The other day I was searching through the CDs we have and came across the Pet Shop Boys’ album, Actually. Curious, I googled them and was surprised to learn that they are considered the most successful British pop duo ever, by some metrics. Who knew? I lost track of them after 1987. As I played the album—and synth-pop really isn’t my style—I began to wonder why I’d bought it. Then “It’s a Sin” played. The Pet Shop Boys’ second number one hit from ’87, that song was part of my personal history that has led, indirectly, to my last two books. Let me set the scene:
In 1987 I graduated from seminary. I was just a small town boy, having grown up in rural northwest Pennsylvania. My exposure to big cities was limited, and that was one reason I’d chosen Boston for said seminary. It was there that I began to realize just how much popular culture referenced religion. “It’s a Sin” is emblematic in that regard. Everything the boys want to say or do is a sin. Sounds like Calvinism to me. Still, the song was heard by millions. I bought the album because of it.
As I recall, there were several pop artists singing about religion at the time. Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” was still eight years away, but it was becoming obvious to me that people took religious cues from pop media. I once described the ability to find references to the Good Book as “Bible radar.” If you’re raised in that culture you learn to spot religion in the most unlikely places. The concept of sin is a purely religious one. We all have consciences (I hope) but to make an act Hell-worthy requires religion. And according to some forms of Christianity just about everything is a sin.
That idea lay dormant for decades. I read novels and found religion embedded in them, often in biblical form. I saw it on television. And in movies. Even horror movies. While I sometimes elected to expose myself to intentionally religious media, these references often came from secular sources. As I began to research this, I came to realize that religion is intricately woven into the fabric of society. Try to tease it out to isolate it and the cloth starts to come undone. We like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated than that, but the truth is at some level we still believe it’s a sin.