William Romanowski is Professor of Communication Arts & Sciences at Calvin College. He teaches courses on film, communication and cultural studies, and is a well respected authority on the interaction of Christianity and popular culture. He has written numerous articles and a handful of books on popular culture, with an emphasis on film. The thesis of Eyes Wide Open is that "Christians should help preserve the best features, improve the weakest parts, and eliminate the worst traits of popular art" (21).
Romanowski goes about defending his claim in a very engaging way. He speaks of modern day Christians who propose to shun all `evil' things such as movies, rock music and dancing, yet they are just as immersed in popular culture as the next person, only in the form of a ghettoized Christian subculture. The reality is that very few truly avoid popular culture, only prefer those elements of it which are, or appear to be sterile and safe. It is within this context that Romanowski argues for discernment. He believes strongly that this oversimplification has created Christians who have no idea how to discern good from bad, truth from error. The easiest way for evangelicals to make judgments is to simply count swear words, violent acts and sexual innuendos. Romanowski notes the Biblical mandate to cultivate: to create and tend to culture. Cultural forms, like anything else in creation, are corrupted by sin and in need of transformation, and we do a disservice to everyone when we make rigid divisions between sacred and secular. It is a sign of secularization that we would even think to label activities in God's world as secular.
The popular arts aid us in cultural communication (reflecting cultural ideals), social criticism (challenging or dealing with culturally contentious issues), social unity (when we've all seen the same movie) and collective memory (the way we view history is shaped by pop culture). This is what pop culture should be doing, but Romanowski notes that the primary venue for popular film in western culture is the melodrama, a dramatic genre with oversimplified depictions of good and evil, with prepackaged endings that end in "domestic bliss or harmonious community" (111). These melodramatic categories absolutely dominate the "Christian, family-friendly" genre and Romanowski wants to challenge this. The Biblical narrative conveys no such clear cut pattern, and he argues that this emphasis on sentimentalism indicates assimilation to, rather than a break from mainstream popular culture.
Christians who want to engage popular culture need to keep these things in mind. We are called to discern beyond whether something is "family-friendly" or not. The presence of violence and swearing and even sex is not always anti-Christian, but can very well be a catalyst for a story of redemption. And what we see as a story of redemption is often brazen individualism where someone pulls themselves up by the bootstraps and defeats the odds. This tells more about the autonomous human than redemption that can only come from God.
So beyond a "Jesus' per minute" scale and an "f-bomb count," Christians are called and even mandated to discern truth from error in popular culture. We are not to become mere consumers, but people who take seriously the message presented in a piece of popular art. He offers a helpful "matrix" for analyzing popular culture which lists questions to ask, but I feel that so many Christians are so far out of this discussion that more direction is needed. Romanowski presents a full analysis of Titanic through this matrix, also helpful, but I wish he gave further direction on how we can practice this act of discernment as Christians. We are conditioned to think that the acceptable Christian films are G, PG, and occasionally PG-13 (The Passion of the Christ excluded, of course), and we need time to learn to see God's beauty in culture again. In light of these facts, I would recommend this book to individuals and even church small groups. I hope it will help us all keep our eyes open a little wider.