Friday, August 5, 2011

Book: Eyes Wide Open by William D. Romanowski

William D. Romanowski. Eyes Wide Open. Looking for God in Popular Culture. Brazo Press. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2001.

 One of the books frequently referred to by authors is William D. Romanowski’s Eyes Wide Shut. Romanowski also contributed one of the articles to Forbes and Mahan's Religion and Popular Culture in America, which was one of the better written and more interesting ones in my opinion. I had already enjoyed another one of his books, Pop Culture Wars, and Eyes Wide Open, which is often called a classic, often drew my attention. Moreover, I had gathered that it offered an explicitly Christian perspective on how to deal with popular culture. So anthropologically this book also seemed interesting to me. I felt it was time.
First of all I have to say that Romanowski has a very pleasent style of writing. It really takes you by the hand and guides you through what he has to say. Probably, aside from talent, he does this because he has actually something to say and wrote this book to say it, not to have his name on a book cover, although I’m sure that doesn’t keep Mr. Romanowski up at night. It just feels that he is careful to make sure that what he is trying to say is being said as clearly as he can say it. Some might think this is patronizing, but it isn’t. Romanowski doesn’t compromise his story but just tries to make sure all of it will receive the reader and he doesn’t shroud his narrative in clouds of mystery, an abundance of obsolete references or far-fetched theoretical sidetracks. Well, not too much anyway. He seems to put his ego on the shelf whereby (oh how Christian!) he might actually transcend himself as a writer. In any case he seems to walk the fine line of clarity that separates the realm of superficiality from that of over-analysis.
Now as I pointed out already, this book is written from a Christian perspective, so that didn't come as a surprise. I didn't, however, expect it to be... that Christian. Especially in the first part of the book, the emphasis on the Christian perspective feels heavy, reading lines such as “Christians cannot be selective in their responsibility to the God who lays claim to all of life and creation. We cannot try to be faithful when it comes to personal morality and church life but then employ ‘secular’ tactics, values, goals, and ethical standards for business, politics, education, art, and so forth. Our entire life is meant for service in God’s kingdom.” (p. 52). Ehm... amen?
Let me be quick to say that being a bit surprised at this emphasis is more my problem than it is one of the book. After all it was aimed at a Christian audience, so what would you expect? And let me then also say that Romanowski’s judgments are in fact well informed and nuanced and nowhere near a fundamentalist evangelical rant without end might be. But so if not fundamentalist evangelical, then what are his judgments?
Romanowski's position could be situated between two extremes of on the one hand the idea that “efforts to make the movie theater or concert hall into a revival tent invest the popular arts with powers they do not really possess.” (p. 81) while on the other, the idea that “critics were right to worry about the potential influence “‘the market-driven, therapeutic, narcissistic and entertainment-oriented culture’ can have on church and society” (p. 40). Romanowski claims that calling popular arts entertainment suggests “that the popular arts are somehow not really art or that they do not serve the same roles and purposes of art” and adds that he wants “to challenge such attitudes” (p. 91). So far I’m on his team! He then suggests the idea of maps of reality (p. 95). In his own words: “We all know that a map is not the reality it depicts, but is instead a representation of roads, rivers, landmarks, and distances that can give us directions, point out the sights along the way, and help us reach our destination. So popular art provides stories, symbols, images, metaphors, and melodies that depict cultural values and assumptions, behavioral norms, social roles, and gender roles. In this way, the popular arts mediate between culture and life, that is, our cultural conceptions and our social and environmental realities.” (p. 95). It is hard to find middle ground between the two paradoxical stigmas of superficiality and brain-rotting that popular culture often has to suffer, and the one that Romanowski proposes is at least both appreciative of popular culture and also somewhat elegant.
Sometimes Romanowski does tend to present ideas that seem like a bit of a stretch. For instance, he does seem to assume that because of mass technology that “dramatically increased the distribution scale of art” (p. 91), the “popular artworks are intended to reach mass audiences,” and “for commercial reasons, then, producers like to cast a wide net to reach and satisfy a large ‘popular’ audience” (p. 92). He adds to this that, to cater to that audience, popular arts also make sure to “not introduce new beliefs, but reinforce already existing ones” (p. 93). It could be argued, however, that popular arts can in fact be non-commercial and innovative, if artists seek the means of production themselves. Musicians for example might want to make a record just for the fun of making one, financing the production themselves and not really caring about seeing their money back. Sometimes his judgments seem even theologically biased, favoring a Protestant interpretation of scripture, when for example he writes that “in contrast to the Hollywood paradigm, scripture emphasizes the sovereignty of God, the human sinfulness and inadequacy that demands dependence on God’s grace alone, and the necessity of centering all of life on the goal of glorifying God.” (p. 170). I’d like to see him take that one up with the Pope. His cultural analyses sometimes are also debatable. When for instance he writes about a scene from the movie Pretty Woman where “the woman is doing the driving” and states that that “is a visual image suggesting that the traditional roles for men and women are reversed” (p. 191), he seems to treat symbols as having an absolute meaning that the viewer has no choice but to recognize, consciously or unconsciously. I’m not too sure the meaning of imagery or the reception of it can ever be that fixed though.
Still, I’m going to stick by my judgement that the book is indeed nuanced. Sure, Romanowski offers a great deal of critical judgments but ultimately he does leave the judgement up to the reader. The book doesn’t tell you what to think, it rather invites you to think for yourself and to apply critical thinking yourself. It offers examples, ideas and methods, but that’s where it ends. The questions at the end of each chapter I thought at first were a bit patronizing actually, but in fact, they also seem to give you the idea that in the end it’s really up to you to make up your mind about the value of popular culture. This democratic approach I would say is commendable.

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