Monday, November 26, 2012

Top Chef and Whole New Worlds

One quick announcement, some friends and I have been working to start an On Pop Theology podcast sometime soon and my friend Sebastian and I recorded a rough draft over the weekend. If you’d like to give it a listen and give us some feedback, contact me and I’ll send you the link. Thanks!

by Ben Howard

I’m fascinated by Top Chef. If you know me at all, you’ll find this incredibly strange for one simple reason: I’m an incredibly picky eater. Like so picky that it’s shameful because I’m technically an adult. Nevertheless, I love Top Chef with an unquenchable passion even though I probably wouldn’t/couldn’t appreciate pretty much everything that’s on the show. I’ve been catching up on last season lately and with three episodes left I’m not sure there have been more than a handful of dishes I would have actually eaten.

There are probably two real reasons that I’ve fallen so in love with Top Chef. First, it’s kind of aspirational television for a picky eater. It’s like the fairytale story of what actual adults eat and how sophisticated people deal with food. They talk about flavor profiles and have fancy dinner parties and eat foods that I literally did not know existed. It’s just so decadent and delicious and indulgent. For someone who eats frozen pizza and PB&J on a regular basis and wears jeans pretty much every day, gourmet food in a fancy suit sounds kind of cool.

While I do enjoy that aspect of the show, it’s definitely secondary. I think I enjoy it more because I love being immersed in the world of gourmet food. I feel the same way when I watch Top Chef as I do when I read nerdy books about theology or TV or movies or sports. In some sense I like the competition or the content, but I also love learning about an entirely new world; a world with its own language and concepts and superstars.

I remember in 2010 I started getting really into European soccer and the most enjoyable part for me wasn’t necessarily watching the games, though I do enjoy them, it was learning the storylines and the language and the context of the sport. Who were the good players, who was overrated, who was underrated, how does strategy work, what kind of history do these clubs have, what kind of stories do people tell, these were the things that absolutely entranced me.

I get the same kind of nerdy high from Top Chef. I love learning who the great chefs are and where they work and what they do. I love hearing about the newest trends and all the variety of styles and schools and culinary tricks that people have employed over the years. I just love being immersed in this world that is so totally different from my own. I love learning the language and watching people who know this world navigate through it so effortlessly.

I think that’s why sports are so popular or why Harry Potter or the Hunger Games or even the Game of Thrones books have been so popular. They don’t just tell you a story, they invite you into a world where thousands upon thousands of stories have occurred and will occur. They create an environment in which stories exist and happen. To steal a phrase from Liz Lemon, you want to go to there.

I think the Christian culture can do the exact same thing. We can and should be inviting people to participate not just in one story, but in a world full of stories; a world with its own language and its own symbols and its own history. The Christian tradition has this very thing at its disposal. It has a rich history, a liturgy full of rich symbolism, its own language and traditions, its own heroes and historical figures, its own movements and debates. It is a world worth learning about and a world worthy of display.

Too often churches become convinced that they have to change themselves to be relevant culturally, that they have to water down traditions in order for them to be acceptable by the masses. My sincere and honest question is, “Why?” If you break down all the barriers then you rob people of the magic of learning about something new of experiencing a world that they didn’t know existed. You rob them of the mystery of the unknown and the way that traditions and language help shape you as you learn the rhythms of life in that new world.

I want you to know that I don’t intend this blog to be a way of making the church relevant to the wider culture; instead I want it to be a way to make culture relevant to the church. I want the church to understand how to tell stories better, I want it to understand the reality of popular culture better, not so it can mimic culture, but so it can subvert it and baptize it much like the early Christians did with Christmas and much of the symbolism surrounding it.

Sometimes it’s fun to learn a new story or a new language. We have stories to tell and things to teach, why would we limit and dilute the rich history of the church just to be a second rate version of the mainstream?

What do you think? Does the church need to be relevant? Does the church need to be acceptable or does it need to be weird? Has the weirdness of a church ever been a problem for you?


You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenHoward87 or email him at benjamin.howard87 [at]

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