Pop culture, for and against

Jake Meador has kindly cross-posted my original blog post "Against pop culture" over at Mere Orthodoxy, and it's gotten a second round of (much larger) attention. Mostly the responses have been appreciative or generously critical, but let me address some of the criticisms as well as clear up some misunderstandings.

1. The piece is meant to be provocative, as both the title and tone suggest, so part of this is doubtless my own fault; but the overall point I'm trying to make is not that pop culture as such, or Netflix, is Bad, or that Christians should not ever "engage" it. The primary argument, instead, is that Christians (with an audience) who believe or write that Christians (in general) ought to "engage" popular culture as an imperative are wrong. That is, even if pop culture is neutral (which it is not), there is no good argument that Christians (again, in the aggregate) should, as a prescriptive norm, make it a priority to watch more Hulu, see more Netflix originals, listen to more Spotify, spend more time on YouTube, etc. My argument, then, is wholly negative, countering the opposing (positive) argument regarding Christians' behavior and posture toward pop culture. Though I gesture in this direction, I do not in fact make the mirror-image (positive) argument that Christians, normatively, should not, ever, under any circumstances, "engage" pop culture. What I do suggest is that there are worthwhile alternatives to such activity—an observation I would assume we can all agree on, though perhaps I am wrong.

2. I am therefore not "against" pop culture in the strong sense. This is true in multiple ways. Personally, I am—albeit ambivalently—an avid consumer of and participant in popular culture. Peruse my blog or CV and you'll see evidence aplenty. I have published academic work on, e.g., the Coen brothers. I write regularly about film and TV: on A Clockwork Orange; on Ex Machina; on The Leftovers; on the supposed monoculture; on ParaNorman; on Phantom Thread; on Godless, Three Billboards, and The Last Jedi; on Rachel Getting Married; and much more. My reading online is probably evenly split between political commentary and movie/TV criticism. I could name my top 10 favorite film critics off the top of my head. I teach a class called "Christianity and Culture" that includes a film critique assignment; moreover, when I teach it as a one-week intensive, we spend an hour every afternoon viewing "cultural artifacts" together via YouTube. I was that kid in high school thumbing through my (subscription) Entertainment Weekly while methodically crossing off entries on AFI's Top 100 Movies list. I still have individual Word documents for each year going back two decades that include my own personal "Best Of" lists for both film and TV. I can neither confirm nor deny that I continue to update them.

3. So I've got pop culture bona fides (Lord forgive me). And I do not think Christians must flee to the hills and keep their children safe from the mark of the beast, i.e., Hollywood. (This isn't a "keep Christian culture pure" take.) I'm not even arguing, as Matt Anderson does, that Christians should delete their Netflix accounts. I have Netflix, and I'll be enjoying season 3 of Stranger Things later this week. There is indeed plenty of good in various artifacts and products of our artistic culture today, and that includes popular culture—this isn't, to address another criticism, a high versus low argument. Though I am constantly trying to expand my cultural and aesthetic palate, I am a very poor reader of, say, 19th century novels. One day I'll be able to offer thoughtful reflections on Austen and Melville and Trollope, but this is not that day. So, no, I'm not pitting two options against each other—Schitt's Creek versus Crime and Punishment—stacking the deck in favor of one, and judging the poor plebs who opt against Great And High Culture.

4. So what am I doing? Well, to repeat, I'm rejecting the case made by far too many Christian writers, academics, and pastors that their fellow Christians should be engaging pop culture. As I wrote, that is silly, and its silliness should be dazzlingly apparent to all of us. It's a way of rationalizing our habits or elevating what is usually quite shallow entertainment—an undemanding way to pass the time, alone or with others—to the venerable status of Meaningful. In a way, I'd rather folks admit the truth, that sometimes, perhaps more often than they'd like to admit, Netflix (et al) is a way to shut off their brains and veg out at the end of a long day. I still think (as I'll say below) that there are reasons to resist that route, but most of us have done it, it's not the worst thing in the world, and it's far more honest than high-minded justifications as to why House of Cards is deep art. (Which it is not: absent a few directorial flourishes from Fincher in the opening episodes, that wretched show is a self-serious daytime soap about evil people doing wicked things with absolutely nothing interesting to say about human nature, politics, or power. It's as bad for your soul as it was for mine when I watched it.)

