The 2012 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture



Today’s young people are awash in a sea of brand logos, movies, advertisements, and pop-culture icons. These forces shape them to be consumers. In the midst of the noise, the Church is called to immerse young people in the waters of their baptism, unleashing the creative power of the Holy Spirit who has called them by name and commissioned them to “go into all the world.” Christ calls young people (all people, really) to share the Gospel with their God given creative abilities.

The theme for the 2012 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture is “Create”. The lecturers include an artist, New Testament scholar, professor of communications, theologian, and film studies expert. Each lecturer contributes their expertise to a conversation about the Creator, creation, creativity and the creative potential of young people as builders of the Kingdom of God. They tackle questions such as, “What does it mean to understand God as Creator, and what does it mean to be made in God’s image?” “How does the increasing influence of the entertainment industry communicate values to young people, and how should we respond?” “How might aesthetics and artistic expression grow and deepen ministry with youth?” We hope the insights offered in each lecture will fuel your own creativity and strengthen you for ministry.

Faithfully Yours,
Dayle Gillespie Rounds
Director, Institute for Youth Ministry
Princeton Theological Seminary

2012 Lectures

  • Cecilia González-Andrieu
    Taking Back the Aesthetic
  • Makoto Fujimura
  • Marianne Meye Thompson
    Made and Making in God’s Image: Biblical Reflections on the Creator, Creation, and Creating
  • William D. Romanowski
    Gotta Cut Loose: Youth Culture and Entertainment Media
    Off to See the Wizard: Cinema and Salvation, American Style
  • Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran
    Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: The Dark Side of Beauty
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Gotta Cut Loose: Youth Culture and Entertainment Media

William D. Romanowski is professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College, where he teaches courses in film studies. He has authored or collaborated on a number of books and received a Communicator Award of Distinction in 2002. His research interests include the intersection of American Christianity, popular art and culture, film history, and Christianity and film.

The fact that entertainment media play a role in the enculturation process has long been a source of irritation to parents, social, educational, and religious leaders who have all worried about the effect that such a diffusion of authority might have on the young and impressionable, and also on the vitality of family, church, and school. I want to offer an historical sketch to highlight key aspects of the relation between the youth culture and entertainment media and trace important changes beginning after World War II and leading up to the advent of digital technologies. That context established, I’ll make some observations about communication and creativity in the youth culture focusing on the new digital media.

Youth and Entertainment

Before World War II, there were no “teenagers.” The term entered the postwar vocabulary to describe adolescents who inhabited a new age-segregated youth culture that in many ways caricatured consumptive and leisure-oriented aspects of adult life. Adolescence became a transitional period between childhood and adult maturity when young people are largely removed from casual contacts with the adult world and sequestered in their own institutions. There they are released, to a great extent, from adult responsibilities and decision making; postponed adulthood, then, is an important trait of adolescence. While the youthful rebellion during the 1920’s centered among college students on campus removed from parents, the displacement of parental authority began with the high school years in the postwar period, when for the first time in history the majority of teenagers, including the working and lower classes, were attending school. While in 1900, only ten percent of American children (ages fourteen to seventeen) were in school, by midcentury, seventy-five percent were attending high schools. 1

Radio, movies, and the recording industry were largely oriented toward a general or family audience until after World War II when dramatic changes in American life resulted in a profound shift in the audience for entertainment. The culture and preoccupations of young people largely displaced the tastes and values of the eroding audience of middle class adults. This was not an entirely new development; as early as the 1930’s, sixteen to twenty-six year-olds were recognized as Hollywood’s bread and butter audience. But the magnitude of this transformation based on marketing demographics was unprecedented, and redirected the artistic roles and functions of popular art for the youth audience.

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When the Beatles arrived in New York City in February 1964, the outburst of emotion from adolescents shocked parents and fueled suspicions about the potential evils of rock’n roll. Rock music, many feared, drove adolescents to emotional frenzy, stimulated hormones, promoted sexual promiscuity, miscegenation, and even violent behavior. That rock music was perceived as somehow different than earlier adolescent fads, and therefore more dangerous, revealing great fears about the lessening of parental control and the new independence of postwar “teenagers.” A writer in The New York Times Magazine likened “Beatlemania” to a “religion of teenage culture,” and noted that unlike any previous generation, postwar youth had “a self-identifying culture which they need not transcend in order to find the values that reflect their own aspirations.” The fact that young people sought heroes among their own age group, he wrote, was “ultimately the product of an affluent society which, for the first time in history, has made possible a leisure class of professional teenagers.” 2

