In Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, next to a cart selling roasted pecans and hot pretzels, is a kiosk with Empire State Building pencil sharpeners, Statue of Liberty snow globes, and the standard-issue rack of souvenir postcards. On this rack are pictures of Grand Central Station, St Patrick's Cathedral, Central Park, the United Nations Plaza, the Chrysler Building, the American Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim Museum, and Macy's Department Store. That each of these architectural marvels came to be built represents not only a confluence of political clout, engineering expertise, artistic craftsmanship and vast outlays of cash, but also a considerable level of public consent for what kinds of aspirations are worth enshrining in beautiful buildings.
This rack of postcards, like that at any tourist kiosk in any big city, can be read like a book that tells us what matters most to its citizens. The objects depicted on these postcards are human values that have been sheathed with rebar, stone, and glass and veined with romex and fiber optics. In this manner, they serve both as monuments to human values, and as instruments which can further extend the reach of those values into the community. They are monuments in that much creative genius has been lavished upon them to testify to the worthiness of a particular value; they are instruments in that they create a venue for that particular value to be pursued. We build magnificent buildings to provide physical bodies for our cultural values.
Thus, the landmark architecture pictured on New York City postcards can be read as an inventory of the particular human activities that are valued in American culture. Grand Central Station is a monument to and instrument of freedom (of physical movement); Central Park is a monument to and instrument of leisure; St Patrick's Cathedral is a monument to and instrument of religion; the Chrysler Building and Macy's are monuments to and instruments of the economy; the United Nations Plaza is a monument to and instrument of politics; the Guggenheim Museum is a monument to and instrument of art; the Museum of Natural History is a monument to and instrument of knowledge. It is in this respect that ecclesial terms are sometimes used as metaphors in relation to such landmark structures: Macy's is a "cathedral of commerce"; the Guggenheim is a "sanctuary of art"; the Museum of Natural History is a "temple of science," etc. Some discrete cultural value is being venerated and practiced within the walls of each.
The use of this sacred space metaphor in landmark architecture has a parallel in more general discussions of the value spheres that the buildings are built to enshrine. It has become common to say "art is religion," that we should have "faith in science," or that "the market is God." What is meant in these expressions is that something like faith and worship has come to be attached to art, science, and the economy. Just as the veneration of certain values may be expressed through the beauty of great architecture, these values can also become objects of a more generalized religious piety. Sociologists such as Max Weber and Michael Walzer have argued that at an earlier period in the history of the West, our ancestors conceived of their primary identity as tribal or religious (these typically overlapped), but that there has been a gradual differentiation or separating out of the cultural value spheres (religion, family, art, science, politics, economy, etc.) such that it is now possible for a person to claim that their primary identity derives from any one of these - e.g., profession, economic status, national origin, etc. - and to view religion as a secondary attribute. What is happening here is that the good for which one of these other value spheres exists to serve is being asserted as the most central or ultimate good in one's life.
The status of art as "religion" in some quarters is a good illustration of this. It is common today to view the artist as a prophet or seer. Wassily Kandinsky's 1911 manifesto, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, captured this notion of the artist who "is not born to a life of pleasure," but undergoing scorn and hatred must "see and point the way," dragging humanity forward. He wrote,
Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what at first was only a little point of light noticed by few and for the great majority non-existent. Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but on the other hand they turn away from the soulless life of the present towards those substances and ideas which give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul.1
This attribution of prophetic insight to the artist who has the power to see behind the surface of things, to reveal what is otherwise hidden, developed into the prototype of the avant-garde artist who tells the truth of his feelings and sheds an unflattering light on a society's sins and the dangerous directions in which it is headed, and then pays the consequences for rendering this service. This is a modern conception in its assertion that art is an autonomous source of knowledge about the truth of reality. Previous to this, art was viewed as mediating an authority that was not its own, and in the West, this meant the authority of the religious tradition. As one author has described it, "Whatever moral passion a medieval artist brought to a fresco, contemporaries viewing it would regard the biblical story - not the artist himself or his illustration of it - as the source of authority."2 The Renaissance was the turning point here. For a variety of reasons - disenchantment with corruption in the Church, diverging sources of patronage, the rediscovery of classical learning - iconography began to slide away from the monopoly of religion and re-root itself in other domains of culture - art and literature in particular. This had the effect of sacralizing art and literature as independent sources of wisdom and revelation.
Symbols once inseparable from religious myth and ritual thus began to wander, often in disguise, into other cultural spheres, carrying with them their inherent aura and an authority that was once derived from religion but became autonomous. Art is not unique in making this excursion. Science, politics, family, and the economy were also once acolytes of the religious sphere in the history of the West. Their justification as domains of human activity was that they served the good of religion -the knowledge of God and God's ways (science), the governance and the containment of sin in the kingdom of God (politics), the multiplication and nurture of souls on their journey to God (family), and management of the household of the children of God (economy). Here, too, it was with the Renaissance that these once dependent cultural spheres began a long protest that won their independence and progressed into the precious achievement of modernity, viz., the refraction of our lives into multiple autonomous spheres of activity (art, science, politics, family, economy). In practice, we assume that each of these spheres stands on its own bottom -we presume a discrete good is being pursued within each one. There are clues to this assumption in slogans such as "art for art's sake," "science is the uninhibited pursuit of truth," "my country, right or wrong," "blood is thicker than water," and "the invisible hand of the market." Indeed, there is a distinct and legitimate good inside each of these spheres that each of the spheres exists to protect, proclaim, and foster - with all the instruments at their disposal: creeds, laws, institutions, poetry, monuments, schools, myths, and rituals.