5. So why the digression in the original post about how Netflix (serving as a shorthand for all digital and streaming content) is bad for you? And about how there are dozens of other activities that would be better for you? Well, because more than one thing can be true at the same time. It is true both (a) that there are quality films and shows on Netflix that would not be a waste of your time and (b) that, in general, spending time on Netflix is the worst option among a host of otherwise life-giving, body-restoring, mind-expanding, soul-rejuvenating activities available to you on any given evening. And thus, I want to suggest, it is worth considering the time one gives to streaming apps and other screens and social media, compared with how one could be using that time differently. What if, instead of 2+ hours of Netflix per night, you had 3-5 Netflix-free nights per week, and limited yourself to a movie one night and a (single episode of a) show another night? Here is the counter-prescriptive argument for the rah-rah Christian pop culture folks: I am confident that all the activities I listed in my piece—gardening, reading, cooking, serving, crafting, writing, etc.—are superior, 99 times out of 100, to spending time on Netflix. Does that mean, as I said there, that one therefore ought never to watch Netflix? No! We don't always do The Very Best Thing For Ourselves at all times. Otherwise we'd be praying 90-minute Vespers after the kids went to bed every night, or learning a new language every 18 months, or what have you. But the fact that we don't always do The Very Best Thing, and even that we needn't feel like there is a standing imperative Always So To Do, doesn't change the fact that Netflix is on the very bottom of the list of activities that are good and restorative and healthy for us; activities, that is, that are an excellent use of the (very limited) time allotted to us. We don't need to lie about that to make ourselves feel better about it.

6. I had at least two audiences in mind with my original piece. One was the group criticized directly: those who believe, and write, that Christians ought to "engage" pop culture. And the reaction of at least some folks proved, to me at least, the point: there is a kind of nervous insecurity on the part of folks who "love" pop culture and who therefore need it to Be Meaningful. (An insult to it is an insult to us all.) But why? Would the lives of Christians be worse in any way if they decreased the time they give to streaming TV and movies by 80%? Answer: No! Would they be worse neighbors as a result? By no means! If your concept of neighborliness, of Christian neighbor-love, is necessarily wedded to knowledge of pop culture, then it is your concept that needs to change, not the people who fail to live up to it. Now, does the fact that most Christians would be well served by decreasing their Netflix (and Hulu, and Spotify, and HBO, and Instagram, and Facebook, and Twitter, and...) usage mean, as a consequence, that a minority of Christians who are lovers and critics, professional or amateur, of visual art forms must—like St. Anthony hearing the Gospel read in church and Jesus's words spoken directly to him—give up their streaming services, abandon cinema, and forever devote themselves to Faust and Beethoven instead? What an exaggerated and convoluted question you've asked. You know my answer by now.

