Signs of the Times

One of the most cherished forms of salvation found in popular culture is the phenomenon of redemptive violence. In her book on the cultural meaning of the western in fiction and film, Jane Tompkins singles out redemptive violence as the key attraction of the genre. Every western plot culminates in an act of retaliatory violence that follows a certain formula: First, the hero is seen saddling his horse or sitting pensively in the saloon (or something along these lines), minding his own business. Then the troublemakers single him out, challenge his courage or his manhood or some other cowboy virtue. Next,

The hero, provoked by insults, first verbal, then physical, resists the urge to retaliate, proving his moral superiority to those who are taunting him. It is never the hero who taunts his adversary; if he does, it's only after he's been pushed "too far." And this, of course, is what always happens. The villains, whoever they may be, finally commit an act so atrocious that the hero must retaliate in kind____At this juncture ... retaliatory violence becomes not simply justifiable but imperative: now, we are made to feel, not to transgress the interdict against violence would be the transgression.1

Pushed beyond the moral tipping point and having exhausted his extraordinary self-restraint, the humiliated hero finally surrenders to violence and fists or bullets start flying. When the dust settles, the hero is winded but his adversaries are either dead or begging for mercy. For the audience, this act of righteous vengeance, when it finally occurs, is not only warranted but prompts a feeling of "moral ecstasy." Our desire for retribution on behalf of the hero and the longsuffering townsfolk whose way of life he defends has been so inflamed that anything less than a bloodbath strikes us as a trivialization of justice. "The feeling of supreme righteousness in this instant," Tompkins writes, "is delicious."2 It is in following this western plot formula to its climax that the audience momentarily transcends itself and undergoes what feels like a mystical rapture. And the same plot contrivance explains the perennial appeal of most action heroes and comic book superheroes, as well - from Popeye and Superman to Luke Skywalker, Rambo and Spider Man.

Another kind of experience of ecstatic self-transcendence is found through music. The place music holds in our lives is enormous. With the boost that mechanical - and now digital - reproduction has given to the production and circulation of music, every space, time, and human activity has become a market for music. Our ancestors heard music in churches, pubs and theaters, on occasions when musicians could be assembled. We listen to music virtually everywhere. And while the lyrics provide us with much of our education about life (as lyrics always have), our primary use for music is to tune and retune our moods. We use it to set the mood for romance, social gatherings, movies, studying, ballgames, parades, rites of passage, holidays, shopping, crowd control, strenuous exercise, airports, affairs of state, driving, remembering the dead, and worship. It has even begun to be used at meat packing plants to calm the animals before slaughter. Music's power is largely a matter of its effectiveness for inducing approximations of rapture. Our spirits are lifted, or lowered when appropriate, with the beat and melody. Music invites us outside of ourselves, and we like that.

The litmus test of a salvific, rejuvenating situation is commonly held to be its power to induce this kind of ecstasy. Ecstatic experiences are vigorously sought by many through pharmaceuticals, romance, sexuality, music, movies, art, and physical exertion. Perhaps some memory of the cathartic effect of religious beatitude survives in these activities. Alex Wright, for one, suggests that this is where the action is now, not in houses of worship but in more profane events like getting promoted at work, having sex, winning the lottery, identifying with the characters in a television series, plunging into nature, and undertaking political action. Wright contends that formal worship in religious communities offers little in the way of "release and liberation" compared to these activities.3

Westerns and action movies, music, drugs, art, exercise - what each of these cultural artifacts has in common is the lure of ecstatic experience. Tillich developed his reflections on ecstasy to prod his readers toward a new way of understanding revelation. The ground of Being, he claimed, is revealed in ecstasy, in the brief mingling of the self with something outside of itself that brings one for a moment into the otherwise unapproachable presence of the holy. For Tillich, virtually anything can be the tripwire for an ecstatic experience. But ecstasy only rises to the standard of revelation, he argued, when one has been turned inside out, seen for what one is, then returned to normal consciousness aware that reality is somehow different than one had imagined it to be. There is, then, this peculiar epiphanal quality to ecstatic revelation: encountering the duality of the holy leaves one feeling both judged and healed.

