Postmodernism rather did it in. Part of a long and wonderful conversation between Scott Timberg and Rick Moody. Timberg notes:
Postmodernism cut the foundation out from under us—killed the idea that the arts and literary were something holy or transcendent—leaving culture entirely exposed to the logic of the marketplace. I used to love those thinkers and their audacity—it reminded me of punk rock. But I realize now that postmodernism is just another word for neoliberalism. Reagan and Warhol were secret lovers, and Jeff Koons and Lady Gaga are their nasty little millionaire children.
“And, above all things, never think that you’re not good enough yourself. A man should never think that. My belief is that in life people will take you very much at your own reckoning.”
Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington
The other day, John Seel at the Daily Cardus got thinking about the current wave of apocalyptic movies. He sees it as a sign of decay.
These cinematic apocalyptic sagas are secular versions of the anticipation of Christ’s return. Whereas Christ’s return brings hope, these twisted stories only bring a nagging unease that flirts with despair.
He goes on to suggest that this is an “anti-culture, referencing Philip Rieff who stated
“Every culture that tries to establish its social order without reference to a sacred order must be called an anti-culture.”
I think we miss the elephant in the room: the present society, the one outside my window, is the one with this apocalyptic fantasies. This is the narrative of loss that we are playing for our own lives, and so a better question might be that of determining the source of this loss. What is it about this age, that prompts this response? Are there concrete conditions?
Pulling up the spiritual gang-plank (“oh, this is what unbelief looks like” or thinking of it only in terms of “anti-culture”) is only another symptom of the problem.
After all it’s not the first time that apocalyptic themes have taken over pop culture.
Look at the literature and film of the 60s and 70s, and one will note continuing themes of over-the-top of revolutionary violence, eg. Bonnie an Clyde (67), John Updike’s Rabbit Redux (71), Trevanian’s switch-up with Shibumi (77). What, we might ask, was in the water then? Why did we want to see violence like that? Was it the generational pulse? Vietnam?
Perhaps, then, what we see in this age is some other generational narrative. By reducing the cultural moment to cultural war terms (ooh, the anti-Christ) Seel avoids the other task of identifying what drives this vision; it is passing the neighbor on the other side of the road.
It’s probably because of the Oscar season, but John Fitzgerald grouses about the Evangelical approach to culture.
It’s foolish to imagine everything is equal when it comes to pop culture. But evangelicals have to stop stunting their intellectual and spiritual maturity by sheltering themselves from bad words, fake blood, and the tantalizing sight of skin.
It is perhaps unfair to park this solely at the feet of the evangelical, though, inviting targets that they sometimes can be. Christian practice through the ages has shown a fairly consistent theme of suspicion about popular entertainments, from the early church’s rejection of the circuses to the Puritan rejection of Christmas, to the very sober-mindedness of the 19th C Presbyterians and Methodists. This is not a new thing.
That said, Evangelicals today often have a more ambiguous relationship to pop or mass culture, generally a “cultural-lite” sort of approach. Like the easy embrace of pop culture, this approach still accepts the fundamentals of the cultural context. This is a kind of Constantinianism. What we could use more of is the nurturing of alternate viewpoints, coupled with the robust interrogation of culture in our theology and our practice.
Alan Jacobs writes on his Tumblr page
Can’t we back up a step or two, and instead of asking “What currently cool technologies can we copy?” ask “What are our core convictions and core practices, and what existing technologies best support them?” And maybe even ask this more challenging question: “What if the existing technologies don’t serve our needs very well? How can we acquire the imagination, the technical chops, and the sheer courage to roll our own instead of choosing from a pre-existing menu of options?” It’s better — far better — to risk abject failure than to choose a safely imitative course that makes excellence impossible by design.
This is the perennial problem with culture. Does there exist a separate, distinctively Christian way? How do we speak differently without being co-opted?
Short answer: that’s not ours to plan. It’s an illusion that we have this cultural power, a hubris of our own place. What we do have is this place. The self-aware space where we stumble a little forward, try to do something good, and if all else fails, plant a garden.