A primer on culture (8)
Every generation has had its pop culture. Pop culture is simply those forms of culture that appeal to a wide range of consumers. Pop culture is not the same as common culture. Common culture involves such things as eating with knives and forks, driving right, or using the postal service. Common culture is like the weather: you’ve always got some, and it doesn’t change much from year to year. Pop culture is like a passing storm: exciting while it’s happening, but usually you’re glad when it’s gone.
Pop culture can be defined as those cultural forms which appeal mainly to the affections, are motivated primarily by commercial concerns, and tend to be fleeting and changeable. Pop culture takes the form of entertainment, fashion, and trends in language, among others. It has its own institutions – the world of sport, for example, or the music and film industries, clothing outlets, and even the Internet.
Pop culture is not about making you think. It’s about making you feel. “Feel first, think later – maybe” could be the motto of pop culture. Because of this emphasis on the affections, pop culture is able to create large responses to whatever its latest offering might be. Songs, TV programs, actors and actresses, and fashions go in and out of style like the changeable weather in spring. As long as they make money for the culture-makers, they stay. Once their commercial viability has waned, it’s on to some other form.
There have always been forms of pop culture, although not nearly as commercially-driven as today. Pop culture today is considered dangerous by some because it reflects negative aspects of the larger culture, and thus seems to glorify them (violence, adultery, drugs); or it blatantly promotes subversive values and practices. Much of pop culture is harmless enough and can even be beneficial. Concern over pop culture arises when it seems to be attacking the status quo or fomenting rebellion against settled traditions and values.
Is pop culture inherently evil? I don’t think so. It just is. It’s possible to use pop culture in ways that instruct, edify, and benefit others, thus fulfilling the requirements of neighbor-love. Whatever we can use to that end will be pleasing to God.
Yet the forms of pop culture, especially those associated with entertainment, are ubiquitous. As such, they can also seem to be normative. If we want to do something using culture to further the work of the Kingdom, the forms of pop culture can seem the most logical place to turn. However, the very ubiquity of pop culture has also contributed to its banality: it’s taken for granted by everyone. Pop culture has little “weight” and conveys little gravitas. It seems frivolous, trivial, fleeting, and therefore not to be taken seriously. Christians make a mistake when they exchange the venerable forms of culture, inherited from our Christian forebears, for the fleeting forms of contemporary pop culture. A Christianity suffused with pop culture can itself appear to be flimsy and frivolous, without weight or substance, even though it may be lots of fun – for a season.
Like all culture, pop culture must be “redeemed” if it is to be useful in seeking the Kingdom of God. Redeeming culture, as we shall see, requires careful assessment, prayerful preparation and planning, and diligent execution according to Kingdom standards of excellence. We shall have more to say about redeeming culture in our final installment in this series.
If pop culture is our only, or even our preferred, form of cultural engagement, we need to consider what we’re saying to the world – and to ourselves – by such a commitment to things that are intended not primarily to last, but to make money.
Related texts: Romans 12.1, 2; 1 Corinthians 8.8-13; 2 Corinthians 10.3-5
A conversation starter: "What is it about pop culture that makes it so, well, pop?"