#ThinkerThursdays: Alan Noble, Cofounder of Christ & Pop Culture

#ThinkerThursdays is a new series of interviews with Christians whom we believe are writing thoughtfully and gracefully in today's public square. You will likely have read articles by these Christian thinkers as they grapple with today's cultural, political, economic trends and issues. We hope to illuminate what goes on "behind-the-scenes" of their writing and thinking (I conduct the interviews with Michael's help). This is the fifth of the series. 

Alan Noble (@thealannoble) is Co-Founder & Managing Editor at Christ and Pop Culture and Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. He has written for The Atlantic, First Things, and Christianity Today. After graduating from Baylor University with a Ph.D. in twentieth-century America literature, he is currently, an Assistant Professor at Oklahoma Baptist University.

"Christ and Pop Culture" seems to cover a wide range of topics, from media to politics to church culture. Why “pop culture”?

 It started in November 2007, when there was far less of an interest in talking about popular culture. Either there was an interest in high culture or you were warned about low culture; there was not a lot of thoughtful commentary on popular culture, even though it is one of the few shared experiences we have as a culture.

I would make the case that most things are popular culture… If we want to drop the “popular” part we could, but we want to present the issues at a popular level. There are many accessible and thoughtful Christian publications covering popular culture, although there are far more than when we started.

I recall you tweeting a while ago asking, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner, Christians to not turn the #RedCups fiasco into a pessimistic diagnosis of evangelical culture. How do you know when something is actually important to comment on, or when something is only important because people are commenting on it?

We do make decisions. There are Christian works that come out that we really think are harmful, but if we think they aren’t going to gain much traction anyway, we just ignore them. We ask ourselves, “Are we stirring the pot or are we being edifying?” 

We try to ask the question, “What is going to be helpful to the readers?” Not informative or pleasing, but what do we believe is going to bless them, help them love neighbors better, or be better voters. This means that we will sometimes write about things that they won’t want to read, that there will be resistance, because we’re challenging some assumptions, although we try to tackle everything charitably.  

When something hits the news, we’ll often be the last to write about it. And that’s because we discuss our ideas internally first. We have a private Facebook group where we work through ideas, instead of just getting a hot take or rehashing outrage. Nobody needs another piece on the latest trend – even though if we wrote it, we’d get a lot of traffic. That’s our guiding principle: what would edify our readers.

You mention that you try to challenge assumptions. Who are you challenging, in particular?  

Our members span the theological spectrum, even though we are fairly evangelical and orthodox, but I think of our audience primarily as evangelical Christians who tend to skew conservative theologically and politically. We try to establish trust and goodwill with our readers with some pieces, so that when we do give them a piece that challenges them, they will respect our view.

For instance, we are opposed to abortion, but if some conservative politician is advocating a policy that will be harmful to single mothers, then we are likely to challenge what that politician is doing, even if he is conservative and pro-life. We are not trying to be against conservatives – rather, challenging some of their assumptions is an act of love.

By trying to challenge somewhat conservative evangelicals from within, rather than from without, you seem to be trying to carve out some sort of middle ground. As our political culture becomes more polarized, what is the future of this middle ground?

 The fear I have is that we are working against technology and platforms that encourage thin interactions about politics, religion, etc. Statements are so easy to make, share, re-tweet; technology is more conducive to polarizing politics because of that lack of reflection, empathy and all sorts of things. 

I do see some hope in that people tend to be more aware of the effects of technology, on them, so that’s promising. Also you have a whole generation of evangelicals who grew up after the Religious Right who are very disillusioned with the automatic support of a party as the proper way to live and do politics. I see some hope there as well.

Lastly, by publishing online I’m publishing much more broadly than my particular, intended audience. I need to find ways to be winsome. At Christ and Pop Culture, we write knowing that other groups, on different sides of the political and religious spectrum, are reading us. 

Does your public writing and thinking ever enter into the classroom?

I don’t have too much time to make those connections, but I do try to help my students see the relevance of their studies to their world. For instance, in my Western Civilization class, we looked at the French poem, The Song of Roland, which is this text about a knight in Charlemagne’s’ service who leads the rear guard. In the text, Charlemagne proclaims that those who do not convert to Christianity will be killed. Today, we think that this is a radical Islamic attitude, but here we have this Christian text saying the same thing.

As a professor, how do you handle texts full of violence or otherwise that might be triggering for certain students, in light of the current debates?

I think of it as my obligation to love my students. The literature and history of Western Civilization is full of rape and violence, unfortunately, and there is a high likelihood that some my students have experienced sexual assault or abuse in some way. So, when I teach, I treat the subject matter seriously, and try not to dwell on certain details, and most of all, I try to look at my students’ eyes when I teach, so I can see how they are reacting.

I don’t try to avoid those texts, however, but if a student were so sensitive to certain triggers that they needed to not read the text, I would be happy to accommodate them if they spoke to me. I see a lot of my job as loving my students and reaching out to them.