A Sacred Look

Becoming Cultural Mystics - Theology of Popular Culture

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Nancy Usselmann
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , April
     178 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics, Nancy Usselmann offers a theology of popular culture that remains faithful to a traditional theology and understands culture as serving an integral part of faith formation. As Usselmann understands it, popular culture is in a perpetual search for higher meaning, as displayed through the various media outlets at its creative disposal (83). Yet, culture attempts to fulfill this search for meaning in something other than God (5). As such, it is perpetually coming up short, either resulting in a deep malaise of meaning, or else a full embrace of nihilism. Usselmann argues further that the creative processes displayed through the various mediums of popular culture are in themselves expressions of truth, goodness, and beauty. These stories and images not only call for insights derived from theological reflection, but also awaken questions of theological value—questions such as who we are as human beings, where we are heading as a society, and what we require to achieve this end (20–21).

The logic of Usselmann’s theology of culture is both comprehensive and elegant, developed by three interlocking points of anthropology, sacramentality, and incarnationality. As she explains, human beings embody an innate ability and desire to seek mystery and the supernatural through our interactions with beauty (49). The issue is, due to sinful human nature, we must develop this ability and desire to see beauty in an authentically spiritual manner (44). We develop such ability by coming into contact with the triune God through a sacramental life of worship, which is centered and fully immersed in Christ (52–53). In our experience with the incarnate Son of God, we are transformed and learn that love is the theological end of all the various trajectories of grace uncovered within the world (45–46). Finally, with a developed sense of truth, goodness, and beauty, we can then turn our “sacred look” toward culture, and discern the attempts to create transcendental meaning by reading the message portrayed in the various mediums of popular culture.

The “sacred look,” which is a key concept in Usselmann’s theology of culture, is the honed ability to look through the expressions of fallen humans living in a distorted world within popular culture—expressions such as “darkness, sin and violence”—in order to discern glimpses of grace breaking through the fallenness (128). The sacred look does not outright condemn culture, but recognizes the existential longings of the human experience and attempts to offer answers to those longings based on theological reflection (136). This perspective is attainable by becoming “cultural mystics” who “embody a desire for transcendence” while at the same time “critically engaging the popular culture” (xxv). Cultural mystics are grounded in the sacramental relationship with the incarnated Son of God, and thus are themselves transformed persons with a transformed perspective on the world.

When this sacred look is directed toward culture, various mediums and styles exhibit Usselmann’s underlying claim. In reflecting on the plethora of movies and stories of heroes and heroines, what stands in view is a “humanity struggling to fill the emptiness inside” exhibited by producing these stories in order to gain a sense of hope (5). In the anthropological questions of dystopian novels, culture’s longing for “something more” is even more readily apparent. This longing is theologically resolved by highlighting that the actors these novels develop around are themselves signs of grace—in their very existence, and in the love they display for others and their entire context (38). The genre of sci-fi poses an abundance of questions of goodness, ranging from sociocultural critique on contemporary human societies, to reflections on how to live ethically in a rapidly developing technological age, all of which could benefit from theological consideration (40, 99). And in the various coming-of-age narratives in popular culture, hope is found for an “unexplainable existential desire for something more” (109).

The truth, beauty, and goodness located in each of these cultural examples, plus the many more presented by Usselmann throughout the book, are heightened by meditation on culture through the sacred look offered by cultural mystics. These key concepts, as well as the core logic of her theology of culture, spiral in and out of the rather short chapters, prompting the multiple examples, themes and genres within popular culture to appear and disappear at various points in the book. As such, the work seems rushed at times—a feature undoubtedly due to the brief format of the publication—but nevertheless one which often leaves the reader asking for more detail or clarification. Due to this feature, this work almost gives the impression that it is a collection of essays, rather than a single monograph.

Be that as it may, there are several highly interesting and evocative themes gathered within; such as the question of how a theological anthropology, rooted in the incarnation of Christ, can speak to the dystopian worlds of popular novels and movies. Further, Usselmann’s concept of a “cultural mystic” is in many ways a development of Karl Rahner’s imperative to live an everyday mysticism that seeks God in all facets of life, yet developed in this book with particular interest in digital media culture (xvi, 120). Situated in such a tradition, Usselmann’s theology of culture offers a third option between either theology of cultures rooted in the Barthian tradition, which emphasizes revelation over natural theology, or those who follow Paul Tillich’s lead, who understands meaning itself as the goal of theological reflections on culture. Yet, this may be an option welcomed by theologians looking to ground consideration of culture in an alternative means of theological reflection, but who also want to resist an outright rejection of popular culture.

About the Reviewer(s): 

C. M. Howell in an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
January 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, California. She is a media literacy education specialist and theologian, a national speaker, blogger, and reviewer of films on bemediamindful.org.


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