Pop Culture is Making the World a Better Place, Morally (yeah, that’s what I said)

Today’s post is an interview with Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, author of Not Your Mother’s Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Fitzgerald is a writer and educator whose with a keen interest in how religion shows up in culture. He is an editor at Patrolmag.co and writes a weekly column for the popular religion website Patheos. His freelance works has appeared in such places as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Christianity Today, Religion Dispatches, The Huffington Post, Killing the Buddha, and The Jersey City Independent.

In Not Your Mother’s Morals, Fitzgerald argues that today’s popular music, movies, TV shows, and books are–you may want to sit down for this–making the world a better place. For all the hand-wringing about the decline of morals and the cheapening of culture in our time, contemporary media brims with examples of fascinating and innovative art that promote positive and uplifting moral messages–without coming across as “preachy.”

The catch? Today’s moral messages can be quite different than the ones your mother taught you. Fitzgerald compares the pop culture of yesterday with that of today and finds that while both are committed to major ideals—especially God, Family, and Country—the nature of those commitments has shifted.

1. What clued you in to the possibility of moral stories in popular culture, of all places?

I guess it was back in 2007, I came across two examples that I’d eventually use to support my thesis. They were vastly different artifacts: David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays titled Consider the Lobster and  the film “Knocked Up,” written and directed by Judd Apatow. What these two things have in common is that they are unlikely places to find moral stories, and yet there they were.

So in these, and so many other places throughout pop culture in recent years, I realized that writers, musicians, and film makers were telling moral stories through their art.

2. What’s the deal with the title? Why Not Your Mother’s Morals?

The operating premise here is that though there are all these amazing portrayals of moral stories in pop culture, many people my of parents’ generation would never really see them. They wouldn’t get through “Knocked Up,” which I failed to mention is also a very crass movie. And, I think this is in part what allows Apatow to tell a moral story to a contemporary audience.

But then, from there, it seemed clear that even some of the moral concerns that are raised, like environmentalism, bullying, and marriage equality, wouldn’t even register to older generations as moral concerns. Or, if they did, they wouldn’t come out on the same side as pop culture seems to.

3. Tell us what this “New Sincerity” thing is all about.

While it’s difficult (impossible?) to capture the ethos of an entire age, many people who look at young adults today, and the cultural artifacts they consume, have come to the conclusion that we live in an age wherein the values of sincerity and authenticity are among the most significant virtues. This probably got its start in the 1980s and has been picking up pace ever since as a response to decades in which cynicism and a detached posture dominated.

In the book, I explain how the New Sincerity created a space for artists to explore moral questions in their art without fear of ridicule or recourse.

4. What do you hope readers will come away with after reading your book?

My point here is really to bring attention to the New Sincerity movement and to highlight the positive effect it is having on popular culture. I’m under no illusions that any pop culture moment is sustainable in the long term, so I guess I just hope that by bringing people’s attention to this particular moment, and showing them that it is a good time for television, movies, books, and music, that we’ll be able to hold onto it for as long as possible.

5. What implications are there, specifically, for Christian readers?

While the book wasn’t written for an exclusively Christian audience, Christianity is the perspective I’m writing from and it greatly informs the book’s central investigation — the search for good and moral truth in pop culture. For Christians, I think it is important to know that these kinds of things are out there. That, though we need to use discernment, we shouldn’t write off a musician because he or she uses profanities or block ourselves off from some amazing stories because a film may have some elicit sexual content.

I hope that by showing what is good about popular culture, I can convince believers to approach it critically but with a keen eye for the truth that pop culture practitioners are communicating. I worry that Christians — and evangelicals in particular — lock themselves up in a protective bubble under the guise of “purity,” but this does more harm than good. We are completely ineffective and irrelevant when we imagine we’re not a part of the larger culture.

6. What’s next for you?

My roots as a writer are in creative writing — fiction, actually. And while I don’t feel quite ready to leap back into fiction, I’m working on a book proposal now that will allow me to creatively tell a story as a means of getting across a point. I do some of that in Not Your Mother’s Morals, but this next project, I hope, will be a bit more like a memoir than an essay.

 

  • http://www.culturemonk.com Kenneth Justice

    I wouldn’t pretend to know Mr. Fitzgerald’s motives, but I have to wonder if he didn’t choose the title and theme of his book as a matter of pragmatism; use what a appears to be a radical title & concept and maybe you’ll sell books.

    However, Fitzgerald isn’t really introducing anything new to the arena of discussion on morals that hasn’t been covered already. Francis Schaeffer’s brand of apologetic’s in the 20th century taught the importance of using relevant pop culture forms of art as a way of connecting biblical truths (morals etc). Schaeffer’s philosophy spawned countless thousands of disciples (i am one of them).

