My side lost the great culture war.
Who is it exactly who lost, though? At one time, I would have been myopic enough to say it was the Christian church that lost the battle, but I now see it as much broader. The people on my side — at least in the broadest sense — could come from various religions or no real religion at all. They might be humanists or New Agers or label themselves in other ways.
The only thing that unites all of these people — many of whom are barely on speaking terms — is that we believe life has meaning. We believe the culture ought to reflect positive values and provide an alternative to nihilism, even if many among that group would strongly disagree about what values they would like culture to reflect.
Modern popular culture reflects nihilism and death. It broadly presents the idea that life has no meaning — and that the only rational response to the world is to engage in the most selfish and cynical pursuit of pleasure that’s possible. The culture sends the message, “Life has no purpose; get over it.” And if you have children, this message is going to be pushed on them over and over by popular culture.
This message is the way to emptiness, unhappiness and suicide. It’s the way to depression in individuals and it’s the way to the death of a society. Unless you understand this, modern culture will teach your children this way of emptiness — and you will lose them in ways that don’t even seem possible right now. This is a far greater danger than any physical threat when you go to such great lengths to protect them from — and you’re probably not even thinking about what it’s going to do to them.
I started thinking seriously about this Tuesday night when I ran across a link that someone posted to the music video for a song by Ludacris called “Move Bitch.” (The complete “dirty” version is on YouTube, but I’m not going to link to it.) This is a popular song by a popular rap singer and I see it as an indictment of the culture that music with this text and subtext could be popular. In the video, the singer is directing this to the woman he’s in a car with, presumably his girlfriend:
Oh no, the fight’s out
I’mma ’bout to punch yo lights out
Get the f*** back, guard ya grill
There’s somethin’ wrong, we can’t stay still
I’ve been drankin’ and bustin’ too
And I been thankin’ of bustin’ you
Upside ya m*****f*****’ forehead
And if your friends jump in
“Oh girl,” they’ll be mo dead
I posted something on Facebook about my disgust with the song — and how depressing its popularity is — but the friends who responded seemed to be unbothered by it. One friend even mentioned that the chorus was popular to play at weddings when it’s time to throw the bouquet and women are jostling for position. (The chorus keeps repeating, “Move, bitch.”)
If you want to live in a society where it’s considered perfectly normal and acceptable to call women “bitches” and worse — and talks about beating them up — that’s a reflection of your values. I’m bothered by the popularity of this sort of trash and I want an alternative. (If you look the song up, there’s a “clean” version which hides all this, but YouTube has a copy with the original filth left in.)
Twice Wednesday afternoon, I was with small groups of teens — all of which I know and like — and I listened to their language and attitudes. It occurred to me — not for the first time — that their words and attitudes about life reflect the meaninglessness of the worst of pop culture.
They’re angry even when they have nothing to be angry about. They value nothing other than their pursuit of pleasure and material things. The pursuit of casual sex is as common as my generation talking about whether to go to a movie or not, because sex means so little to them. They’ve been taught that sex has no meaning except whatever selfish pleasure they can get from it. So casual “hooking up” for pleasure and routine use of porn is second nature to them. (You might know adults who learned the same lessons.)
If you come from the same white middle class that I do, you might smugly think this is an issue for lower-class folks — maybe blacks living in urban ghettos; you know, different from you — but these were white middle-class teens. One group had rural backgrounds. The other were from a very privileged upper-middle-class suburb.
This isn’t something you can naively think is about someone else. This is a tidal wave of nihilistic emptiness that is coming right toward you and your children. Or did you think your children and their friends would magically be spared from the influence of this culture? Did you think you could send them to schools infected by this emptiness and it wouldn’t reach your kids through the shared culture? Did you think you could avoid having them infected by this ugly modern pop culture if you give them no alternative?
Many well-meaning people have recognized this tidal wave of nihilism and filth for decades, but their responses have been weak and ineffective. Some have moralized. Some have campaigned for government to stamp out things they didn’t like. And some have tried to create an alternative culture, but they’ve mostly succeeded in producing a sub-par sub-culture which has no power to influence anyone who’s already infected with the culture of meaninglessness.
When well-intentioned Christians have tried to encourage fellow Christians to influence the culture, they have often hamstrung Christian artists so badly that they aren’t making art. Instead, they’re mass-producing stale religious propaganda which isn’t authentic and is stripped of its power.
In an interview last year, singer/filmmaker Steve Taylor talked about pitching his early music to record labels in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. Mainstream labels loved his brilliant music, but they told him he would have to change his words, because the ideas in his music dealt with Christian themes. So those companies set up meetings for him with religious record labels instead. Most of them hated his music — because it wasn’t tame and didn’t sound one step removed from a worship service — and they also hated his lyrics, because his lyrics were too intelligent and would have required the listener to think. They said his lyrics would offend religious audiences.
There are many good artists who are Christians — or who otherwise have positive art to share — but the people who want an alternative to the modern nihilistic culture don’t want to promote any art they don’t understand and they especially don’t want art that’s not really, really “safe,” by which I mean mentioning Jesus four times every 30 seconds.
There is a lot of good art being made which isn’t part of the nihilistic mainstream, but most of that work gets little support from the people who say they want an alternative — simply because it’s not the “evangelistic sales material” they want.
We need good art that presents a genuine alternative — one which lets more people believe that life really does have meaning. If you want to evangelize people for your specific brands of theology, that’s fine. But please don’t stand in the way of something far more basic — a positive base culture that allows people to believe life has meaning.
Right now, the masses are funneled in one of two general directions. The vast majority are the victims of nihilistic popular culture which teaches them — without them even noticing — that life has no meaning other than the pursuit of pleasure. A substantial minority are stuck in a sub-par sub-culture of bad art which is religious propaganda and nothing more. A few of those will stick with that and never stray from it. But most will become bored with the bad art and drift toward the mainstream, looking for better music — where they’re infected with ideas which lead to emptiness.
Make no mistake about this. Even if you don’t understand the ideas which underlie popular culture — and even if you don’t think your children could possibly end up like the foul-mouthed and empty teens I talked with today — you are throwing your kids to the wolves to ignore this.
We’ve lost the modern culture for now. What is popular and cool is promoting ideas which are destructive. Many of the people you know — and maybe even you — are infected with those ideas without even thinking about it. If those of us who believe life has meaning are to have an influence on the culture again, it will be because we take intellectual thought seriously again and because we start taking art seriously again.
Until we get serious about ideas and art, the crumbling society infected with this ugly pop culture will get worse — and your children will be the next victims.
Note: If you’re a Christian and would like to understand why modern evangelical Christian efforts at art have been so bad, I strongly recommend Franky Schaeffer’s 1981 book, “Addicted to Mediocrity.” Schaeffer is the son of evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer, but he became a controversial figure after he renounced much of his father’s theology and became an Orthodox instead. I disagree with Schaeffer about a lot of things, but this book is an excellent starting point about Christians and art. (Look for the used paperback copy at the link for just $2.99 since it’s out of print.)