While young people were once labor assets for a family, expanding income made this first generation of student consumers more independent from parents. Apart from what their parents spent on them, teenagers were spending some $9.5 million annually during the 1950’s. By the mid 1960’s, that figure skyrocketed to about $12 billion as the population of teenagers increased three times faster than the overall population. In a 1965 cover story on today’s teenagers, Time estimated that young people spent $570 million on toiletries, $3.6 billion on women's clothes, and $1.5 billion on entertainment each year. Teenagers accounted for fiftythree percent of all movie tickets, and forty-three percent of all records purchased. 3

A symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, relationship emerged between the entertainment industry and the youth culture beginning in the 1950’s. With new leisure time and discretionary income, young people became the primary market for popular art and culture. Postwar youth became the locus of popular culture and entertainment, not only in America, but in other industrialized countries around the world. The under thirty generation continues to represent the largest percentage of the global audience for entertainment.

The entertainment media in turn became an important source of guidance and nurture for young people in a society where other social institutions no longer shaped the youth culture as powerfully as they once did. Finding one’s way in the new age segregated youth culture is no easy task. According to psychologists, the most important issues for adolescents are establishing identity and understanding intimacy—young people develop strong bonds with their peers and the desire for acceptance looms large. The period of adolescence also coincides with the courtship years; the age segregated youth culture is the setting for both. The last time I checked, movies were still the number one first date in America. (Two people that want to get to know each other go out, sit in the dark, and stare at a wall for two hours.)

Entertainment impresarios began cashing in on the youth market in a big way. Bob Pittman, who was one of the original creative forces behind MTV, once boasted, “At MTV, we don't shoot for the fourteen year olds—we own them. We will reach ninety percent of them in any given household. You'd have to be a social outcast not to watch it.” 4 It was a marketing formula that wed social status with entertainment consumption, a theme developed in a PBS Frontline exposé, The Merchants of Cool (2001), which examines the relationship between youth, popular culture and media, and corporate marketers.

In the decades after World War II, most American homes had a radio, stereo, telephone, and television. Cable and satellite television began making inroads in the 1980’s—the number of U.S. homes with basic cable services and a VCR grew from 1.85 million in 1980 to 72.8 million in 1994, reaching seventy-seven percent of American TV households. 5 Since the 1990’s, American homes have been in “a perpetual state page 3 of technology upgrade,” as one scholar puts it, “adding, among other things, satellite dishes, fax machines, high-powered gaming equipment, personal computers, the internet, DVD players, digital cameras, MP3 players, and digital video recorders.” 6

With the advent of digital technologies, what media scholar Henry Jenkins aptly describes as a “convergence culture” emerged “where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways.” 7 In other words, previously separate media—movies, television, telephone, the internet, print and visual media—have converged in digital environments and brought dramatic changes.

When I was a teen in the 1960’s, my only interaction with the television was to turn it on or off and switch channels. There were only three channels and I had to get up off the couch and walk over to the TV to do it. Eventually, there would be fights over the remote. If you wanted to record music or make a movie, you couldn’t get very far without the backing of a record label or a film studio, not just to finance expensive production costs, but also to provide distribution (record stores and theaters) and marketing exposure (radio airplay and advertisements).

In the digital age, however, viewer agency and interactivity has increased significantly. With DVRs, videoon- demand, and the ability to stream and download video onto computers and mobile devices, viewers can select programming regardless of what is showing at a certain time. The advent of affordable digital technologies for capturing and editing audio and video has turned viewers into producers. A key feature of the digital landscape is access to the internet as a mode of distribution. YouTube, for example, has exponentially increased the potential for distribution of amateur audiovisual texts—an estimated 175 million individual viewers visit the site each month. 8 Anyone can sign up, make a video, and post it on YouTube with the possibility that it might “go viral” and be seen by millions of people around the globe.

Following patterns that emerged after World War II, young people are now employing the new digital media both as social space to spend time with their peers and to create meanings. Digital technologies have enabled young people to create and exhibit their own media products that can serve as expressions of their distinctive cultural styles and identities.

Audiovisual Storytelling

The author of a bestselling book on screenwriting observes, “We are now living in a time of visual storytelling. Whether you want to tell a story on the big screen or write a television show that can be downloaded onto an iPod, cell phone, or PDA. Whether you want to create a video game or short film, a business plan or a PowerPoint presentation for any future delivery system, you have to know the tools and rules of visual storytelling.” 9 Employing the new media, young and old alike express their moods, opinions, and outlook on life through personal web pages, blogs, messages, pictures, music, stories, and videos. In this do-it-yourself digital environment, young people exhibit a distinctly postmodern approach to media creation. That is, they tend to appropriate existing material for new uses, blurring genres and styles without concern for historical or cultural context, and usually without much thought about the basics of communication: the content of the messages they create, the intended (and unintended) audience, and the relation between style, form, and content.