    Even in recent years there have been countless books by Evangelicals and progressives that attempt to link connections behind such movies like The Matrix, or bands like the Beatles. In fact, i bought one such book “The Beatles and Philosophy” as a huge fan of the Beatles, only to crack it open and realize that it was cloaked as a book on Philosophy but was really nothing more than an christian apologetic’s book in disguise (http://www.amazon.com/Beatles-Philosophy-Nothing-Popular-Culture/dp/0812696069)

    I’m not writing to discredit Mr. Fitzgerald’s book, but merely to point out that interview would have been more worthwhile to me had he at least mentioned the myriad of books that have come before him in the same vein. If he’s not familiar with them then perhaps he shouldn’t be writing.

    • http://www.johnwhawthorne.com John Hawthorne

      Since I’ve actually read Jonathan’s book, I think it’s important to know that it’s not an exercise in finding Christian themes in pop culture (and those other books make me crazy as well). The point is that this generation is drawing upon different moral images than previous ones. They are able to handle Apatow or Lady Gaga because they are open to the “authentic” messaging underneath. Where earlier generations of evangelicals might have been stunned by the “worldliness”, this generation recognizes more complexity and ambiguity. I just saw a presentation on the complexity of Dutch still life in the 15th century — maybe Mother’s generation was too committed to the stark contrasts of dualism.

      • peteenns

        Thank you, John, for clarifying that crucial point for our readers.

      • Matt Thornton

        John –
        Thanks much for the post, and I’m looking forward to reading the book. Sounds fascinating.

        Your point here about ambiguity and authentic messaging both spot on and hugely important. When I talk with my own teen daughters about it, I’m struck by the speed and efficiency with which they filter, triangulate and confirm new information. Rumors still travel as fast as ever, but the built in ‘fact check’ of the constantly connected, many-to-many communications matrix seems to be a new thing in the world.

        Of the changes driven by new communications options, I think this re-working of how ‘truth’ gets established is the most fascinating, and perhaps the most far-reaching. Would love to see more about this topic.

        Best,
        Matt

        • http://www.johnwhawthorne.com John Hawthorne

          Matt: I addressed some implications from Fitzgerald’s book in a recent post on my own blog (http://johnwhawthorne.com/2013/01/26/framing-a-positive-vision-for-evangelicals-and-higher-education/)

          • Matt Thornton

            Thanks for the link – a thoughtful post, and I also liked your ideas about the importance of complex questions and the decreasing value of ‘pat’ answers in the post about the NPR piece.

            I wonder if part of what’s going on is that the demands on narrative are increasing – to be effective, a given narrative has to sustain itself in a more difficult environment. Easier access to competing narratives, crowd-sourced analysis increasingly available, greater skepticism, easier access to contextual information – all of this makes the job of a narrative, which is to carry meaning from one brain to another, harder. The difficulty in sustaining the power of a narrative over time probably also increases with the scope and complexity of the narrative itself.

            I think of it like Velcro – stories have always been messy and rough, like one half of the Velcro. I the past, stories could slide over a relatively smooth and simple surface of the communications landscape. As that landscape has gotten more complex, the friction on the story increases. I’m sure there are better analogies!

            The sound bite is one way to solve this problem – shorter messages travel better and consume less bandwidth. But, not everything worth knowing fits onto a bumper sticker, so we still have to figure out how to make a long story make sense in a short attention span world. The stories don’t need to change because they’re wrong, they need to change because the listeners are changed.

            A thought.

            Matt

      • rvs

        I find the Trailer Park Boys to be a show that’s full of grace and the deeper magic. When Bubbles, for example, talks about his love of cats and catcher in the rye, I am moved.

    • Joe

      I was raised on Francis Shaeffer’s worldview. I don’t see how his narrow dogmatism has any future in Christianity unless we’re content to live in Christian ghettos and offend the rest of the world by our arrogance.

  • Randy

    Are you kidding me?!!! Positive influence?!!! Drugs and alcohol are rampant. Teen sex and unwed mothers are at a all-time high. Abortion is killing millions of innocent lives every year. Rebellion against authority by young people is being promoted by all the filth of the music industry: such as rap, rock, heavy metal, country, and the rest of that mess. Premarital sex, sex without being married, adultery, murder, etc. is glorified by Hollywood movies. The Bible is almost a thing of the past, basically a fairy tale, ridiculed and ignored. I could go on and on about the apostasy in our land (fulfilling prophecy, by the way). I know this is a cliche, but if this is a positive influence, I would hate to see a negative influence.

    • peteenns

      Randy, let me guess: you haven’t read the book.

