In his novel, About a Boy, Nick Hornby introduces us to a character who has essentially sealed himself up inside a universe of popular culture. Will Freeman is a 36-year-old who, because he lives off the generous royalties from a hit Christmas song his deceased father wrote in 1938, enjoys a life of uninterrupted leisure. From his high-tech, gadget-filled bachelor's flat in London, he plots his days around perfecting his wardrobe, making regular visits to the hair stylist, eating at the newest restaurants, reading the newspaper and glossy magazines, watching quiz shows on TV, surfing the Internet, and building his CD and DVD collections. In lieu of getting a job or entering any complicated domestic entanglements, Will has dedicated his life to mastering the cool edge of popular culture on every front - fashion, music, film, digital technology, fast cars, cuisine - and that suits him just fine; it minimizes the human clutter, but still gets him dates. Wondering to himself how a man of leisure 60 years ago would have occupied his time, he realizes how hard it would have been. But for Will, it is easy:
There was almost too much to do. You didn't have to have a life of your own anymore; you could just peek over the fence at other people's lives, as lived in newspapers and EastEnders and films and exquisitely sad jazz or tough rap songs.1
Will is grateful for his wonderfully unperturbed, thoroughly mediated life.
Hornby tells a perceptive story here about the function of popular culture in our lives and the purposes it serves. Popular culture is a sedative that distances us from our own lives, an effect Will eventually comes to regret. But it is also the preeminent semiotic lingua franca, and to be outside of it is to be illiterate in a crucial way. Popular culture (novels, film, music, journalism, sports, TV, fashion, advertising) encompasses the preferred art forms of our age, drawing in many of our most creative minds to produce it. In the culture at large it has become, for most, the primary instrument for forging personal identity and probing the cosmos for meaning. This is not to say that its consumers simply take what they are given and the ready-made meanings it contains. But the plotlines, characters, look and feel, poetry, rhythms, colors, and preoccupations of popular culture do function as a fundamental resource in our time for making meaning. It is largely out of these materials that we contrive our symbols, myths, rituals, ethics, and any notions we might have about more transcendent goods like love, truth, beauty, happiness and the divine.
In this book I have offered an argument for investigating what kinds of religious impulses might be active below the surfaces of popular culture. Sometimes these impulses are simply idolatrous dead-ends, or even diabolical. But at other times they are responses to a genuine stirring of the divine (religion!), or resuscitations of ideals or perceptions from organized religion that were entrusted to the culture and are now reasserting themselves (religion).
To aid in sorting this out, I sketched out a method in the first part of the book that combined elements from three sources: First, a typology of faith was blended from the work of H. Richard Niebuhr and William James to offer a way to see underlying assertions of metaphysical trust even in cultural artifacts that, on the face of it, seem to dodge or openly defy any faith in the meaningfulness of existence. Second, critical concepts were borrowed from the genuine insights of the Frankfurt School and the evolving field of cultural studies. There are moneyed interests behind popular culture that cannot be ignored, as the Frankfurt School teaches us; but, as cultural studies theorists insist, the consumers of popular culture have a variety of ways to exercise their own agency and make meaning out of products they watch, listen to, read and wear. Third, a set of diagnostic concepts was assembled that has been refined by theologians and scholars of religion for the purpose of reaching a better understanding of the phenomenon of religion itself, concepts like ultimate concern, the holy, myth, liminality, and covenant. If something religious is occurring in popular culture, one would expect to find these perennial features of religious experience appearing there. In the second part of the book, I followed the model of a traditional systematic theology and inquired into what notions of God, human nature, sin, salvation, and eschatology can be found within popular culture.
Of the myriad religious messages that are being asserted in popular culture, there is one that, for me, stands out. It is a yearning for a reality beyond all simulations. It stands out because it seems to be a point of resistance to so much else that goes on in popular culture, which tempts us to be content with its amusements and diversions. More than that, this yearning seems to be a word of protest against a central tenet of cultural studies itself, at least against one dominant branch of cultural studies.
There is an emerging conviction in cultural studies that nothing of ultimate importance is to be found in cultural creations, much less in popular culture. The more highly regarded cultural theorists have quit peeling back surfaces to inspect underlying meanings and instead advise that we learn to relish the kaleidoscope of sounds and images that these surfaces reflect and simply accept that they point to nothing more profound than other sounds and images. Their considerable arsenal of concepts (bricolage, hyperreal-ity, style, commodity fetishism, simulacrum, etc.) has been turned to the task of proving that our artifacts signify nothing that really matters, except, perhaps, the struggle for power. They dismiss old notions such as the idea that our cultural creations reflect transcendent reality, however dimly, or that a work of art signifies something about the human subject who created it-these notions, they contend, have always been delusions. There are no metaphysical foundations, they reiterate; there is no ground beneath our feet, and certainly there are no turtles holding it all up. From this perspective, theologians like Herder, with his Romantic idea of divine providence active in the Volkgeist of different cultures, or Tillich, with his notion that cultures derive their meaning from a subterranean religious substance, are as preposterous as that bottomless stack of turtles.
One of the most poignant objections to this view can be found in the movie FightClub. In a pep talk he delivers to the first cell of disenfranchised young men he has recruited for FightClub, Tyler tells his recruits, "You're not your job, you're not how much money you have in the bank, not the car you have, the contents of your wallet. You're not your f - - g khakis." But then, anticipating the opposite error that they might fancy themselves as subjects who transcend their experiences, he circles around to tell them: "You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else." With this, Tyler invites them to make the one unimpeachable connection with reality that is available to them: to pound one another senseless with their fists; this is the ritual action that allows them to have an experience of ecstatic transcendence. Undergoing such primal frenzy and the pain of a good beating is the one assurance they can have that they exist.
In FightClub, as we have seen before, the filmmaker uses popular culture to critique popular culture. This scene invites us to reject both the designer self and the therapeutic self as inadequate views of human identity. And while the story offers brutal solutions that we are not really expected to accept (pain and the infliction of pain is the only thing that will confirm your existence), it nevertheless captures a feeling that people are yearning for a connection to reality that neither a bricolage of accessories nor cloying self-esteem finally satisfy.
In his reassessment of cultural studies along these lines, Dick Hebdige openly regrets its objections to such "depth words" as "'love' and 'hate' and 'faith' and 'history,' 'pain' and 'joy,' 'passion' and 'compassion'." These are words, he claims, that "drawn up like ghosts from a different dimension will always come back in the 11th hour." There is a "something else" below the surface of our responses to the mystery of our lives, he believes, that "will still be there when all the noise and the chatter have died away. "2
Theology of culture depends upon this kind of trust that our cultural expressions can testify to a reality that transcends them - a reality that is really there, that matters, and in which providence is at work. Theology offers a language to speak about this reality, and can help articulate what is going on in the depths of popular culture. Our cultural artists will often enough get it wrong, and the long, slowly learned lessons of theology can be useful in detecting when this happens, and then offering judgment and guidance. But religious communities and their theologians can also lose their way. And for this reason it is wise for us to remain open to the more discerning makers of culture. Even of popular culture.
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