Not surprisingly, young people then tend to embrace cultural ideals and beliefs, gender norms, racial stereotypes, and social attitudes and conventions that exist in the popular media as reflections of the page 4 dominant culture. When it comes to personal creativity, the inclination of young, inexperienced producers is to create what they have already seen. Considering the influence of the postmodern style, it is no surprise that they craft their own personal vision by variously synthesizing elements they find in popular art and culture that resonate with their own sense of identity and outlook on life.

We can understand this better when we realize that even though we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of movies, television shows, and music videos, most people have little understanding of how audiovisual images communicate, or know much about the entertainment industry beyond People and celebrity red carpet affairs at award ceremonies. In short, we have assimilated the language of visual media without fully understanding it. Without such knowledge and critical viewing skills, people are more vulnerable, and the media’s potential to influence social, cultural, and moral perspectives has long been a source of fear and anxiety. So it is important for us as parents, youth ministers, and educators to have a working understanding of how audiovisual media communicate and, moreover, to be aware of and be able to think critically about the dominant belief system represented in American popular art and culture.

Audiovisual Communication

What is this? “The tall girl runs very fast.” How do you know that? There is a subject, a verb, adjectives, and adverbs. In language, the smallest signifying unit, i.e., the smallest part that communicates meaning, is a word. By fashioning words into sentences, and sentences into works of poetry or prose, writers can move us deeply while opening up our understanding of the human condition. Hamlet’s soliloquy is among the bestknown lines in English literature:
“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.” 10

Jane Austen began her novel Pride and Prejudice by introducing readers to a widespread cultural belief that discloses much about class and gender in nineteenth century Britain: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” 11 The writer of Psalm 139 confessed trust in God with profound certainty and metaphoric flare, “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Ps. 139: 9–10).

By way of analogy, if a word is the smallest signifying unit in language, what is the same in a moving picture? A shot. What is a shot? (Not three fingers of Jack Daniels.) Where once a shot was an unbroken strip of motion picture film, with the digital revolution, a film shot is an uninterrupted series of images that is composed of a series of frames. If I can continue the analogy with language, shots are edited together into sequences, and sequences into scenes, and scenes into feature-length films.

The way we understand and draw conclusions about the meaning of a movie, television program, or music video is through the artwork’s disclosure, that is, what it reveals to us through its treatment of events, portrayal of characters, prominent features of the story’s setting, visual imagery, sounds, lighting, production design, costumes, and so forth. And so there is a direct relation between how these media communicate and the messages they present. It is through artistic elements that they transform the external world in ways page 5 that engage our reason, memory, emotions, and imagination. Drawing attention to the way a movie or video is constructed increases our awareness of it as an artistic construction (a topic I’ll revisit in my second presentation).

Let me illustrate: What do you observe about this image from the movie Pretty Woman (1990)? There’s something not quite right here, isn’t there? The woman is doing the driving. But how do we all know that? Most of us recognize this indication of feminine power to be “out of whack,” so to speak. That is exactly what the creators of the Pretty Woman expected. In fact, common gender assumptions are the basis for the theme, characters and narrative in Pretty Woman, a film that earned over $463 million worldwide. 12 The problem, according to the narrative, is that the central characters, Edward and Vivian, have become disoriented and taken on roles inappropriate for their gender—Edward is a consumer, Vivian a breadwinning producer. The resolution is for them to help each other recognize their waywardness and accept their proper and established roles. The screenplay writes itself following this familiar code of gender expectations.

Gender in the Hollywood Landscape

Let me chart the dominant pattern of gender representation in American popular culture. One film scholar describes the ideal male in Hollywood films as a virile, strong, unrestrained, and unattached man of action and adventure. His shadow, or opposite, is the “settled husband/father, dependable but dull.” 13 Adventurers like the iconic Indiana Jones are simply not the marrying type. If they do marry they don’t make good husbands, like John McClane in the Die Hard films. But there is no better illustration than Bond, James Bond. British Agent 007 is not just the ultimate spy, but also a handsome, womanizing, and unattached gentleman with a license to kill. Bond’s globe-trotting missions always end with some evil genius foiled and beautiful women swooning, “Oh, James.” In every new Bond film (over twenty and still counting), a woman might get “too close for comfort,” as Bond admits to Paris (Teri Hatcher) in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). But as Paris tells him, “This job of yours—it’s murder on relationships.” 14 Independence marks the ideal man.

