Saturday, June 13, 2009

Some Observations About Pop Culture (Pop Culture Part 2)

To the extent that it glorifies what is novel, quickly accessible and distracting, pop culture is incompatible with that sense of transcendence that requires stillness, silence and contemplation in which to function.
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Pop culture both feeds and is fed by the postmodern tendency to replace transcendent metanarratives with local narratives of immanence. It thus runs the risk of making what is here and now seem more real than the eternal verities.
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Because it is a constantly fluctuating and replenished reservoir of practices, emblems and rituals, it both feeds and is fed by the Heraclitian tendencies of the Postmodern project.
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To the extent that the entertainment and consumer-driven side of pop-culture plays homage to the individual self, it reinforces the pervasive tendency to bypass the institutional and covenantal bonds by which human relationships have traditionally been organized.
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The failure to understand redemption in its covenantal context has meant that the gospel has been reduced to an approximation for individual salvation instead of a renewal which encompasses all of the world and its institutions. A full-orbed understanding of the gospel, which includes but is not limited to individual salvation, will necessarily have at its core the concept of Christendom and will consequently endeavour to do justice to the rich complexity of the cultures that Christ has redeemed de jure and is in the processes of redeeming de facto. This rich complexity is lost by the reductionism of pietism which assumes that anything originating from secular culture, and especially pop culture, must be sinful, as well as the reductionism of the “seeker friendly” church movement which naively assumes that what is not explicitly sinful must be benign. In so far as both these approaches reduce the Christian understanding of pop culture to black and white moral issues – the one, in order to condemn it, the other in order to defend it - they fail to appreciate the complexity of the culture Christ is in the process of recovering. Because pop culture – like all human culture - is a dynamic matrix of artefacts, enthusiasm, sounds, attitudes, institutions, philosophies, fashions, myths, prejudices, rituals and unspoken religious commitments, all embodied in individual people, groups, collectives and associations of people, it is futile to try to evaluate the ethics of, say, having a tattoo, buying an iPod or getting a nose ring (or any other cultural expression), in isolation from this fluid matrix. As soon as we do that we are not properly dealing with culture at all, any more than a scientist is dealing with the ocean by studying sea water in a bottle in his laboratory. What is really required is much harder: we must get behind the culture that has produced tattoos, email, rap music, nose-rings, professional sports, shopping malls and sound bites, in order to understand how each of these particulars coalesce with the larger cultural milieu. We must get beyond simply asking, “Is it a sin for a man to have a nose ring?” but must ask the far more difficult question of what male nose-pricings reveal about our culture, our anthropology and our unspoken religious commitments. If any kind of ethical pronouncement is ultimately required, it should come on the other side of such critical reflection.
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The celebration of novelty that has emerged from the marriage of pop culture and entertainment technology has amplified the disestablishment tendencies that have been present in pop culture ever since the 1960’s. To the extent that the formalities and fixities of institutional mores (whether political, ecclesiastical or social institutions) offer a hedge to the impulse for continual novelty, such institutions become the enemy where pop culture is concerned. Thus, churches which attempt to appeal to pop culture need to eschew both the institutional apparatuses of Christendom as well as the formative role that ecclesiastical tradition might have to play in the modus operandi of our worship.

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At the root of all religions are the twin questions, “What is the good life?” “How do I get there?” Pop culture answers these questions as clearly as any religion. It judges the good life by the criteria of happiness and fulfilment in personal relationships and everywhere it tells us that the way to get there is through individual consumption. Rather than offering an alternative Biblical model of the good life, churches pandering to pop culture will advertise a relationship with Jesus as a product that will bring happiness and fulfilment to the individual.
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Although pop culture draws together masses of people in temporary communities defined by their common attachments to fashions and fads, it simultaneously reduces each person to an island. It does this by ripping out of the anthropological landscape the transcendent categories and metanaratives that unite us to something more abiding than personal preference.
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