Who’s Your Pop Culture?

Who’s Your Pop Culture? November 9, 2017

Some years ago, I gave a quiz to college-bound high school students. Take it yourself:

Finish the following sentences or phrases:

With great power . . . .
Hasta la vista . . . .
Do the . . . (Dew)
Shaken, not . . . .
Space, the final . . . .
Think outside the . . .
I’d walk a mile for . . . .
May the force . . .
Life is like a box . . .

Identify the advertisers by the following taglines:

I’m loving it.
You’re in good hands.
Where’s the beef?
Have it your way.
Be all you can be.
Can you hear me now? (Verizon)
Is it in you? (Gatorade)
Obey your taste (Sprite).
The king of beers.

Identify these people:

Captain Jack Sparrow
Paula Abdul
Paul McCartney
Orlando Bloom
Brad Pitt
Johnny Depp

Now, Part II: Finish the following sentences or song lyrics:

Let God arise . . . .
I bind unto myself today . . . .
We praise thee, O God, We acknowledge thee . . . .
Midway through the journey of our life I found myself in . . . .
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods . . . .
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty . . . .
Call me . . . .

Identify these people:

Becky Sharp
Charles Wesley
Karol Wotyla

Here are the answers to the second half of the quiz:

“Let his enemies be scattered”: The first line of Psalm 68, one of the most popular Psalms among the French Huguenots.
“The strong name of the Trinity”: The beginning of St. Patrick’s “Lorica,” or “Breastplate.”
“To be the Lord”: The beginning of the ancient Christian hymn, the Te Deum.
“In a dark wood”: The first line of Dante’s Comedy
“They kill us for their sport”: King Lear, Act 4.
“Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible”: The Nicene Creed.
“Ishmael”: Moby Dick.
Zelophahad: An Israelite who died in the wilderness; his daughters appealed to Moses for an inheritance (Numbers 27).
Polycarp: Early Christian martyr.
Dominic: Founder of the Dominican Order of Preachers.
Becky Sharp: Heroine of Vanity Fair
Charles Wesley: brother of John, hymn writer
Karol Wotyla: the given name of Pope John Paul II

Now, the question is, Which part of the quiz did you do better on? And what does that tell you about yourself?

You might say that it doesn’t tell you much of anything about yourself. You just happen to have more trivia in your head about popular culture than you do about the Bible, church history, Shakespeare, English or American literature.

I think that is a mistake. To assume that the facts we have in our head, the music that comes most readily to mind, the people we can identify most readily, the symbols and proverbs that we most readily respond to – to assume that these things are irrelevant to who we are, our identity and character, is an error. The error is an error about human nature.

The error is the notion that each individual human being is what he or she in isolation from everyone and everything else. We become what we are purely by resources within ourselves, and are not deeply influenced by anything outside. We might be affected in some minor ways by ideas and things around us, but not in any significant fashion. We are self-standing atoms of human nature, with hard edges that can’t be affected in any significant way by other people.

With a bit of reflection, we can see that this is a fundamental and obvious error. As Rosenstock-Huessy shows, we come to be independent thinking beings because we are addressed, spoken to, smiled at, spanked, loved, hugged, shouted at, or whatever. Sociologically, “you” is the first person; imperatives are the first form of speech, not indicatives.

The priority of the individual person is enshrined in the way we teach grammar, which doesn’t fit with the way the world actually works. We are addressed before we can begin to say I. We are given a name that we have to learn, but this name becomes who we are. We receive commands from outside before we ever begin to speak on our own, expressing our own opinions, etc

For Christian school students, another sort of error is perhaps more prevalent. Christian schools train students in a Christian worldview. Your literature teacher, I’m sure, taught you to identify the worldview of Jack London or Ralph Waldo Emerson. Your history teacher has taken you through the worldviews of various historical periods, and your Bible and doctrine teachers have explained the differences between the Christian and non-Christian views of God, man, the world, and so on.

This can lure us into thinking that the Christian struggle with the world is a struggle of ideas v. ideas, of Christian doctrine v. humanistic or Marxist or naturalistic or transcendentalist doctrines. And we think if we can identify the ideas that are at work in a particular cultural phenomenon, we can refute it and be safe from any kind of influence.

