Why are Christian kids so obsessed with pop culture? For the same reason Christian parents are so obsessed with politics.
In fact, the overlap between pop culture and politics grows by the day.
It might be argued that Christian kids are obsessed with pop culture because rap music, fast food and Forever XXI are sensual and appeal to the passions. However, lurid stories of sexual deviance among senators and presidents and prime ministers are increasingly important and common to politics. Kids speak of Kanye’s sex life, and their parents speak of Donald’s sex life.
It might be argued that there is a difference between “politics” and “news,” but only inasmuch as there is a difference between “pop culture” and MTV. Only a very naïve person would argue MTV is “not part of pop culture, but merely reports on it.” In curating and glorifying pop culture, MTV becomes pop culture. MTV becomes what MTV beholds. In curating politics, NBC becomes politics. In glorifying politics, FOX News becomes politics.
It might be argued that pop culture is a distraction from what truly matters. However, stories of politics come to nothing just as quickly and just as often as pop records come to nothing. Not all politics is pure distraction, but most is; not every pop song is a distraction, but most are. If politics seems to have greater and more lasting value and importance than Top 40 radio, try reading a newspaper from 2011. How many of these stories are proved really important over time?
It might be argued that politics is concerned with wisdom and justice, and yet popular culture has lesser interests. However, the chief interest of popular culture is love, and love is more important than justice. Politics is almost never interested in love.
It might be argued that popular culture has a skewed notion of what love is. Indeed, and politics has no less skewed a notion of what wisdom and justice are.
It might be argued that politics is concerned with “what really matters,” and that human beings should concern themselves with what really matters. However, students do not vote and do not pay taxes and cannot be drafted. While the release of a new motion picture has the power to move a teenage body across town, the release of a new war does not have the power to move a teenage body across the globe. In this way, caring about pop culture is simply a prudent use of a teenager’s time.
Granted, I have thus far not accounted for why Christian kids love popular culture, but only argued that the teenager’s love of popular culture is analogous to a parent’s love of politics.
For many Christian kids, pop culture is the real story. School is largely a distraction from the real story. The real story is not a worldview, for a worldview merely allows us to see the world. When I say “the real story,” I refer to the story that allows us entrance in the world— the real story is, in some sense, the very opposite of a worldview. A worldview always sets a man at a critical distance from the world, observing the world from the outside. The real story brings a man into the world, eliminating all critical distance. Pop culture is both the real story and that which allows us entry into the real story.
Seeing new films and listening to Top 40 radio occupies the same role in the teenager’s imagination as voting in the adult’s imagination. Adults pay taxes, which allows them a claim on reality. Teenagers pay for music, which allows them a claim on reality. Watching the news plays the same role in the adult’s mind as listening to music plays in the teenage mind. Our own feelings are both given to us, and indulged in, and learned and worshipped. Adults choose the news much like teenagers choose their music— I know this, because at 35 I hover somewhere between genuine maturity and teenage foolishness, and I often find my desire to listen to Tim Hecker or Radiohead is equally satisfied by listening to Marketplace or BBC World News. Both grant a feeling of sophistication, alienation, a place for thinking and ruminating on the state of man. We can learn more about an adult by their choice of news agencies than we can learn about a teenager by their choice of rock bands— this says something about just how much the identity of an adult is tied up in politics.
Adults perceive politics as omnipresent, much like teenagers perceive the omnipresence of popular culture. In a restaurant, a teenager hears a song playing which he does not like, and his father observes there used to be a smoking section in the corner until the government took away the rights of the restauranteur.
If teenagers will not shut up about Kanye West and Katy Perry, neither will adults shut up about presidential nominees. As a Facebook friend of both teenagers and adults, I can attest to the fact that adults talk about politics even more than teenagers talk about rap stars, rock stars, and whatever The Hunger Games is this week. Adults perceive reality subtly change when a politician makes some glib little comment about “religion,” and teenagers perceive subtle changes in reality when a gorgeous actress makes some glib little comment about “religion.” While adults are no more connected with politicians than teenagers are with rappers, both rappers and politicians seem to have a divine and omnipresent power to speak and somehow alter the shape of the air around us.
Both politics and pop culture provide us with villains. Obamacare is to Libertarians as dubstep is to Rush fans. We all need something and someone to hate, and adults enjoy performing their public mockeries of senators and policies just as much as teenagers enjoy performing their mockeries of DJs and genres.
I write all of this not to condemn adults, and not to dignify an obsession with pop culture. I write this because, from time to time, adults forget just how banal their interests are. Adults are tempted to overplay the importance of their interests and to despise teenagers for their pettiness, the insignificance of their taste, the vapidness of their cares.
But “My kingdom is not of this world,” says Christ, which means that His kingdom is neither of the common politics nor the common songs of this world.