The Common Good
June 1994

Popular Culture and Our Future

by Bob Hulteen | June 1994

According to many political pundits—Left, Right, and
Center—the era of battles over expanding opportunities and
rights—be they civil, equal, or other—is nearly ...

According to many political pundits—Left, Right, and Center—the era of battles over expanding opportunities and rights—be they civil, equal, or other—is nearly over. Over the horizon looms an even greater conflict, one that some people consider to be the struggle for the soul of America. Popularly this upcoming armageddon is being called the "Culture Wars."

The William Bennetts of American culture consistently laud efforts to regain "what America was," to take America back. They identify a number of cultural values that are at the core of what "made America great." And they long for the reinstitution of these values, thought-systems, and customs.

But all too often this assessment masks xenophobia and is a vehicle for backlash against perceived gains by "them." If we are "getting America back," after all, we are getting it back from someone. And those unnamed somebodies are usually ethnic minorities and women who are thought to be protected in some special way, to have an easier ride.

In our high-tech, image-driven society, much of the battle is waged in the markets of pop culture. This is one reason it becomes important to re-examine the question of the relationship between radical Christian discipleship and popular culture. Even nonviolent activists must be ready for war, cultural or otherwise.

Of course, being reactive to external pressures is not the only reason to keep track of cultural reality. It also is important to consider the beauty in our lives and our own creative contributions to our world. Art points out the beauty we might otherwise miss, as well as the injustices we might otherwise dismiss. At least good art does.

A question I’ve been pondering lately: Is there "radical Christian" jazz? My wondering, of course, relates to whether some styles of music are more faithful because the beat or the lyrics arouse a spiritual or political response, as well as an artistic one. And the larger question is, What is the relationship between beauty (art/culture) and truth (spirituality/theology)?

My own inklings, I will confess, are that art that represents the innermost longings of people, that celebrates the most basic of joys, that offers a hope of a new order is in fact religious in nature. The painting need not include that familiar image of Jesus to be religious; the music need not talk about peace and freedom to raise issues of justice. Subtlety is to be respected.

But does subtlety and ambiguity move and inspire people? Does it challenge people? These are some of the questions we hope to frame in the feature section of this issue.

WE ARE OFFERING our material in an unusual fashion for us. The feature package is not presented in a linear and analytical style. Readers may find the pacing of articles to be frenetic, and the discourse may be unsettling. In fact, we are presenting a documentary style of video journalism in a print medium.

This style may not be familiar to all of our readers; and it may not be one that is highly regarded. But there are some lessons we can learn from popular culture. One is that those involved in prophetic ministry must be very wary of their own equating of "the aesthetic" to "the prophetic." Personal taste and social analysis make dangerous bedfellows.

Each one of us arises out of cultural circumstance; there are certain cultural assumptions we make based on our own familiarity with those cultural traditions. Our ethnicity or place of origin, for instance, may predetermine our like or dislike of sauerkraut. The danger is in making hierarchical determinations about others’ cultural choices without examining our own.

Of course, this is not a new issue. It has plagued the church for centuries. Entire reform movements hinged as much on cultural preferences as theological propositions. It is so difficult for us to stand outside of our own viewpoint that we likely can’t tell the difference between what is prophetic and what is aesthetic, what is an issue of faith and what is an issue of personal taste.

This is a central question in this time of epochal change. As the social scientists and philosophers in our midst tell us, we are moving into a new era—theologically as well as socially—ushered in by the advent of electronic community. The era of modernity, with its attendant issues of utilitarianism and alienation, is coming to a close. The new, postmodern age is upon us, with exciting new possibilities and frightening dangers. Deciding how the faithful will respond to this challenge may shape the Christian message of the next generations.

The question for a magazine, for a movement, is how to gather together and excite those of such divergent experiences to build a kairotic moment of social change. With the growing into adulthood of a generation so closely tied to commercial pop culture, does identifying a methodology or framework for understanding and participating in pop culture negate that attempt or enhance it?

And, finally, there is simply an issue of integrity. For years, it seems to me, the primary purveyors of pop culture and the primary religious spokespeople have lobbed insults and accusations at each other. They’ve offered little tolerance or respect, and they’ve caricatured the other.

Increasingly, within the realm of pop culture we see more positive depictions of people of faith—the recent family TV drama Christy is centered around a mission in a poor rural area. And even Norman Lear, founder of People for the American Way, says there is a great need for spiritual awakening in this country and that the media should be a part of it.

In the face of all this, let’s put down the grenades and reach out with an open hand. The violence needs to stop. Let’s meet instead at the negotiating table. Aren’t we up to that?

These are vital questions for those of us involved in the promotion of God’s New Creation. This issue is dedicated to advancing that discussion. Let us know what you think.

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