      • Jim V

        Dr. Enns, while you are probably right that Randy has not read the book, he still has a valid point, even if not 100% damning of the thesis. While Andrew is correct that teenage pregnancies are down, this is a statistic that the church has too often concentrated on to determine the current state of society. I think that modern pop-culture has always had an element that will reflect a search for deeper meanings and truth – I’m reminded of the songs of “They Might Be Giants” in the 90s, which demonstrated tremendous searches for meaning and truth and reflected a hightened morality. Modern pop-culture isn’t always as vacuous as we assume. However, while I haven’t yet read his book (but plan to), I’m going make some assumptions – first, that Fitzgerald sees the occasional elements of moral reflection as indicitative of a larger element of society. I heard the same thing in the 90′s, but it proved not to be true. Second, Fitzgerald probably assumes that the audiences are actually listening. While I would agree that some do, I think that is still a minority.

        The evidence that I see reflects our downward spiral of current morality and culture is found in statistics about the epidemic levels that have been reach in the number of girls AND boys suffering from anorexia and bulimia, suicidal thoughts, depression. We are supposedly living in a more tolerant society (and in many ways we are), but a materialism, self-centeredness and image have engulfed our culture. Just google the most recent report about the incoming freshmen college class – it’s reported that it is the most narscisistic group of youths to enter college, yet simultaneously the least able to do the work. How does this happen without it being a result of current culture? The more traditional statistics that Christians worry about aren’t improving either (other than teen pregnancies). The stats on STDs are terrible, and their existence so widespread (as is the use of drugs to treat them), that they are becoming rapidly resistant to our current drug treatments.

        I think the problem is that evangelical Christians don’t recognize the progress we HAVE made in our society (greater equality between races, men and women), along with the tremendous problems we still have. I think our job is to point out that many of the problems with our culture may still be changed when people find and emulate Christ.

        • Andrew

          I think one can note that common morality advancing doesnt equate to there not being issues or developing problems. For example, I think the advance of social media and reality TV has contributed to increased narcissim in society . . definitely not a good thing. But one has to look at the big picture. I’ll take widespread STDs over a society which celebrates watching people get killed for sport (Roman Coliseum games; public hangings more recently) anyday of the week. We easily forget that so much of what we simply accept as abhorrent today was not taboo just 100 years ago.

    • Andrew

      Hmm, teen pregnancy is actually on the decline. And as someone mentioned, back in the good ol’ days marriages were arranged with 12 and 13 year old girls. Alchohol abuse? I’d read a little history on American’s drinking habits at the turn of the 20th century before talking about our modern drinking problem. Also in those times of stronger moral fiber, public executions and public torture were common and popular spectacles; even within living memory there were lynchings in the United States in which thousands of people saw someone hung, burned, and then tore the body to shreds. It was also acceptable in warfare to massacre the children of your memories, and engage in widespread rape of the female population. Child abuse wasn’t even recognized as abuse. People with brown skin or darker were considered subhuman, and slavery was widespread throughout the world until the past 150 years.
      But now those kids with that satanic rock and roll and country music . . .(are you for real? I honestly thought you might just be posting in parody)

      • Andrew

        enemies, not memories . . .low on sleep.

  • Jason

    Randy,

    Those statistics that you mention and not all true. Look at the CDC web site for Teen Births and Teen Pregnancies.

    http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db89.htm

    Not to mention the fact that many woman “Back in the day” were having sex and giving birth at around 13 (because life spans were so darned short). See life spans during the Bronze and Iron age here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_expectancy

    I haven’t really researched any of the other statistics that you threw out, but perhaps you should do so.

    Jason

  • T. Webb

    “Pop culture” is not a culture, it is an advertisement. The purpose of “pop culture”, the reason it exists, is so that ultimately you buy a ticket, an album, a movie, a book, a whatever. That’s it. If buying a Lady Gaga album (or insert whatever else) makes the world a better place (a questionable thesis), then I guess the author must be right.

  • arty

    Perhaps someone who has read the book can answer this: Does Fitzgerald comment on the commensurability/communicability of all this authenticity and sincerity? Sure, my 20-something students are always making moral pronouncements, but they don’t usually have any good reason to state, when they get around having to deal with the problem of conflicting wills. The crowning moment happened in a class I taught a number of years ago, when a full third (over 75 students) argued in an assignment that there were universal standards for things like truth and justice, but that they were different for everyone. Without having read Fitzgerald’s book, this is the kind of anecdotal evidence that makes me wonder if this new morality suffers from the Platte River syndrome: mile wide, inch deep. Narrowness (a la Joe’s comment) might have some advantages after all…

    • Joe

      It is true that ‘new morality’ often demonstrates the lengths to which people are able to avoid taking personal responsibility. But the solution is not to promote a narrow vision of truth. So often this is just a masked assertion of power. If Christ defines our responsibility as ‘love God with everything; love neighbor as self,’ then truth needs to be defined in those terms… even if such truth occasionally comes through pop culture rather than through the church.

  • rumitoid

    New metaphors, symbols, and images freed from convention to convey deeper spiritual truths about what best serves humanity as is instead of through membership in an exclusive club. Raw, even savage at times, it offers a unique perspective that rips away the gloss of gentility down to the unfinished soul.

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