Against pop culture

Christians love pop culture these days. But the subset of Christians who love pop culture the most is pastors, writers, and academics. Pop culture as a mode of "engagement"; pop culture as a means of "reaching" this or that group; pop culture as a way of "relating" to students: all these and more are celebrated and commended and practiced in churches, classrooms, and websites every day. "Finding the gospel in [pop culture artifact X]" is a ubiquitous and representative genre. Christians love pop culture, and Christians with an audience want fellow Christians to love pop culture.

Why is that? Why should Christians like, love, or "engage with" pop culture?

I don't think there are very many, or perhaps any, good answers to that question.

Now, sociologically and empirically, we can surely posit some reasons for the lovefest. Christians, especially conservative Christians, especially conservative evangelical Christians, have tended to be socially and culturally disreputable, either isolated or self-exiled from dominant norms, media, and elite artistic production. When that has taken the form of anxious parents "protecting" their children from, say, Disney or Hollywood, it could assume unhealthy forms. Moreover, once such children grow up—or, perhaps, move up in terms of class—they may discover that, as it happens, The Lion King and Return of the Jedi and even some R-rated movies aren't so bad after all.

More broadly, knowledge of pop culture is the lingua franca of upwardly mobile bourgeois-aspirational twenty- and thirty-somethings working white collar jobs in big cities (not to mention college, the gateway to such a destination). I remember a long car ride I once took with three academic colleagues, one of whom had not seen a single "relevant" or popular film or TV show from the previous decade. The result? He basically sat out the conversation for hours at a stretch. What did he have to contribute, after all? And what else was there to talk about?

But such explanations are just that, explanations, not reasons for why Christians (or anyone) ought to be enthusiastic consumers of pop culture, much less evangelists for it. And rather than flail around for half-baked arguments in support of that view, let me just posit the contrary: there are no good reasons. The boring fact is that Christians like pop culture for the same reasons everyone else does—it's convenient, undemanding, diverting, entertaining, and socially rewarded—and Christians with an audience either (1) rationalize that fact with high-minded justifications, (2) invest that activity with meaning it lacks (but "must" have to warrant the time Christians give to it), or (3) instrumentalize it toward other, non-trivial ends.

Options 1 and 2 are dead ends. Option 3 is well-intended but, nine times out of ten, also a dead end.

The truth is that, for every hour that you do not spend watching Netflix, your life will be improved, and you will have the opportunity to do something better with that time. (I'm generalizing: if, instead of watching Netflix, you break one of the 10 commandments, then you will have done something worse with your time.) Reading, cooking, gardening, playing a board game, building something with your hands, chatting with a neighbor, grabbing coffee with a friend, serving in a food pantry, learning a language, cleaning, sleeping, journaling, praying, sitting on your porch, resting, catching up with your spouse or housemate: every one of these things would be a qualitative improvement on streaming a show or movie (much less scrolling infinitely on Instagram or Twitter). There is no argument for spending time online or "engaging" pop culture as a better activity for Christians with time on their hands than these or other activities. Netflix is always worse for your soul—and your mind, and your heart, and your body—than the alternative.

Now, does that mean you should never, ever stream a show? No, although this is usually too quick an escape route for those who would evade the force of the claim. ("Jesus, I know you said turn the other cheek, but could you, quickly though in detail, provide conditions for my justifiably harming or even taking the life of another human being?") My argument here is not against the liceity of ever streaming a show or otherwise engaging pop culture; it is against the ostensibly positive reasons in favor its being a good thing Christians ought to do, indeed, ought to care about doing, with eagerness and energy. Because that is a silly thing to believe, and the silliness should be obvious.

