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Volume 12, Issue 3: Thema

Got to be Good Looking Cause He's so Hard to See

Douglas Wilson

A Marine general during the Korean War at one point found himself and his troops surrounded by massive amounts of Chinese soldiers. He looked at the situation, rubbed his hands, and said, "Well, they can’t get away now."

We too are entirely surrounded—by the minions of pop culture—and we need to cultivate a more optimistic view of our opportunities. At least there should be no difficulty figuring out which direction to shoot.
At the beginning, we need to agree on some key principles to guide us through the particulars. First, unless we are talking about a violation of the Ten Commandments, we must not rush to judge any particular manifestation of pop culture as malum in se, as "a sin," as evil in itself. Literacy in pop culture, and enjoyment of various features of it, are no sin.
Secondly, when sin is laid at the doorstep of pop culture, we must not locate it in the wrong place. Sin has to do with the human will and the law of God—obedience or disobedience. It is not found in paint, alcohol, syncopation, or baggy trousers. All of these things can be used in sinful ways, some more easily than others, but sin, when it exists, must always be located in the human heart. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.
Third, all human actions have a moral component and direction. Everything we do, all day long, is aiding or hindering us in our maturity in Christ. Nothing is neutral. So when we have said that something is "not a sin," this does not mean it is impossible to sin with that something. Some things, Scripture teaches, are not at all sin, like wealth, but it is still difficult to avoid sinning with it. And so it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a teenager to enter the kingdom of heaven listening to N’ Sync.
But because of an immature "all or nothing" mentality in the evangelical world, as soon as anything is pronounced not inherently sinful, everybody rushes off to splash about in their Christian liberty. And this is why the evangelical world today is crowded out to the borders with the culturally retarded. Cultural issues are always maturity issues, and maturity issues are not amoral.
To jumpstart our discussion, Ken Myers has helpfully affirmed the distinction of high culture, folk culture, and pop culture. In contrast to the first two categories, pop culture is a consumption item. Both high and folk culture are vehicles which can readily carry "the permanant things" across generations. Some aspects of pop culture might be retrofitted to be able to do this, but this would actually be a conversion into high or folk culture. Even still, the categories are not watertight. Jazz is a combination of folk and high culture, and the blues (today) are a folk enclave within pop culture. But pure pop culture, sui generis, according to its own advocates, is momentary, each element of which is designed for extinction after its fifteen minutes of fame. Most practitioners, remember Milli Vanilli now, appear to understand this and get off the stage with alacrity, fifteen minutes on the dot, while others, like Robert Plant and Keith Richards, keep hanging around for some reason.
Of course, sin and rebellion can be expressed in any of the three types of culture. High culture can express rebellion against God at a high level, but it is not the greatest threat to us, because when the avant-garde goes stupid virtually no one else pays any serious attention. Rebellious culture is at its most dangerous when it is seductive, initially attractive, and this is why pop culture presents such a danger. A Penthouse model looks more like a real woman than does a fragmented Picasso, which is why she seduces more men. Rebellious high culture only presents a problem to really smart intellectualoids—the only ones in the world actually vulnerable to the really stupid idea, as modern architecture shows us. Pop culture, on the other hand, has enough of a connection to the immediate desires and lusts of everyman to present a much broader threat.
And yet another factor to consider is the question of meaning. We all understand that a particular audible sound might be an obscenity in one language and perfectly inoffensive in another. The sound is the same but the moral point varies. The issue is what it means—and it is in the meaning that we find the human intention to obey or disobey God. Hence the meaning is essential in discussions of whether anything is sinful or not.
Debates with Christians who embrace pop culture are frequently hamstrung by the tenacity with which they insist on discussing the audible sound only, and never the actual meaning of the word. Modern evangelicals have a clear eye this way; they have a true imitative genius. They can copy anything the world produces, down to slightest flourish or embellishment. Whether trafficking in guitar licks or designer logos, they can always ape the real thing with exactitude. The only thing they don’t know is what it all means. Modern evangelicals are like a drunk Japanese businessman in a kareoke bar singing along with the Stones. In his own boozy way, he knows everything about the song except what it is about.
Say we are dealing with a young believer who has dyed his hair purple. I am giving him counsel and I tell him (as I would tell him) that this was sinful. He would want me to look up "purple hair" in my concordance, and show him where the Bible prohibits it. But this is as unreasonable as the demand to find a list of English obscenities in a Greek lexicon. The Bible condemns rebellion, and the purple hair means rebellion. If he agrees, he has admitted the sin. If he disagrees, then he is an empurpled ignoramus, as the Sex Pistols would readily tell him, were they here.