The ideal woman is to some extent the opposite of her male counterpart; a “wife and mother, mainstay of hearth and home” who stands in contrast to her shadow, the woman who is “erotic…fascinating but dangerous.” 15 Women are often represented in ways that define them by their sexuality and their appearance; as Jean Kilbourne puts it, they are to be “overtly sexy and attractive but essentially passive and virginal.” 16 Their leading role in mainstream Hollywood is to be the domesticator of these rugged individualists whose tendencies are to be unrestrained in love and life.

The gender stereotypes we find in American popular culture are pervasive and alluring, tapping into collective fantasies and desires. Images of men as virile adventurers or settled husbands, and women as wife/ mother or erotic fantasy can even be found in television commercials. For example, an advertisement for Nissan, a thirty second narrative, is a story that can be analyzed for what it tells us about gender ideals and roles.

There are of course movies like Eyes Wide Shut (1999), American Beauty (1999), or Revolutionary Road (2008) that question the validity of these gender ideals and roles. But mostly we see these images of men and women in a wide range of movies including classics like Casablanca (1942), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Rear Window (1954), action movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), True Lies (1994), and Top Gun (1986), melodramas like Pretty Woman, and even animated features like The Little Mermaid (1989). 17

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Let’s return to my suggestion that young producers create by borrowing, mostly uncritically, from existing representations in popular art that they find appealing. “Gun Size Matters,” is a short video by Freddie Wong, who was recently noted in a cover story in USA Today featuring some of the most popular producers/ performers who have established their own “channels” on YouTube. It serves as an apt illustration of how amateur producers embrace popular stereotypes and conventions related here to gender, sex, and violence rather than consider alternative notions of femininity and masculinity.


The media are part of the active process of generating and circulating meanings among people. Indeed, it is often in the sphere of “entertainment,” as one scholar observes, “values are formulated, circulated, resisted, and negotiated.” 18 Young people’s engagement with new media is marked by increased levels of agency and interactivity. Making them aware of the potential of these media as a mode of communication, and helping them take seriously their responsibility as media consumers and producers, ought to be a high priority for those of us involved in nurturing the next generation.

1. Glen Elder, Jr., “Adolescence in Historical Perspective,” in Growing Up in America: Historical Experiences, ed. Harvey J. Graff (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987), p. 15. See also Joseph Kett, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1977).
2. David Dempsey, “Why the Girls Scream, Weep, Flip,” The New York Times Magazine, 23 February 1964, p. 70.
3. See Quentin J. Schultze, et. al., Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 79.
4. Quoted in Christian Williams, “MTV Is Rock Around the Clock,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 November 1982, D–1, D–4.
5. William D. Romanowski, Pop Culture Wars: Religion & the Role of Entertainment in American Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 262.
6. S. Craig Watkins, The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social-Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009), 2.
7. Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 2.
8. Watkins, 16.
9. Syd Field, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, rev. ed. (New York: Delta, 2006), 3.
10. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, scene 1, lines 55–87.
11. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (New York: Middleton Classics, 2009), 11.
12., accessed 2012.
13. Robin Wood, “Ideology, Genre and Auteur,” Film Comment, January–February, 1977, 47.
14. Tomorrow Never Dies, DVD, directed by Roger Spottiswoode (1997: MGM, 2002).
15. Wood, “Ideology, Genre and Auteur,” 47.
16. Jean Kilbourne, Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising (New York: Free Press, 1999), 130.
17. A 2010 study analyzing gender portrayals in 122 family films (rated G, PG, or PG-13) concludes: “Females are more likely than their male counterparts to be young, scantily clad, and attractive” and that these “portrayals may contribute to and/or reinforce the objectification and sexualization of girls/women in society.” Only twenty-nine percent of the characters were female; four of six appearance-related measures varied with gender. Female characters were more likely to be depicted as physically attractive, shown in “sexy, tight, or alluring attire” and also “portrayed with some exposed skin between the mid-chest and upper thigh regions,” and have a smaller waist size that their male counterparts. Stacy L. Smith and Marc Choueiti, “Gender Disparity On Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films; The Executive Report, 2010,; Report of the American Psychological Association Task Force, “Sexualization of Girls” (2007),
18. Margaret R. Miles, Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in Movies (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), p. 25.