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Escaping Pop Culture Syncretism

Several times in my life, someone has skipped the pleasantries and directly asked me, “Why don’t you listen to better music?” While most of my friends listen to the same style of music as myself, I’ve had a few acquaintances with more refined tastes. The question left me embarrassed, for while I enjoy the intellectual work of unfolding the profundity of Kid A, the real reason I listen to pop music has little to do with my standard apologia. When asked, the Christian pop enthusiast is obliged to state his respect for the masters. “I know that Bach and Beethoven wrote better music,” he begins, “but there’s a time and a place for everything. I never really learned to appreciate classical music, but I appreciate rock and roll. Not everything has to be the best. There’s a lot of really good, sophisticated rock and roll out there. Have you heard of Muse?” I can only speak only for myself. At eighteen, I did not like classical music because I did not like beautiful things. To say that I liked pop music would not have been true, though. I did not merely like pop music. Pop music was the psalter of pop culture, and pop culture was my religion.

Yesterday, I described giving up pop music for Lent and subsequently selling six hundred pop CDs, one-third of my collection. Perhaps it is worth noting that I still have more than a thousand pop records I am not getting rid of and that when Lent is completed I plan on listening to them again. At the same time, I was earnest when I wrote of walking away from pop music. As my pop records disappear, my shelves are slowly filling with requiems, motets, operas and concertos. After twenty years of listening to disconsolate atheists lament the world in song, I have finally begun attending to music I want to become like.

Because I never learned to like old music, when I became an adult, I have had to force myself to listen to it. New Order is easy to like. Iggy Pop is easy to like. After a lifetime of training my ear for simple delights and predictable thrills, Rachmaninoff is a stretch. On an intellectual level, I concede the beauty of Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, but I do not really love it- and how sad it is to admit the exceeding beauty of a thing, yet be incapable of unfeigned desire for it. Yet, as a convert to a new religion loosely accepts all the creeds and liturgies, though he does not understand them, so I.

From the time I was fifteen, I have served in the cult of popular culture. School was always a distraction for me, because the real story of the world was written in Rolling Stone and Spin, then later on Pitchfork. At fifteen, peers who merely maintained a light interest in the radio or the cinema were baffling to me, lukewarm, uncommitted to the god Pathos. Pop culture ascended to greater heights of reality than Christianity because it offered access to this god. Pathos was a divinity apt to instruct the emotions, and paeans to Pathos taught his followers how to feel romantic love and alienation, those twin Eucharists of sentimentality. Paeans to Pathos played up the holiest labor of his cult, the unrequited crush, and so pop music involves worshippers of Pathos in a turbulent, yet richly creative cycle of fantasy, sincerity, purity, and self-loathing.

After a man marries, though, service to Pathos must become something more generous and dignified, for the high drama of Pathos’ most searing hymns becomes muted and the value of his labor exploded. As the Hesychast repeats the Jesus Prayer over and over again, I can recall listening to “Wonderwall” for several hours while laying on my bed in high school, attentive to every word and chorus. While in the grips of a very sincere infatuation during my junior year of high school, I once listened to Olive’s “You’re Not Alone” for several days. Such ceremony and ritual does not simply die because a man has a wife to not humiliate himself in front of.

A burgeoning interest in theology shortly after I married was absorbed into the reforming cult of Pathos, and the emerging phenomenon of blogs gave me a place to spin out theories of how traces of the Gospel could be discerned on the surface of Death Cab for Cutie songs. At this time, I was the most tepid of readers, and with nothing more than a few coarsely cobbled together principles of hermeneutics borrowed from Peter Leithart, I began setting the world to rights with a slightly more sophisticated hymnology than I had at fifteen. As the Roman worship of Jupiter meltingly transformed into worship of Sol Invictus in the 3rd century, the years after my nuptials saw Pathos seamlessly transfigure into Ethos.

At this time, I desperately needed popular music to matter deeply because I was profoundly lazy, unwilling to do hard things, and because I wanted the things I found easy to like to be the really good things. If Radiohead was not important, I wasn’t interested in whatever was. As a regular church attendee, I knew what Goodness was. As a student of storytelling theory since the age of sixteen, I could handle with finesse the language of myth and archetype. As a member of Leithart’s church, I had ambiently absorbed a sufficient quantity of heady theology. These three powers combined, I simply forced pop music to be significant and pop music occasionally submitted. Since high school, then, my worship of the Triune God has always by tainted by pop syncretism, the abiding desire to incorporate the passing and profane things I love into Christian revelation.

In response to my first article about cultural engagement, Matt Bianco asked, “Can I… 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?” As to the first question, heavens, yes. As RA Markus notes in his essay on Late Antiquity for The Oxford History series, ever since the fourth century, Christianity has never completely sorted out “[w]hat carried pagan religious significance, and thus had to be shunned, and what was mere urban romping, and might therefor be just tolerated.” Wilco, Radiohead, the latest Marvel movie… no one needs some showy theological warrant to engage in these things. At worst, they are simply the tolerable cultural ephemera of life in the city. “Don’t be too wise,” cautions Solomon. Or rather, don’t overthink everything.

To refine a point I attempted in my first essay, the problem is not popular culture, but overplaying the significance and profundity of popular culture. The problem is not having opinions about Radiohead, but the misguided belief that Radiohead is the best use of any man’s time. The problem is not in shedding a tear for the beauty of “Unchained Melody,” but the belief that discipling the nations means having young men about with deeply informed opinions about Yeezus. Why exactly a Christian man bearing estoeric credos about Kanye West will be more attractive to an unbeliever than a Christian who has never heard of Kanye West is beyond me. For my part, I have often suffered from the self-aggrandizing delusion that my part in Christian cultural engagement was having sufficiently chic taste that the unbaptized under-30 set would have someone in the narthex to confirm they had come to the right place. In the meantime, I have become more and more like the bread and wine I feed my ears. Secularist melodies have trained my affections. My deepest spiritual ties are to the heathen hymns I have heard the most often, sung with the most verve, wept over with the greatest sincerity. I have never sung a psalm as passionately as I’ve sung “Fake Plastic Trees” while alone in my room. I have never, in church, enjoyed the same exhilaration which shot through my heart when U2 played “Bad” in the Tacoma Dome back in 2001. I am not a man who is in the world. I am a man of the world.

My own affections are still too skewed to begin to answer Matt Bianco’s absolutely necessary follow-up question about how to lead others to willingly participate in perplexing, godlike art. For now, I am not in a position to do anything other than offer a series of confessions and hopes. At 35, I realized my taste in music was little more mature than most of my students. “Here is the one talent you gave me, Lord. I buried it in the ground for the last two decades.” I have not heeded St. Paul’s advice and “been careful how I live.” I have not “chosen the better part,” as did Martha, but casually drifted through St. Paul’s “evil days” whilst enjoying the trivial, the superficial, the banal. I suppose this all sounds quite glum, but I hardly mean it that way. You could not help to smile if you had as much undiscovered Thomas Tallis before you as I do.

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