This means that as we deal with the various manifestations of pop culture, we must learn to closely follow the teaching of the apostle Paul. In the realm of adiaphora, things indifferent, all things are lawful (in se), but not all things are necessary (will this get our culture where we as Christians want it to go?). Christians who are concerned for cultural reformation therefore have to reject the lowest common denominator tendency which assumes that anything that is okay is therefore okay. It should be so easy.
A constant diet of pop culture is only legitimate if you don’t want to grow up. Put another way, pop items as such are frequently inoffensive. But in the phrase pop culture, the word culture entails a direction, a tendency. It is the duty of any who aspire to be thinking Christians to ask what that direction is. And the second question concerns whether we want to go there. Because pop culture represents a full-scale revolt against cultural maturity, our answer should be that of course we do not want to go there.
So then, on to particulars. Parents need to teach their kids to ask pointed questions about music and movies, clothing and jewelry, and whatever other cultural stampede anybody thinks up next. The questions should all revolve around the central question of what it actually means. And when we come to understand the foundational meaning of the movie Titanic, body piercing, rap music, and shrink-wrapped Twinkies, we should not be surprised when it all comes out with the same basic message—do what you feel, and go with the flow.
Contrary to this, the biblical imperative must be the discipline of thinking like a Christian. Legalistic traditionalists don’t mind if the kids don’t think about pop culture, as long as they abstain from it—ignorance and purity together. Come out from among them, and be ye separate. Don’t think—just don’t. Meantime, the kids who stay neck-deep in pop culture are contaminated and ignorant. But both sides share an ignorance of what is really going on.
This critique is aimed at the direction of the whole enterprise, as well as at the pandering which necessarily results from taking this direction. We want to point out which way the wind is unmistakably blowing. But Christian defenders of pop culture want to debate the whole on the basis of the one or two pockets of calm air they have found. We say, for example, that the rock culture is in high rebellion against the God of heaven, and someone is sure to write in asking if we think Clapton’s Tears in Heaven is evil. Of course not, it is a lovely song, and there is plenty of other good stuff here and there—which we appreciate through common grace. But the wind is still blowing in the same direction.
Pop culture is a disposable culture for those who agree to consume it. But because cultures are meant to be handed down to subsequent generations, because cultures are meant to be preserved, a consumable culture is really an anti-culture. And this is where pop culture and rebellious high-culture reveal their similarity. No one will hand down the works of this century’s rebellious high art and architecture because it is all so mud-fence ugly. And no one will hand down pop culture as an inheritance either ("And to my great-grandson William, I bequeath all my Spice Girls CDs . . ."). Pop culture was all eaten at the time, and there isn’t any left, for which the gourmands of future generations will be most grateful.
Of course production in pop culture can frequently be quite demanding, but the consumption of it rarely is. Take a series of examples in several different areas. The music of Bach is of course demanding to perform, but it also makes demands on the listener. This is why the undisciplined mind avoids such music; it invites thought, contemplation, discipline, lots of icky things. More than one rock guitarist is an impressive virtuoso, but the fingerboard display makes no demands on the hearer, other than a willingness to be blown over. The listener to classical music is impressively engaged; the devotee of such rock music is left, with a ringing in his ears, right where he started.
Modern movie making is frequently the same way. It is an impressive cinematic undertaking, millions of dollars to make, and to what result? Countless slack jaws, with glassy stares just above those jaws, staring at the eye candy.
In music, dress, food, books, entertainment, the powers that be cater to the undisciplined who want to stay that way. The central sin of pop culture is therefore a sin of omission. It displaces true culture, it does not itself adequately perform the functions of a culture, and sinners in a fallen world need to have the functions of a culture performed. Pop culture is a culture which does not enculturate, a culture which does not discipline. It is therefore an oxymoronic culture. In a biblical culture, a man expects his great-grandchildren to read what he has read, sing what he has sung, listen to what he has listened to. In an evanescent culture, like the one that surrounds us, a man expects to have all his "cultural" experiences buried with him. In the year 2525, do you think anyone will have heard of that dumb song?
Because pop culture makes no generational demands, it is an abdicating culture which does not discipline positively. And what happens whenever sinners are flattered and fed grapes like this? Any culture which does not discipline culturally will soon turn to the only alternative, which is to give way to cultural corruption.
Which is exactly what has happened.

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