Joshua Gibbs recently authored the article, “Engaging Culture, Cloak For Mediocrity: Giving Up On Pop Music.” What follows is intended to be a response to Josh’s article, although it might be better understood as a reaction. This is because, for the most part, I agree with his conclusions. For example, Josh writes,
I have long been in the thinkpiece camp, reading popular culture as a series of coded communiqués from incarcerated human souls, each catchy, Top 40 missive deciphered only with a Gospel decoder ring. At the same time my intellect has been sharpened through constantly looking below the surface of Radiohead songs for what is really going on here, it hasn’t been sharpened a lot. I can interpret the living daylights out of popular culture, but while I have never used this skill as a cloak for vice, I have used it as a cloak for mediocrity.
While this may not be true for every reader of Josh’s article, I think it does ring true for many. I am not half the critic or commentator on popular culture that Josh Gibbs and others are, but I too pride myself on my ability to decode pop culture for its Christianity—either places where I thought it almost explicitly mimicked or echoed Christianity or places where the author’s desperate cry for Christianity was so great that it burst forth from the work as vividly and threateningly as the molten lava and fire erupted from the great Vesuvius.
Perhaps, though, Gibbs’ greatest observation is in the role that popular culture and classical culture ought to be playing in oneself: “I have used the fact I am a clever enough interpreter of popular culture as warrant to steep my soul in popular culture, all the while avoiding art which is perplexing, difficult, godlike.” Rather than make us clever interpreters, the artistic works of culture ought to be “perplexing, difficult, and godlike” because they ought to be lifting us out of the miseries of life and toward an Ideal Type, an Ideal Person, an Ideal Reality. Again, echoing, Gibbs, popular culture reminds us of how bad the world is (and I pride myself in my ability to recognize this), but it leaves us in the misery we find. Culture should be, however, helping us to ascend to greatness, Godliness, Christ-likeness.
Enter my however.
However, and I will grant from the beginning that this is perhaps nothing more than my selfish desire to “save” popular culture and my participation in it, I do think that participation in art which is perplexing, difficult, and godlike and the ascension that flows from it is best done in community. With obvious exceptions for those called to an ascetic and private life, like St. Symeon the Stylite sitting atop a pole in the wilderness or Myers Briggs’ Introverted Intuitives, most of us live in community and experience art from within that community.
The difficulty arises when I am forced to choose between popular culture and classical culture, between art that tells me how bad the world is and art that lifts me out of the badness of the world, even if just vicariously, but I still live in a community that is not feeling the pressure of the same decision. If I am a leader in that community, as Emperor Constantine moved the cultural center from Rome to Constantinople, I may be able to move the focus of my community’s art from popular culture to classical culture. Very likely, however, I am no Constantine. I do not get to demand that everyone around me read, watch, and listen to only those things that I have chosen, that which is perplexing, difficult, and godlike.
Is it in these times that I have permission to participate in my community wherever it may be? Can I participate in the great cultural works that have been identified as classics when life permits me, but also, for the sake of community, participate in the popular cultural works my friends, family, and neighbors are participating in? If I do so, how do I do so in a way that might also lead others to willingly participate in the perplexing, difficult, and godlike? Will that sometimes look like I have become a professional decoder yet again? Will that mean I am using decoding as a cloak for participation in mediocrity, or can it mean that I am looking for connection points between the mediocre and the godlike?
I do not know the answers to these questions, but I hope you will join me in my conversation with Joshua Gibbs’ article and together we can better understand how to navigate these murky waters.