Comedy, but it was better than Basic Instinct.)
The counterculture has largely won, and our society is in many ways the worse for it. But there are opportunities in defeat as well as victory, and places where new life can spring up amid the ruins. The old gatekeepers were at best superficially conservative and favorably disposed to religion only because they believed in being inoffensive about every segment of the mass market on which their films and shows depended. Now the incentives to be uncontroversial are far weaker. Which means that, along with all the dreck and smut and mediocrity, there's more room for idiosyncrasy, controversy, and political incorrectness as well. These can be the raw materials of blasphemy, but they can also be the stuff of popular art that drills deep into issues--theology and human destiny, sin and redemption, heaven and hell--that the old mass media treated with kid gloves.
True, God has to compete with Paris Hilton and Family Guy for attention, but at least He's in there fighting.
Consider recent developments in science fiction and fantasy. These are genres that have traditionally provided fertile ground for metaphysically inclined fiction, but for a long time their presence in the American mass media began with...