Ecstatic experience that rises to the standard of revelation should be about more than simple release and liberation. Kenneth Kirk, in his book, The Vision ofGod, lamented the fact that in much of both ancient pagan and traditional Christian thought "ecstasy was taken as constituting the whole end of human endeavor." The problem with this, Kirk suggested, is that it deforms self-transcendence into self-absorption. The whole of religious piety then comes to revolve around choreographing the next ecstatic experience. "Without an experience of a particular kind," Kirk wrote, one can suppose oneself "to be deserted by God, void of religion, and without hope in the world; with that experience (or with something which one mistakes for it) one may only too easily regard everything else - morality, self-discipline, love of the brethren - as irrelevant and superfluous."4 Thus these periodic launderings of our consciousness should not be aspired to as ends in themselves, but as the means to achieving new moral resolve.

Salvation is also sought in popular culture through the aid of traditional symbols and icons, although they are lifted from their original contexts. In his explorations of Generation X, Tom Beaudoin notes the strange use of Catholic paraphernalia like crucifixes, rosaries, and saint medallions as fashion accessories. One could add to this the circulation in popular culture of icons borrowed from religious traditions all over the world - lingas, Buddhas, Celtic crosses, yin-yangs, mandalas, crystals, angels, images of Kali and Ganesh, dashboard statuary, stone fetishes, Lakota walking sticks and Tibetan prayer flags - in every conceivable mix-and-match combination.

Beaudoin turns to the concept of sacramentalism to make sense of this phenomenon.5 Augustine defined sacraments as the visible signs of hidden realities, in which one thing is seen while another is understood, and the thing to be understood is some modality of grace. Sacraments - like baptism, communion, and penance - are rituals through which divine grace is keyed to particular turning points in our lives. In the New Catechism of the Catholic Church, we discover that in addition to the sacraments, there is something called "sacramentals" that resemble sacraments, but are derivative and convey grace only to the extent that they dispose people to remember and receive the official sacraments. Such practices and artifacts as "the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the stations of the cross, religious dances, the rosary, medals, etc.," which have arisen spontaneously from the people and differ according to history and region are, with some trepidation, sanctioned by the Church.6 The free circulation of all sorts of religious icons that are now incorporated into our wardrobes, jewelry, wall art, mantles, refrigerator doors and dashboards might be seen in this light, as jumbled signs of grace we surround ourselves with, driven to do so by some foggy but tenacious memory. And part of their allure remains what it always has been - that the recognition of these objects as bearers of grace originates with das Volk, and is only begrudgingly and secondarily endorsed by religious authorities, if at all. The use of sacramentals, in other words, is a subversive means of receiving grace; it is a subaltern exercise in style, consuming items that are already rich with symbolic meaning, but deployed in myriad, unsanctioned ways to assert new meanings and idiosyncratic appropriations of grace.

Advertising is another instrument of salvation in our culture. At least it is a pulpit from which salvation is promised, and we steadily and eagerly listen. Products are pitched to us with the assurance that they will deliver us beyond this world of travail and into the promised land of fulfilled desire. Every 30-second commercial, as Walter Davis explains it, "portrays a minidrama of sin and salvation: depicting evil, its source, who or what can save us, the happiness that follows deliverance, and what we must do to be saved."7 Ads convince us of our need for salvation by fingering our anxieties and making them more raw than they already are - in fact, advertisers have a vested interest in keeping our anxieties rubbed raw. They exacerbate our fears and anxieties around nature, the judgment of others, being unloved, anomie, pain, boredom, dirt, and even our dread over disordered values. Ad writers are some of our society's most ingenious minds, and they are dedicated to tapping into our boundless yearning for salvation and bending it into decisions to consume the products they are selling - SUVs, cellular phones, shaving cream, financial planning, erectile dysfunction pills, diamonds - with the expectation that in acquiring these products we will be rewarded with goods that otherwise elude us: freedom, beauty, power, knowledge, pleasure, and immortality.8

We absorb from advertising many of our most basic convictions about how to obtain salvation. We grasp for redemption by stylishly adorning our bodies and dwellings with icons and sacramentals. We seek grace and self-transcendence through music, drugs, strenuous exercise, art, and the redemptive violence of our matinee heroes. These are all familiar instruments of salvation in popular culture, means by which we attempt to feel better and to restore what we sense is missing from our lives. To some degree, they work; to some degree, they make matters worse. Music, in particular, is potent as an instrument of salvation.

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