When “Culture” Isn’t

If you are like me, you  often hear people talking about “impacting” or “changing” culture. While this all seems fine and good, I’m not sure what exactly we are trying to impact and how what we are doing is going to do that.  It seems that when we speak of “culture” we are not talking about culture at all.  The rallying cries, the money, and the effort to impact this thing we call culture is doomed to fall short of any substantial goal because we are not talking about something substantial whatsoever.  Real cultural change is in our hands, yet we carelessly fixate on a conception of “culture” that is vapid and unsubstantial.  At best we dress up a manikin as if it were the real thing.

This misconception, the Vapid culture, begins with a connection to the idea of “pop culture”.   Our use of the word “culture” isn’t directly talking about “pop culture”: we don’t use it the way that sociologists do.  We aren’t talking about studying contemporary sociological trends, slang, and documenting how we go through life.

Rather we speak of it as a conglomeration of ideas, themes, and values that are consumed through direct or indirect media sources.   This is what I mean by the Vapid culture.  These ideas, themes, and values are in part created by the crafters of media: ad men, TV producers, news organizations, and all the professionals that conservatives commonly vilify. While I believe that mass media banally plays to our consumeristic passions (and can consequently be harmful to us), it is far too simple for us to respond by blaming the “pagans” who deal with the media sources. Both rally cries of “embrace media and the culture of today!” and “reject the consumeristic lies and secular messages!” are unhelpful and insufficient; moreover they bespeak of our own immaturity and fascination with our passions.  

What drives professional media?  For the most part, if it sells the media will channel it.  Make some news, and you’ve impacted the Vapid culure.  Make a film that sells, and for a time you will rule the Vapid culture.  See the band Switchfoot, or the film “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”, art made by Christians replete with Christian ideas, themes, and values.    They won the day, but these triumphs have reminded us that the change we seek still eludes us.

I mentioned that “culture” in the vapid sense comes through both direct and indirect media sources. Indirect sources include almost anything that transfers the aforementioned conglomeration. Many schools (public and private) serve as mediums for the conglomeration, as do many youth sports teams, informal conversations, and even churches. Ironically, the “culture” being propagated in these activities is spoken about as if it were absent in the conversation, as if it were abstract. Thus “culture” in this sense isn’t really culture, just the vapid illusion of it.

Hopefully you are seeing the Vapid culture bleeding into everyday life, Hollywood meeting your neighborhood park.  The Vapid culture does affect true culture (which is why I still call it “culture”, because it is in some small sense), but it doesn’t have the almighty power that we commonly ascribe to it.  It’s power is in illusion, deception, and distraction.  When we talk about culture as if it were something apart from us, how we live, how we are right now, then we have taken the bait.

Where the vapid sense of culture is in fact most substantial is where it bleeds into the more organic way we live our lives. We are participants in pop culture not only because we buy cable TV (which is not a big deal), but because we perpetuate it in our social lives. We could stop here and talk about influencing culture on this level – that is, by changing our conversation – but that would allow us to get away with using culture inadequately.  

The movement to rightly understanding culture can begin when we juxtapose the vapid sense of “culture” with the way that we speak of high culture. When people say that they love a city because of the “culture”, what are they talking about? They are talking about the arts district, the elevated way the people think, the atmosphere of “education”. How can these two vastly different senses of the word “culture” be reconciled?  This is not to say that “high culture” is true culture, but its contrast with Vapid culture teases out some of the true meaning of the word.

(More to follow)