Christian Popular Culture from the Chronicles of Narnia to Duck Dynasty
- ISBN: 9781725281219
- Published By: Wipf and Stock
- Published: May 2021
Eleanor Hersey Nickel’s book, Christian Popular Culture: From the Chronicles of Narnia to Duck Dynasty, analyzes the treatment of race, gender, and class in several instances of popular Christian culture. While such series as Left Behind or Jan Karon’s novels about the village of Mitford are enormously popular among Christians, they are rarely treated as subjects of academic analysis, especially analyses of social categories. And Christian reviewers often focus on sex, violence, and profanity, but not other aspects of the Christian gospel. Nickel introduces her book by indicating that she “takes a new approach by analyzing their [Christian writers’] social responsibility in portraying the complex dynamics of race, class, and gender in a profoundly unequal America” (1).
Nickel cites Clifford G. Christians’ claim that Christian media “could serve as signifiers of justice, peace, and harmony” rather than simply fulfilling the conventions of genre fiction (“Redemptive Media as the Evangelical’s Cultural Task” in American Evangelicals and the Mass Media: Perspectives on the Relationship between American Evangelicals and the Mass Media, Academic, 1990). Toward that goal, Nickel assesses six examples of Christian media by Christians’ criteria, focusing on particular types of social justice—primarily race/ethnicity, but also gender and class. Nickel addresses gender in the book series and film adaptations of The Chronicles of Narnia, Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love (1991), and Left Behind. She focuses on race and class in the Mitford novels, Duck Dynasty, and the films of Sherwood Baptist Church.
Each chapter includes a brief review of the item’s popular and scholarly reception. For the former, Nickel draws on Amazon book reviews, surveys conducted by other researchers, and (in the case of the Mitford novels), her own interviews with readers. Data from this research indicates that most readers don’t mind the social justice problems in the books and films, and many don’t notice them to begin with, perhaps because “white evangelicals tend to define morality in a narrow way that excludes systemic injustice” (6). Of course, the reviews and survey responses come from people who generally like those books and films; consumers who completely reject the Left Behind series, for instance, aren’t available for questioning.
Nickel’s analyses are generally astute and thorough, drawing on a character’s words, actions, and appearance; their centrality to the plot; and the number of times they are mentioned by the other characters or narrator. Her film analyses include use of lighting, music, and other cinematic techniques.
Looking at Susan Pevensie’s character in the Chronicles of Narnia, for instance, Nickel notes that Susan begins the series as the maternal caretaker of the other children. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, she is concerned about their bedtimes, warmth in cold weather, and physical safety. At the end of the novel, she is crowned as Queen Susan, gentle and compassionate (21-26). In the subsequent novels, however, Susan either disappears completely or becomes a much less admirable character in ways that are stereotypically feminine; she grows whiny, manipulative, weak, and focused on her own prettiness. And in The Last Battle, she is irrevocably excluded from heaven due to her vanity; her brother Peter says, “she is no longer a friend of Narnia” (30).
In contrast to Susan’s moral decline in the original novels, the three-film series presents her as much more complex. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) was directed by Andrew Adamson, and Anna Popplewell played Susan. Nickel shows that “while the filmmakers exaggerate Susan’s struggles during the first part of her adventure in Narnia, they strengthen her role as a warrior in the final battle to leave us with a more well-rounded and redeemed character” (36).
For Nickel, The Chronicles of Narnia films by Walden Media, Jan Karon’s novels, and the films of Sherwood Baptist Church all exemplify the development of the creators’ sensitivity to issues of gender, race, and class. This attention to the maturing of a Christian ethical perspective is one of the strengths of Christian Popular Culture, reinforcing Nickel’s claim that Christian novels and films are worth careful, scholarly scrutiny.
In addition, Nickels uncovers ways in which oppressive social constructs are wielded contrary to the creators’ stated viewpoints. For example, while the Robertsons of the A&E series Duck Dynasty repeatedly advocate for transracial adoption, their own biracial and African American adopted children are nearly invisible in the shows, and often denigrated in the Robertsons’ spoken commentary (164 ff). Duck Dynasty repeatedly expresses white supremacy and white savior logic despite the characters’ claims to be color blind (159-183). Like her analyses of the other media products, Nickel's treatment of Duck Dynasty is thorough and perceptive.
Nickel’s book would be even stronger if she were clearer about the scope of her project. The title, as well as her many claims about “Christian popular culture,” imply that she is addressing the breadth of Christian productions. However, four of the six chapters focus on products of conservative evangelical traditions. The two exceptions are the chapters on Narnia and the Mitford novels. Narnia, of course, was written by an Anglican, and Jan Karon’s Mitford protagonist is an Episcopal priest. However, no theo-social controversies penetrate either the 1950s fantasy world of Narnia or the bucolic town of Mitford. So the theo-ethical issues that most prominently divide evangelicals from progressive Christians—abortion, women priests, gay marriage, sexuality—are absent from her project.
Moreover, while Roman Catholics comprise about one-fifth of the American population, she does not include any examples of Roman Catholic popular culture. However, the television series Blue Bloods and The Mindy Project, the comedian Jim Gaffigan, and several Marvel characters reveal Catholic perspectives and issues. Certainly Nickel cannot be faulted for focusing her work on more evangelical cultural artifacts. However, declaring her intention up front would be quite helpful to readers.
In general, Nickel’s book is an important and well-executed contribution to Christian cultural studies and ethical criticism. In Nickel’s words, “studying race, class, and gender in Christian culture is an idea whose time has come” (7). We can hope it also serves as a model for additional scholarship in the same vein.
Laura Yordy is a retired associate professor of religion and philosophy.Laura YordyDate Of Review:May 17, 2021