This differentiation of the spheres has been an important achievement, one that ought not to be reversed. Nevertheless, it is worth noting a few implications of this brief archeology of the concept of cultural spheres. First, the differentiation itself was driven by the belief that some transcendent good is at the center of each sphere and that the activities and pursuits distinct to that sphere are authorized by the good that is being served through it. Second, there is what has been called a "sovereignty" to each of the spheres that ought not to be violated by the other spheres.3 The good of the family, for instance, ought not to be violated by the good of the market. Frequent job transfers necessitated by one's desire to climb the corporate ladder would be an example of such a violation - at the point when these moves threaten to unravel the family. But from the other side, the good of the market ought not to be violated by the good of the family - nepotism would be an example here. Third, given that each sphere is oriented to a distinct good, each sphere develops its own norms of inquiry and analysis. Norms are always subordinate to the good they seek to protect - different goods give rise to different norms. Thus, each sphere can be identified with its own discipline of inquiry. For art there is aesthetics, for politics there is political science, for the economy there is economics, etc.
To illustrate this last point, take the phenomenon of the American lawn. The Puritans did not find neatly trimmed expanses of grass when they landed on these shores. The lawn is a social phenomenon with a cultural history that can be submitted to different kinds of analysis, each one of which gives us a fuller understanding of what a lawn "means." An aesthetic analysis might seek to better understand the peculiar notion of beauty or naturalism that inspires us to lay down yards of mown green grass on the landscape around not only our homes, but our factories, colleges, corporate headquarters, boulevards, municipal buildings, and graveyards. A socio-political analysis might concentrate instead on the City Beautiful Movement or the spread of Garden Clubs in the early twentieth century and their expressed desire to promote health and sanitation, civic pride, neighborhood stability and a work ethic among the urban poor through "beautification campaigns" designed to stimulate their desire for lawns and gardens. And an economic analysis might uncover the efforts of seed companies, mower manufacturers, and chemical producers to increase the national demand for lawns, or the lobbying of the US Golf Association, a private sector trade organization, for substantial government grants to develop turf-grass hybrids and to promote golfing and a grass aesthetic across the country.4
With this in mind, the purpose of this book is to undertake a theological analysis of ordinary cultural phenomena, such as the lawn, that will bring to bear concepts and norms that have been honed within the disciplines of theology and religious studies. It is not offered as a line of inquiry that replaces all others, but as a way of inquiring into aspects of these phenomena that the norms and methods of other disciplines, such as aesthetics, political theory, and economics, are not designed to detect. What might a theological analysis of the American lawn discover? It might draw attention to the systole and diastole one finds in the Bible between city and wilderness, with recurring admonitions of the Hebrew prophets for the faithful to return to the wilderness as a place they had once traversed and where they had been closer to God. Or it might draw a connection between the myth of Eden, a place where the footsteps of God could be heard in the cool of the evening breeze, which was not raw wilderness but a cultivated garden, and the blend of nature and horticulture that the modern lawn represents. Or, it might review the long and honored tradition in America of looking to nature for direction and purpose, with various permutations from the Puritans who undertook a divine "errand in the wilderness," to Emerson, Thoreau, and the Boston Transcendental-ists who expected to find God more unobstructed in nature than in church, to various more contemporary deep ecologists who seek in the processes of nature a moral teacher and spiritual guide. In light of these more overt religious symbols and aspirations, what does it mean that we surround the lodgings of all our endeavors - our homes, schools, factories, corporate headquarters, government buildings, museums, highways, hospitals, and final resting places with green vegetation that someone has to fertilize and mow?
Again, while this line of inquiry is not meant to replace all others, it is my belief that it, in a literal sense, transcends them. It seeks to go beyond the limits of other inquiries, limits that they properly impose upon themselves (when they behave as they should). I am convinced that it is worthwhile to resume Paul Tillich's efforts to interpret cultural artifacts for the religious substance that rumbles in their deeper regions. As he proposed and argued repeatedly, beginning with his groundbreaking 1919 essay, "On the Idea of a Theology of Culture": while religions depend upon the cultures in which they find themselves for their forms of expression, cultures draw the meaning that they hold for those who inhabit them from an underlying substrate of religious faith. Without this, there is little passion for the culture's achievements and aspirations.