There is a conflict of ideas, and the ideas that come from many university professors are often very bad. You do need to be on guard against them, and make every effort to think about everything you’re told at college, and after, from the perspective of the Christian worldview.

Feminism often assumes that masculinity and feminity are purely social creations, constructed by society. No doubt social factors weigh a lot in forming notions of masculinity and femininity, but for the Christian God created male and female. Each society holds its own standards and values, and there is no overall general standard we can use to judge those differing cultural standards. All we can do is fight it out.

Now, it’s true that different communities have very different standards of morality and reason, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be judged or evaluated by some over-arching standard. A culture that says adultery is no big deal is simply perverse.

But the battle we have with the world is not merely an intellectual battle. Ideas are important, but ideas always come embodied in some fashion – and not always directly in words. Ideas can be incarnated in texts, or images, or practices, or slogans, or songs. And even when we’ve extracted the idea from the medium (which is not entirely possible), we haven’t really dealt with the challenge of the medium itself.

We need to be alert not only the ideas that are communicated, not only try to identify and respond to the “doctrines” that are around us. We need to be alert to the ways that cultural forms and practices shape our own habits of thought and action in particular ways.

1 John 2:15 is relevant here. It tells us not to love the world. What does he mean? He’s not talking about the products of human culture as such. He’s not saying that we should not delight in cheeseburgers and cars and Bach cantatas and cell phones. These too, in themselves, are gifts of God that we should receive with thanksgiving. Though made by human beings, they are still ultimately from God, and not to be rejected.

He’s not talking about the products of culture per se: Godly people throughout the Bible use musical instruments and plows and domesticated animals and other forms of ancient technology. Paul travels by boat, and I have no doubt he would have flown to Rome if he had lived in our day.

What John means by “world” is something more subtle and pervasive than the things that technology and human creativity provides, something more subtle and pervasive even than the practices of a society. He’s talking about the way the things of human culture are organized and used, and particularly about the desires that produce these things and practices and the desires that these things and practices evoke.

John’s claim that the world is made up not only of “things” (ta en to kosmo, v. 15) but of desires is a rich insight. He doesn’t limit the world merely to the artifacts that are evident in the world, nor to the institutions and practices of the world. The plural reference in verse 15 covers these multiple manifestations of the world, but at the heart of what John calls the world, the source from which the world flows, is desire.

To put it more sociologically, (sinful) human culture – its institutions, practices, products – are all embodiments of evil desire or boastfulness. John hints that we should evaluate the world not only on the basis of what’s done or what things it contains, but on the basis of desire. And desire has a multiple relationship with culture: Desires are the “contents” of culture – culture is made up of embodied dreams, aspirations, lusts; on the other hand, the world is the source of desire, evoking certain kinds of desire.

John’s sociology encourages us to ask what desires are embodied in roads, buildings, automobiles, iPods, coffee, customs, schools, and so on. John encourages us to seek to penetrate below the surface of cultural life to the desires that are provoking and provoked by the world.

Let me extend the discussion a bit further with a few more specific examples. Thomas de Zengotita points out in his wonderful book, Mediated, that there are certain habits of thought that are virtually inherent in contemporary media, certain desires and a certain boastfulness that comes with the technology itself. Reality transmitted through media flatters the viewer, as if it were all put together for him. It gives the impression of having been there, and conveys a kind of “God’s eye view.”

Speaking of the Kennedy assassination, he writes that it has all been “brought to you (as they used to say) by the tube, brought to you in that atmosphere of special intimacy that binds you to the screen in your private space, when you are fully absorbed, when you are really into it. Those bovine Texas lawmen, swearing and squirming under their Stetsons – you could smell the fear and resentment, so out of their depth, ineptitude exposed, the dangerous, aimless anger. Jackie’s bloody dress. Johnson’s slab of a hand upheld to take the oath, chaos in the aisle behind him . . . You were there when Ruby shot Oswald, live, and if not live, you saw it over and over again afterward, and you knew it was live.”

He adds, “You were there, everywhere there, over and over again, and you knew, over and over again, that it was live, except, of course, later on, when it was sometimes a scrupulously accurate fictional depiction of what we live or in many cases, a splicing together of what was in fact live with a possibly really distorted fictional depiction of what was live.”