I had been meaning to write something like this the last year or two, but a recent exchange between Matthew Lee Anderson, in his newsletter, and his readers, including Brett McCracken, prompted me to finally get these thoughts down. The short version is that Matt suggests people delete their Netflix accounts, and people think that goes too far. (To be clear: Whenever anyone anywhere at any time suggests that people delete their [anything digital/online/social media], I agree reflexively.) The present post isn't meant as an intervention in that conversation so much as a parallel, complementary reflection. Any and all libertarian (in the sense of a philosophy of the will's freedom) Christian accounts of pop culture, Netflix, social media, etc., fail at just this point, because they view individuals as choosers who operate neutrally with options arrayed before them, one of which in our day happens to be flipping Netflix on (or not) and "deciding" to watch a meaty, substantive Film instead of binging bite-size candy-bar TV. But that is not an accurate depiction of the situation. Netflix—and here again I'm using Netflix as a stand-in for all digital and social media today—is a principality and a power, as is the enormous flat-screen television set, situated like a beloved household god in every living room in every home across the country. It calls for attention. It demands your love. It wants you. And its desire for you elicits desire in you for it. It is, therefore, a power to be resisted, at least for Christians. Such resistance requires ascesis. And ascesis means discipline, denial, and sometimes extreme measures. It might mean you suffer boredom and lethargy on a given evening. It might mean you have to read a book, or use your hands. It might even mean you won't catch the quippy allusions in a shallow conversation at work. So be it.

A final word, or postscript, speaking as a teacher. I have too many colleagues (across the university and in other institutions) who have effectively admitted defeat in the long war between 20-year olds' habits and the habits of the classroom, and who thus not only employ various forms of visual media in class (assuming students cannot learn without them) but actively encourage and solicit students' use of and engagement with social and digital media and streaming entertainment in assignments outside class. Granting that there are appropriate forms of this (for example, in a course on Christianity and culture, one of my assignments is a film critique), I am thinking of more extreme versions of this defeatism. What I mean is the notion that "this generation" simply cannot be expected to read a book cover to cover, or that the book must be pitched at a 9th-grade level, or that assignments "ought" to "engage" other forms of digital media, because "this is the world we live in." Education must be entertaining, lest the students not be educated at all. But as Neil Postman has taught us, when education is made to be entertaining, students do not learn while also happening to be entertained. They learn that learning itself must always be fun. And when it isn't, that must be a failure of some kind.

Our students do not need us to encourage their Netflix and Twitter and other digital habits. They need us to help them unlearn them, so far as is possible within the limits afforded us. Acceptance is not realism, in the classroom any more than in our own lives. Acceptance is acquiescence and retreat. For Christians, at least, that is not an option.

Comments

  1. One comment: I think libertarian freedom is compatible with netflix being a principality/power. After all, libertarians are happy to say that some desires are stronger than others. Then other libertarians like Robert Kane will talk about self-forming actions where past (free) decisions formed our character in such a way that this formed character is now central to our current decision making.

    Other than that, I agree with much of what you say.

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    1. Sure, perhaps. Though at a popular level I think the voluntarist view radically individualizes and flattens out agency to the level of discrete choices, absent an enslaved or depraved will burdened by sin, disordered desires, etc.

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  2. Thanks for this, Brad. Do you think it's a matter of pop culture per se—which would include novels, plays, podcasts, board games, etc.—or is there something special about digital and social media? And if so, what is that? I'm genuinely wondering! I can feel a special pull toward the electronic stuff, myself, but find it sort of theologically strange if only that stuff turns out to be a principality. And I'd wonder what keeps the arguments here from applying more broadly.

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    1. I'm most focused on the streaming, online, digital media ecosphere, but more than that, the weirdly prevalent "push" on the part of Christian writers for fellow Christians to "engage" pop culture of that particular kind—that they *ought* to. I don't see anything like that regarding podcasts, board games, novels, sports, etc. In addition to the reasons I gave in the post, I also think it's a kind of yearning or reaching toward artistic "significance" in cultural artifacts that can't bear the load (at least for the most part) as past, weightier forms could (like novels, poetry, classical music, drama, etc.).

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