The Common Good
June 1994

Finding The Bass Beat

by Jim Wallis | June 1994

"The only game in town?" C’mon, Dave! You
don’t really want to give all that away, do ya’?
Didn’t that Palestinian peasant come saying, "A new
game is at ...

"The only game in town?" C’mon, Dave! You don’t really want to give all that away, do ya’? Didn’t that Palestinian peasant come saying, "A new game is at hand"? Doesn’t that mean there’s a whole different game now? I guess the question is, "Whose game are we playing?" And do you really think he would have appeared on MTV?

Your "critical reading of the popular culture" isn’t critical enough. And you end up giving away the store. You and Bill make a sometimes bristling critique only to resign yourselves to the same old game in the end. We can do better.

First off, what do we mean by "popular culture"? Sounds to me what we’re really talking about here is the "profit culture" or the "corporate culture." Or let’s tell it like it is and just call it the "money culture." Isn’t that the real deal? You gotta have a sponsor to get on the "popular culture." Money’s the ticket to this show. And who’s got that kind of loot? Who are the sponsors?

That’s right, and we know what their politics are like. Surprising what keeps coming out of the "popular culture," isn’t it? Not very popular, as in "populist," "the people," and all that.

What about real popular culture? You know, as in ordinary folks, grassroots, local, neighborhood, community, indigenous, racial, ethnic, regional, and other good stuff. Much more life, vitality, variety, and unpredictability there—harder for the sponsors to control. You could even call it a counterculture; counter to the so-called popular culture that’s really the money culture in disguise.

Oh, no! There’s that word—"counterculture." You knew that would eventually come up. We will lose any influence! We will be written off to that fate worse than death; we will be marginalized.

Let’s talk theology. Remember that Niebuhr guy? No, the other one—H. Richard. He shut down the whole discussion about culture with his famous categories about "Christ and culture." You were either "against," "above," "of," "in paradox with," or a "transformer of" culture.

Well, the worst were the "against" folks. They were to be admired, sort of, but finally dismissed as irrelevant. In one stroke of the Christian realist’s pen, all the pacifists, radicals, visionaries, prophets, and protesters were gotten rid of. They won’t play the game, and, by definition, can’t have any influence.

Best were the transformers of culture—surprise!—like the author and his friends who ran the big seminaries. Now they had influence.

The truth is that most all of us would like to be transformers of culture; the real question is how. Niebuhr’s way was to play the game. The early church had a different idea. They thought a powerful counterculture stood the best chance of changing the culture. One might say they had a pretty fair impact. So much so that 300 years after the Palestinian peasant preached, the Roman emperor Con-stantine decided to join up with them! The problem then became who changed who the most.

Sowhat’s all this theology got to do with MTV? Is 500 cable channels really salvation for us and our kids—or just the opposite? Has democracy become more "popular" or more impoverished when people get their political information from David Letterman and the "news shows" become more like Entertainment Tonight? Does it really help youthful identity crises to "Be like Mike"? And will we really find community by eating all the time at McDonald’s, or will we end up sharing nothing more than high cholesterol?

HERE’S AN IDEA. What if we raised our kids to tell stories and read books instead of watching TV all day? To make things instead of buying things, to make our own entertainment instead of making Madonna rich, to make community together instead of watching the celebrity culture, to make new political discourse from local town meetings instead of just taking another poll—why not try to make those things culturally popular?

Maybe something has gone terribly wrong, and maybe the so-called popular, TV, music, video, movie, cable, computer, consumer culture has a lot to do with it. The violence, the greed, the selfishness, the shallowness, the lack of respect, the racism and sexism all seem to be by-products of the popular culture—or maybe they’re main products. It doesn’t just "mirror" and "modify" the society; it shapes, controls, and reduces to the worst common denominator.

The media culture has increased violence and crime. That’s a fact. Deal with it. A few get very rich and all the rest of us get poorer, especially in our spirits.

What seems most to get lost in the media shuffle is what we used to call values. Oh, no, there’s that other word! Yep, like a hot MTV video, we thought we could just skip them. But there are some things that seem to hold human life and community together and even give it a kind of grace and quiet strength. Things like integrity, truthfulness, simplicity, humility, honesty, and fidelity.

Come crashing right through the screen, don’t they? All the time. Tell me, how many Hollywood, rock-and-roll, or NBA stars who rule the popular culture exhibit any of the above? I guess celebrities are exempt from values. It makes them more fun to watch. Not many humble, servant-leader types with lots of integrity who stay faithful to their relationships, are there? I actually know people like that, but none of them are on TV and some of them don’t even watch it. Maybe they’re the real creators of popular culture, or the kind we most need.

But the problem may be even deeper. The medium itself seems to rule those values out—almost make them impossible. You quoted McCluhan as if he were right, "The medium is the message." I sure hope he’s wrong. Great idea to use parables, familiar images, and stories to get your message across (I’m back to the Palestinian peasant here), but wasn’t Jesus really saying that "the message is the medium"? That the message has to change all of our mediums?

One last thing. What’s this about "working" the popular culture? "Since we’re already on the stage we might as well join in"?

No, we’re not. We’re not on the stage. The only people on the stage are rich people or people that get rich people to be their sponsors. Remember, money’s the ticket. Only the carefully chosen few get on the stage (chosen for their commercial value). The rest of us just watch, and endlessly talk about it as if it’s important. Is that popular culture? Seems more like "passive culture" to me. And how do you "work it" if you haven’t got the bucks?

Real popular culture is created by people out of their values, history, tradition, and, yes, faith. That’s what Christians ought to be about helping to create. I am thankful there are several soulful artists who bravely struggle against all the compromises and still sometimes get to the stage.

Just shows that some people out there are still hungry for the real stuff. We do need to support those artists and dialogue with them to help keep us all honest. But most of the real stuff may never get anywhere near the stage of the profiteer culture. That’s okay. Maybe we can help get a real popular culture going here. Bill’s right, it’s time to find the "bass beat" again.

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