Lots of interesting questions here. My first response would be that I don’t think all cultural artifacts (be they popular or fine art) necessarily constitute prayers. Plenty of popular entertainment is simply produced for mass consumption and the primary motivations are commercial, rather than artistic. While I’m not saying that genuine works of art don’t show up in the world of pop culture, I am drawing a distinction between serious works of art and and vapid commercialism. Though it features plenty of human longing, I don’t think that The Bachelor qualifies as a “prayer,” or an altar to an unknown god, for instance.
Human beings are inherently spiritual creatures, of course, and this means that a certain degree of spiritual yearning will show up in all of our cultural output. The question is whether we’re dealing with a superficial instance or something that merits a closer look.
In the recent past, many North American Christians were often in danger of cultural isolation. The precise opposite is now the case: We’re in danger of cultural overdose and the tendency to baptize every song, show, and movie is getting a bit stale. I’ve heard several pastors use the “upside down” from Stranger Things as an illustration for the Kingdom of God, and I’ve seen people do the same with the show Shitt’s Creek. Hence the plethora of articles and books that begin with “The Gospel and _.” Though well intentioned, I think this approach is misguided. Our Christianity ought to modify our understanding of culture and not the reverse.
What we need is the proper discernment to pay attention to those works that give us a holistic picture of what it means to be human. Once we’ve done that, once we’ve located the altar to the unknown god, we face the same challenge as Paul: We need to get specific and move away from the comfortable ambiguity of the unknown god to the terrible majesty of Christ and his uncompromising claims on every human life.