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POP GOES RELIGION: Faith and Culture in America
Terry Mattingly
W Publishing Group
Christianity
ISBN: 0849909988

In the summer of 1986, Terry Mattingly was a journalist camped out in front of the elevators at a Denver hotel, hoping to catch the first interview with the city's new archbishop. "The rest of the media is waiting in the lobby and outside the building," he writes in the introduction to his new book, POP GOES RELIGION. "However, a source inside the archdiocese staff has told me when [Archbishop] Stafford plans to leave the hotel, and with that information, it was easy to figure out which elevator he would almost certainly be using. So I'm thinking that, if I play my cards right, when the elevator doors open I may be able to quietly steer this future prince around the corner into a conference room and get that interview. Then I might even be able to kindly point him toward a side door out of the hotel, helping him avoid the rest of the media hoard and, by the way, making my interview an exclusive. Reporters do things like that."

As Mattingly stood there, a vaguely familiar voice came from behind and asked, "Port Arthur Teen Club, right?" He turned around and there stood Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer Billy J. Gibson, lead singer and guitarist for the trio ZZ Top. Mattingly met Gibson when he was a teenager in Texas in the early 1970s, hanging out at a local music club called the Port Arthur Teen Club and helping bands set up for their gigs. The hottest band in the area in those years was ZZ Top. Mattingly had used that connection a decade later to get past security and interview ZZ Top when they finally made it big. And though even more years had passed since then, Gibson remembered the erstwhile reporter.

At that moment, the elevator doors opened and two worlds collided. Gibson, in his trademark sunglasses and waist-length hair, and Stafford, in his priestly robes, eyed each other and Mattingly made a halting introduction. After chatting for a moment Gibson asked a question that could be construed as a mission statement for the book: "Wait a minute. You went from interviewing people like me to interviewing people like him?"

"Yes I did, I said. It was an interesting career move. But, you see, I never stopped being interested in what rock stars and other entertainers had to say about issues of life and death, joy and sorrow, heaven and hell. I also become more and more interested in what all those archbishops and other mainstream religious leaders said --- or didn't say --- about the world of entertainment and pop culture," he writes.

Based on those two interests, Mattingly has carved a niche for himself with his syndicated column, "On Religion." Read in more than 350 papers worldwide, it covers the intersection of religion and culture, and POP GOES RELIGION is a collection of some of his most popular columns from the last several years. Divided into chapters dealing with music, movies, television and books, his short missives provide insight into everything from Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson's take on the moral of the famous story to the popularity of Left Behind to the spirituality of Elvis. Here you'll find essays titled "Harry Potter and Free Will," "Oprah, Babe and Religious Liberty," and "George Lucas, the Force and God."

His columns are short and rarely involve significant analysis. Instead they provide a kind of survey course in pop culture appreciation for Christians. He specializes in throwing out thought-provoking ideas about the ways faith and pop culture are in tension and the ways they're not in tension. It's often the latter that's more surprising. For example, who do you think is TV's most popular Christian family? How about "The Simpsons"?

To those who scoff at this kind of faithful attention to pop culture, Mattingly points out that a typical modern American is much more likely to be exposed to a new religious insight or doctrine at the mall or the movie multiplex than in a traditional sanctuary. This is how modern Americans spend their time and money, and make their decisions. Day by day, they have evolved into mass-media disciples. "People are worshipping at all kinds of new altars," he writes. "Journalists and preachers cannot afford to ignore that."


   --- Reviewed by Lisa Ann Cockrel

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