7. My other audience was, basically, my students. Or, more broadly, my own generation (I'm technically a Millennial) and the generation coming up behind us (Gen Z). It is impossible to overstate how bad their technological habits are. From sunrise to sundown (through many hours of sundown) they fill their minutes and hours with brain-stunting screen-candy, whether social media, music, streaming video, or all of the above. They wake up to it and, quite literally, fall asleep to it. They can't imagine going without it for even brief stretches, and they can't imagine sitting in a room, without a device, without artificial noise of some kind, and reading a book for 25 minutes straight. (They can't imagine it because they've never done it or, all too often, seen it done.) This is another, larger conversation, granted, but it is related to the present topic, because the principal thing for Christian teachers, pastors, professors, and writers to say to these kids is not Thou Shalt Engage Pop Culture EVEN MOAR. The thing to do is to model, instruct, and shape them so as (a) to unlearn their screen-addled habits and (b) to present an alternative. True, this generation isn't going to go Full Butlerian Jihad—though I wish to God they, and we, would—and so it is indeed a wise and worthwhile thing to train them in healthy, thoughtful, critical habits of engagement with culture of every kind. And inasmuch as that is what the pro–pop culture folks are in actuality up to, I have no beef with them. But in order to motivate that project, we don't have to shore up the depth or quality or worthiness of pop culture as such; we don't have to pretend. We just have to accept it as a part of our common life, bad as much of it is, then think through how Christians ought to relate to it (in a complex balance of resistance, ascesis, discipline, engagement, celebration, and critique).

8. A coda on sports, then a postscript on myself. A number of folks asked either why I didn't mention sports or whether sports falls under my critique. Those are good questions. Sports, even more than pop culture (understood as concrete artifacts produced for mass entertainment purposes—and even here I realize sports is becoming less and less distant from such a definition), can become an idol from which Christians should flee. But since what I had in mind was Christians with an audience arguing that fellow Christians have a kind of spiritual or cultural or missional duty to "engage" popular culture, sports seemed a separate issue. I've not encountered that kind of rhetoric regarding sports, partly because basically no one, including Christians, needs to be convinced to play or watch sports; partly because sports has a different kind of importance in our lives—different, that is, than art and its aura of significance. But I have no doubt much of what I wrote and what I've written here applies, mutatis mutandis, to sports and the adoration, even fanaticism, that surrounds it.

9. My original piece had a third audience above all: myself. Outside of the most important aspects of my life (God, family, church, vocation), I probably spend the largest chunk of my time, day to day and week to week, thinking about how to change my relationship to technology. I've written about that a number of times on this blog. My relationship to technology includes my phone (cut down to ~45 min/day!), social media (no Facebook! Minimal Twitter!), my household (no kids have devices! No TV on Sundays!). But it also includes my viewing habits. And those have always been the hardest for me to curb. I grew up watching a lot of TV, and then in my late teens I got into film in a big way. In college and grad school I developed what I take to be quite bad habits—not morally bad, in terms of what I viewed, but psychically bad, in terms of shaping my brain and body's expectations for what it means to fill free time, to rest. If I didn't have school work to do in the evenings, my singular instinct was (and to some extent still remains) to turn on the TV (where "TV" means some film- or show-streaming screen). From 2000 to 2010, film-wise, and from 2006 to 2016, TV-wise, if you've heard of it, I've probably seen it. Having four kids in six years both helped and hurt. Helped, because my movie habits were forced to change whether I liked it or not. Hurt, because while I was staying home part time as a doctoral student, I simply couldn't find the energy to do intellectually demanding work when my kids napped, so I actually increased my TV viewing. In the last 3+ years, I have made it a dominating goal of my life to decrease this time spent in front of a screen, watching a show (however good the show might be—and sometimes they're quite good). And I've succeeded, to an extent. My aim is not—pace Matt Anderson—to rid my life of TV or streaming art. It's to unlearn the itch, that is, the psychological and almost physiological reflex to fill "blank" time with a screen filled with moving images. I treat this itch like a disease, though I am self-aware enough to know that my almost maniacal posture toward the itch is itself a sign of how far I've come. But so far as I can see, it really is a disease, a social disease, present in Kindergartners, freshmen in college, thirtysomething parents, empty-nesters, and retired grandparents. When dinner's done, or the dishes are washed, or the kids are in bed, or the house is clean—when there's a chunk of time to be filled—we all do we what we've always done since the 1950s: turn on the TV. Only now, the name of that all-powerful gravitational pull is no longer TV but Netflix. It's a cultural tick, a habitual default, an emotional itch, a psychological addiction. And speaking only for myself, I want to be free of it.

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