It is, he notes, syntactically nonsensical to speak of something “live” in the past tense, but that’s the kind of syntactical torture inherent in much mediated experience. Like watching a commercial with John Wayne in it, along with contemporary actors, and knowing that he is not “really” “in” the commercial – since he’s dead. But the commercial is not “really” there either. There is, in short, a pervasive “flattery implicit in representation” that “may be irresistible.”

De Zengotita also notes how much of our everyday experience is now mediated through media: “Ask yourself: is there anything you do that remains essentially unmediated, anything you don’t experience reflexively through some commodified representation of it? Birth? Marriage? Illness? Think of all the movies and memoirs, philosophies and techniques, self-help books, counselors, programs, presentations, workshops. Think of the fashionable vocabularies generated by these venues, and think of how all this conditions your experience. Ask yourself: if I were to strip away all those influences, could I conceive of my life?”

Think of how often you’ve said, of a particularly intense experience, “It was like being in a movie.” I think it’s inherent in human life that we experience the world in a “mediated” fashion. Our concepts, history, beliefs, habits, and so on filter what we know and how we know it. The question is what mediates that experience.

In his book, The Culture of Cynicism, Richard Stivers notes our cultural obsession with efficiency. It is often said that we live in an amoral age, an age when moral concerns are shoved to the side or out the window. That is not entirely accurate. We don’t live in an amoral age, but in an age of technique. We have our morality, but our morality is a morality that guides morality by abstracted, standardized rules, and aims for quantifiable results.

Our culture is not an amoral culture; rather, our morality is a morality of efficiency. During the Vietnam War, success was measured in body counts, and promotion was based on success. The more kills you had, the higher you went in the military hierarchy. One study found that consulting psychiatrists who helped make decisions about involuntary commitments for patients had incentives to see as many patients as possible.

The result was very efficient – many people were committed. But often the psychiatrists spent only a few minutes with the patients, and based decisions on meager knowledge of the case. Accreditation agencies force colleges and universities to quantify education. Traditional moral systems have their rules, of course. But these rules were seen as signposts along the path of the good life.

For our culture, rules have no overall end in view. Efficiency is prized, but nobody knows exactly what all this efficiency is aiming at, what the end or goal of all our technical power is. In fact, setting cultural goals is discouraged, declared unconstitutional. We all, the Supreme Court says, have the right to determine the meaning of life for ourselves.

Any effort to “impose” a generally accepted meaning of life on everybody is unconstitutional. Rules don’t embody any larger vision of the world or the purpose of human life. Rules exist only to ensure that we get nowhere as quickly and with as little clutter and pain as possible. If you think you’re immune to this, think of all the Christian how-to books. Christians absorb the ethic of efficiency as easily and as deeply as anyone.

In his history of American advertising, James Twitchell discusses the role of celebrities in selling products. He notes that the connection between the celebrity and the product is irrelevant. What’s relevant is the “magic” that the celebrity provides.

He describes celebrity in religious terms “Celebrities/priests are central characters of Adcult. They have one foot in our world and one foot in adtopia. They must be recognized as ‘one of us’ and ‘one of them.’ More important still, they have to be able to make us believe that they are sincere when they ‘endorse’ a product that we know full well they are paid to use. This phenomenon is hardly new. Look at the walls of Renaissance churches, and you will see an endless procession of martyrs and saints who are invariably undergoing the most exciting experiences in the service of what we are being invited to join . . . . In their heroic deeds and sufferings they are endorsing a product, renting their glory, if you will, for the corporation. We see them rewarded with salvation, the same salvation proffered to us.”

Branding covers everything from the clothes we wear, and the music we listen to, to the soft drinks we prefer, to literal brands that we place on our bodies – tattoos and piercings and various forms of cosmetic surgery. By these markings, we are identifying ourselves, and particularly identifying ourselves with a particular community.

