A few years ago, when I taught Freshman Composition at a community college, I went searching for information online about WWI. My students were reading The Great Gatsby and I felt that they would benefit from understanding the horrors of trench warfare as part of the context of the novel. The first result that Google gave me when I searched for “WWI” was a spelling correction: “Did you mean ‘WWII'”?
I thought it a striking sign of our culture’s knowledge about World War One that when I went to find information about The Great War, Google assumed I had made a mistake. Surely I was interested in WWII, the exciting war with well-defined villains and heroes. What this incident suggests is that our culture seems to be increasingly disinterested in its heritage, so much so that Google has decided that it is much more likely that a person searching for WWI made a typo than that they actually were interested in the first great war of the 20th Century.
This example of what we could call “presentism” comes from history, but it extends throughout our culture. In general, American culture maintains the belief that what is new, fresh, and modern is better, more important, and more valuable than what is old. In popular culture this means that Halo 3 is assumed to be better than Halo 2, color films are better than black and white, newer movies are more entertaining than old, and newer books–ones that address contemporary issues–are more interesting than older books.
As with any cultural frame of mind or practice, it is important for Christians to question whether or not presentism is honoring or dishonoring to God. Specifically, does a privileging of what is new in our purchases and use of time reflect an understanding of history and culture that is consistent to what we find in the Bible and is loving to God and our neighbor? One way to approach this question is to look at some of the institutions and ideologies that have helped shape this view of tradition in our society. Two of the institutions which I believe have contributed most to this issue are consumer culture and technology.
In recent years, more and more American Christians have become concerned with social justice as an essential aspect of living faithful lives for Christ. Now that the “communist threat” and the Cold War seem to be safely behind us, Christians are more comfortable taking a critical look at the capitalist economic system. While this movement is good, if our criticism stops at social justice, I do not think it goes far enough. Perhaps just as important as taking care of the orphan and widow and curbing the inhumane effects of globalism is an awareness of how capitalism, or more specifically, consumerism affects the way we think about our world and how that ideology fits with the Word of God and our nature as creatures created in His image. In the case of cultural artifacts–music, TV shows, films, books, magazines, video games–it is important to understand how the institutions set up to create, produce, and market these items shape the our expectations and tastes. The primary purpose of creation, production, and marketing (for the vast majority of artists/companies) is to make a profit. I’d like to highlight just two realities about the way a consumer culture affects the creation and appreciation of cultural artifacts.
First, it is (in general) in the best interest for producers/publishers/distributors to push new products over older products because it results in more sales. If I already own the Beatles’ “Revolver,” Halo 1, and Star Wars: A New Hope (the non-“special” edition), then I have no motivation to buy additional copies of these products unless the artists come out with sequels or newer, “better” editions. So it is in their best interest to put their efforts behind new products (albums, games, movies) and to discourage people from holding on to or being satisfied with their old products.
Second, this also leads to the attitude that artists need to produce, whether or not the production will be good, so that there is something to sell. I would wager to guess that most of the poorer-quality works in our culture are a result of this mentality. Take any given summer when sequels to successful movies and adaptations of TV shows are released in hordes to the big screen; or the fact that almost any video game which is successful must receive a sequel, even if it makes no sense in the storyline and will result in a sub-par product (Bioshock 2, in all likelihood); or a TV show which should have ended seasons ago, but continues because it used to be well-written. Again, this cultivates in our society the expectation that newer is always better.
I didn’t point out these two realities about culture in a capitalist society to suggest that capitalism is evil, but to encourage us as Christians to honestly look at how our culture affects us. The privileging of the new over the old and the pressure to create new works regardless of their quality contribute to a belief that these artifacts are consumable goods, items designed to be used, thrown away, and replaced. Much of our media is devoted to just this idea through entertainment news shows and magazines, advertising, and reviews.
There are two reasons I think Christians should reject a consumerist view of cultural artifacts. First, it is not loving to our neighbor and it does not honor the way God has made us as creatures designed for culture. Our neighbor in this instance, I believe, is the artist(s) who created the work and the culture it was created in. Since works are always created within a culture, they allow us to understand that culture (at least in part) in a unique way; they give us the opportunity to see how people distant from us in space and time understood God’s creation. If we only “consume” works of our own time and location (21st Century American culture), then our understanding of God’s creation and our place in His redemptive history becomes myopic, and our ability to love the people outside of our worldview is dramatically hindered.
Second, the example of culture we have in the Bible holds traditions and works of people from the past in high regard. While they are perhaps not meant to viewed as normative, the way older cultural artifacts are treated by the Isrealites does suggest that there is something good and healthy for a people in remembering and delighting in poems (Psalms), stories, and architecture from another era. Song of Solomon was not just popular and important the week it was first recited; it had/has lasting meaning and value, despite the fact that the further the Isrealities were from the date it was written the harder it was for them to understand the context and the more competition there would be from other, more contemporary poems. In a like manner, I believe it is important for us to have an understanding of our own cultural as a history, tradition.
Tommorow in Part 2, I will demonstrate how society’s increasing dependence on and trust in technology has contributed to the belief that what is newer is always better and more worth our time.