Illegal Tender: Sustaining Communitas and the Social Gospel in Musical Film

  • Author(s): Sean McBride
  • When: 2011-12
  • Where: Source
  • At the roots of the Social Gospel movement, theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch envisioned an American society uncorrupted by the industrial economy used to sustain it. Following into the first decades of the 20th Century, the means of spreading this message—that building the Kingdom of God was of more pressing importance than prayer or asceticism—eventually became entangled with consumerism and the American aesthetic crystallized in the 1950s. The Music Man (1962) remains a valuable embodiment, tribute, and critique of how the author Meredith Willson and his audience look back on an era largely shaped by the Social Gospel. Meanwhile, Footloose (1984), and Dirty Dancing (1987) provide similarly sentimental reflections on historical circumstances as thematic obstacles to personal fulfillment. However, each of these stories valorize poetic articulation rather than revolution as a means of bettering society and inclusively framing those on the margins. This essay will argue that such musical “cult classics” have not only served to fill an emergent gap in America’s growing secularity and waning Social Gospel movement, but in some ways carried on the latter tradition by brandishing some of its essential values and rationale as a theology of communitas.

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