In her book, Branded, Alissa Quart describes her own experience: “I knew that Beatrice owned Tropicana (thanks to the chipper synergic advertising jingle tagline of the period ‘By Beatrice!’), that when I wore Converse high tops and listened to Joy Division I was branding myself, putting myself on the ark punk nostalgic ‘college rock’ side of adolescent style. I considered myself in a style war against the ‘normal’ girls, who wore Zazu-colored hair and blue jelly shoes, their Polo by Ralph Lauren logos standing proud and emblematic on their cotton shirts . . . . I carefully scissored the labels off my Levi’s and Guess jeans. I believed the shadowy tell-tale rectangles that remained were an aesthetic of renunciation that would speak for me.”

Quart notices particularly that marketers are targeting younger kids more intensely than ever, in the hope that they can “brand” them in perpetuity. A baby dressed in Baby Gap will be at Old Navy for decades to come.

Teen magazines that emerged in the late 1990s – teen versions of People, Vogue, and Elle Girl – are part of this effort: “Today’s teen magazines must have celebrities on their covers, one month Jennifer Lopez, the next James King. The magazines now all push pricey clothes, such as the costumery of Stuart Weitzman, Christian Dior, and DKNY. Teen Vogue details the costly label-fixated clothing tastes of the stars: Liv Tyler in a Jane Mayle dress, Keith Richards’s teen daughter in Frankie B. jeans, Scarlet Johansson squeezed into a ‘Technicolor Dolce’ dress (in deference to the brand Dolce & Gabbana). These magazines construct an unaffordable but palpable world of yearning for girls. We are all too familiar with the negative effects of model body on girls’ self-images, but these new magazines do something new: They help to solidify feelings of economic and taste inadequacy in girls. By introducing very young teens to female celebrity and the dressmakers who help create it, these magazines underline that girls are not complete or competitive if they don’t wear label dresses at their junior high school dances.”

This is where the church comes in. If the battle we face in the wider culture were merely a matter of ideas and thoughts, then we might be able to withstand the onslaught of bad ideas on our own. We might be able to fill our minds with good thoughts and ideas through reading and studying, and when a bad idea came up, we’d pounce.

If we are cultural beings, whose habits and practices and desires are shaped by the habits and practices and desires of others around us – and we are – then we can’t really stand up to the cultural temptations in isolation, by ourselves. We cannot resist on our own. We need to be part of a resistant community, a resistant community that recognizes the way the world seeks to shape us into its image, and self-consciously resists the world.

And we can’t resist something with nothing. To the world’s desire-shaping, formative practices, Christians need to oppose a different set of desire-shaping practices. We can’t say: I won’t desire what the world wants me to desire. We have to have positive, godly desires in place of the world’s desires. And these desires and habits need to be nurtured, cultivated, shaped and formed in a particular community. The church has a culture, and must be a culture, if it is going to resist the forces that would conform you to worldly culture.

Let me again take a few specific examples.

Branding and baptism: It is not a sin to wear a brand name article of clothing, particularly when there is often little else to choose from. Given the pervasive brand-consciousness among some young people, though, it’s hard to see how wearing brand name clothing could do anything but send a message about where you’re trying to position yourself in the teen pecking order.

We need to think of some creative ways to resist the whole branding mentality. But the most central Christian response is sacramental: To take your identity, self-image, and sense of standing from your clothing brand is to sin against your baptism. You’re already branded, and any branding that marks you as something other than, more fundamental than, a disciple of Jesus, is wrong. And you need to be in a church to remind you of your baptism, of the brand you’ve already received in Christ.

Psalms v. popular music: God gave us a song book in order to sing it, but how many Psalms do you know by heart? If you were to tally up the number of pop songs you can sing along to, and then the number of Psalms you can sing along to, which list would be longer? And, given the power and importance of music in education (something known to the Bible as much as to Plato and Aristotle), how much of a Christian education do you have if you can’t sing the Psalms? You need the church to do that, a church that will surround you with Psalm-singing, and will make those Psalms more a part of you than any other music.

Peer group: Peer groups are, of course, made up of peers, of people near your own age. The church is not such a community. The church is made up of people of every age and walk of life, and intends to be a community where every tribe and tongue and nation finds a place. Now, if you are at college, and spending time only with your peers, you’re surrounded by people with the same level of experience, and the same insight and wisdom that you have, which may not be very much at all.

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