Culture Revisited

Earlier I talked about what I called the Vapid Culture, which is not really a culture but something that poses for culture, like a manikin poses for a human being. The Vapid Culture I called a “conglomeration of ideas, themes, and values consumed through direct or indirect media sources”. The threat of the Vapid Culture is not that it comes from the media, or that it bespeaks of and propagates values, but that it poses as culture, and summarily we mistake it for something it is not. Thus we conflate “impacting culture” with adding our voice to the hectic milieu bombarding us via the economically driven media.

However, I didn’t decry the Vapid Culture in order to urge abdication, cinicism, or despair. Culture building is necessary, and vital for Christianity. We cannot become good Christians unless we are cultured, and we cannot raise good children (whether Christian or no) without being mindful of it. I am wholeheartedly urging culture creation.

So that we can talk of culture creation, we need to first dispense with the phonies, as we did with the Vapid Culture. It is the parasite, and the host is something that we commonly call “pop culture”. This is juxtaposed with another familiar use of the word: “high” culture. If pop culture is about feeding the common desires of the common man, high culture is about the unnecessary needs of a select few. In fact, the more consumeristic pop culture has become, the more high culture has reacted in order that is may become increasingly exclusive. High culture items are limited, expensive, and purposefully not advertised. They are, as it were, better than what the average man should have.

Are they better? Quite often the answer is yes. The make-up the rich and exclusive use are probably much better than the Rite-Aid generic brand, but not enough to justify the gap. In contemporary America, high culture is watermarked by decadence, not necessarily virtue.

Yet high culture has a sense of virtue, while Vapid culture does not. Hence high culture reminds us that culture is not about consumption, but about nurturing; not about the next, but about developing into the next best.

The main ingredient lacking in our understanding of culture is the sense of development. The picture of high culture is accurate here in a way that consumeristic culture is not. A cultured man who appreciates an excellent wine must have a cultured palate – that is to say, it must be developed and grown. Some people have naturally gifted palates, but it takes exposure to good wines and critique to make a cultured someliere. Some people are naturally athletic and competitive, but it takes culturing to make a Michael Jordan or a Cal Ripken. As individuals we develop, and as social creatures we develop into something both natural and societal. Plants are cultured in a garden, because in a garden they can grow into what they are. Plants are developed haphazardly in a jungle – one of the first things one learns about agriculture is the value of pruning.

Clark Carlton kicks off his “Faith and Philosophy” podcast by talking a little about culture. There he quotes Fr. Michael Oleska’s simple definition as culture being “a way of seeing the world”. I find this definition to be very helpful, though I would add that a good culture is one that enables us to see the world correctly. Culture, rather than merely being something we consume, is something that nourishes and grows us into our place in reality. The vapid culture is something that we consume, but it has difficulty nourishing us and it has no sense of what sort of thing we are supposed develop into. It suffers from a lack of vision.

When we speak of impacting culture, what we tend to speak as if the project was creating something for media to give people to consume. Yet it comes across as both nit-picky and useless – nit-picky because it is just replacing one kind of junk food with one of another’s preference, and useless because it still has no picture of what culture is for and what it is working towards.

This can be understood when we talk about subcultures. A subculture isn’t just a small culture, its a kind of spare Vapid culture. Subcultures keep the linchpins of the paradigm of Vapid culture intact, and focus on trying to exchange one conglomeration for another of their own making. It is likely that CCM and Christian radio will be less soul decaying junk food than MTV, but it is essentially the same animal. Hidden within the conglomeration may be real art – cultured art – and it may provide us and our children with nourishment, but it is still just one aspect of life, one that most of our children do not know how to appreciate. At Flexing Poplars I will mention a good movie like Garden State, and usually at least one girl will exclaim that it is her favorite movie. Then I will ask her what its about, and what follows is a poor plot summary ending with “and they kiss at the end”. They watched it the same way they watch Harold and Kumar and feel compelled to say that there is no way that anyone can claim that one is a better movie than the other. This is, of course, wrong. Certain things are better than others, and America knows this, even if it is trying to forget it.

Culture creation is about development, about growth. It is fundamentally about becoming a human being, and culture is the atmosphere and fertile ground that allows that becoming to take place.


4 thoughts on “Culture Revisited

  1. That’s what I am working towards: but first it seems we need to exorcise false notions of culture…

    I like Fr. Michael Oleska’s definition: “a way of seeing the world”. I suppose there’s other ways to say it though.

  2. Fr Michael Oleska’s definition is, I think, a good one… not too exact nor technical, but allows for the understanding of the general concept at hand. I think what might be good to unpack from this definition is that culture (and any particular culture one might adhere to) is, largely, a coping mechanism. Culture allows persons to live together (through taboos and etiquette) and make sense of their ecology (through myth, science, and the like).

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