Christian theology is an old discipline which has been used to make sense of human life through twenty centuries and from within virtually every culture in the world today. It is ancient yet still active, experienced on many fronts, capable of learning from grievous transgressions of which it has periodically been guilty (anti-Semitism, autos-da-fe, slavery, misogyny, witchhunts) and from other moments in which it has been a historically effective instrument of grace (the rise of the universities, literacy, democratic movements, abolition, women's suffrage, prison reform, civil rights). In certain respects it is a large vessel into which its practitioners - who have been around to observe, learn from, and sometimes instigate all manner of historical experimentation and popular movements - have deposited their accumulated lessons. I view this vessel as a resource of paradigmatic plots, symbols, ideals, visions of good and evil - reference points upon which to draw in trying to make sense of our collective life. Christian theology has certain enduring - although not changeless - conceptions about an ultimate reality in response to which we are to measure our actions, intentions, and aspirations. For this reason, it is a valuable resource for interpreting our cultural life as it is unfolding, and offering commentary and guidance, dissent and endorsement.
One historian, Eugene McCarraher, has recently argued that most of the effective cultural critique in twentieth century America - effective in the sense that it actually precipitated social reform - originated from certain strains of progressive Christian theology (Dorothy Day, John Ryan, H. Richard Niebuhr), and not from their secular counterparts. Their effectiveness can be attributed, he argues, to three things: first, that they really believed in the possibility and imperative of redemption; second, that their critical capacities were informed by norms that had been formed outside the immediate Sturm und Drang of the cultural situation; and third, that they were inside members of organized cells of workers, viz., congregations, cells which already had so permeated the society that they could transform class struggle into a historical movement. As a historian applying these lessons to the present, he ventures: in the face of "a brawny and agile capitalism, religion may well become the last refuge of hope for a world beyond the rule of Mammon."5
But theology could use some help, and coming to a better understanding of popular culture and its fascinations might assist theology to overcome some of its own prejudices and break through some of its impasses. It is worth noting that a great number of people are finding solace in popular culture, solace they find lacking in organized religion. Theologian Richard Mouw suggests that there is a middle range of concerns for ordinary people (health, financial resources, intimate relationships, loss of loved ones, depression, guilt) toward which "high theology" remains aloof. Consequently, people turn to things like folk religion, the New Age, superstition, belief in angels and demons, which offer an account of and techniques for dealing with these concerns.6 Trusting that there is a practical wisdom to be found in ordinary people, Mouw advises that it will be worthwhile to examine popular culture for legitimate critique of the shortcomings of theology that have so distanced it from people struggling to believe. He writes, "We must probe the hidden places: looking for the signs of eloquence and grace to be found there; listening for deep calling unto deep; searching, not only for the Deeper Magic, but also for the Deeper Quests, the Deeper Pleasures, the Deeper Hurts, the Deeper Plots."7
Theologians in the past have tended to assume, correctly for the most part, that the believers they addressed had a basic working knowledge of the biblical stories, paradigmatic figures in the church, sanctioned ritual actions and symbols, and the essentials of the creeds. We are in a new era now, however, in which, for reasons that will be explored as we proceed, whole generations in the West have had their basic conceptions of the world formed by popular culture. Television, movies, a multitude of genres of music, amusement parks, fast food franchises, action heroes, Dr Seuss, Disney, DreamWorks, comic books, advertising, soundtracks, mail order catalogs, video games, contemporary fiction, sports, celebrities, journalism, wall art and science fiction have been the primary sources of the myths, parables, iconographies, hagiographies, devils and heroes that orient them in life. From this plethora of material whole generations now attempt through bricolage to invest life with meaning and find a justification for their lives. The mechanization of production, advances in communications technologies, and increased expendable wealth have made this possible. At least these are the material causes of this cultural development. They have not only made the artifacts of popular culture accessible to us, they have also altered the world of work and the demands of the household in ways that have shifted more of our time from work to leisure. And we spend more and more of our leisure time plugged in to the media-world8 of popular culture.
This has meant, for many, shifting to a different arena in our search for our identities as human beings. As rock critic Simon Frith has suggested, it is in our leisure activities that we find our "pathways" through life, more so now than through our "paid employment." We find in pop music and other storytelling media the narratives about life that are most convincing to us, that best make sense of our lives, and we are persuaded that they express our "most deep-seated ethical views."9
The media-world has, in this sense, become a new cultural sphere with its own distinctive good and guiding norms, its own protective institutions, its own creeds, laws, monuments, prophets, myths and rituals, and discipline of inquiry (culture studies). We are coming to inhabit this sphere with as much comfort and conviction as we have inhabited the spheres of science, art, family, economy, and politics in the past. It is telling that when all of our obligations (to the other spheres) are met, when we can freely choose what we want to do - at the end of the day, at the end of the week, during holidays and vacations - the vast majority of us, at least in the US, choose to enter the media-world. In the words of the advertising motto for Play Station video games: "Live in your world, play in ours."
And we are finding more excuses to reduce our other obligations in order to spend even more time immersed in it.
What has been said so far is not intended to be a harangue, but rather a quick justification for what lies ahead in this book, and for why a theologian might venture into this territory, and why it is worthwhile to undertake a theological analysis of popular culture. Souvenir postcards, landmark architecture, Kentucky bluegrass - these and other cultural artifacts, properly interrogated, might divulge to us something about the ultimate yearnings of our culture. That's what this book is about.
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