catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 10 :: 2011.05.20 — 2011.06.09


Beyond critique

Pop culture is like air: it’s always present (even if we don’t acknowledge it) and we’re always consuming it (even if we don’t think we are). We’re surrounded by words, images and music that we take in, consciously or unconsciously. Many might extend this analogy to say pop culture is like air in another way: it’s vapid and shallow, with no tangible depth of meaning. But I disagree. Sure, we can point to examples of mindless pop music or a joke-recycling sitcoms, but I can also name many talented artists working today to create deep, complex meaning in their work. There is art to be found in pop culture, able to move us and influence us in amazing ways.

Perhaps the strongest way art has moved me is by inspiring me to analyze it. I love to engage in pop culture and dig deeper to find its meaning. So when I learned of a leadership group at Calvin College called the Cultural Discerners (CDs, for short), I jumped for joy. (Well, okay, I didn’t jump, but I definitely skipped about a little.) The CDs have four key goals throughout the academic year, and that is to:

  1. Develop awareness of the spirits of our age and be able to name qualities and evidence of these spirits.
  2. Cultivate skill in discerning the work of the Holy Spirit in community.
  3. Apply discernment skill to popular art — including film, television and music — seeking evidence of both the spirits of our age and the Kingdom of God.
  4. Equip other students to receive popular art critically, rather than consume uncritically, through a variety of activities on and around campus.

Whew. It appears to be daunting material, but my experience with the CDs shaped me profoundly in developing the skills to analyze pop culture and enable others to do so as well. Recently, I’ve taken these goals (particularly #4) to my own blog work to help find profundity in pop culture and equip others to find it as well. Although I really enjoy my work as a CD and a blogger, I’ve recently rediscovered something missing from my work, something vital I almost left behind in my haste to analyze pop culture.

I realized it at the Festival of Faith and Music 2011, an event I was incredibly privileged to attend that exceeded my expectations. Besides inspiring me to seek out meaning in music in newer ways, the Festival reminded my of something I once held so dear. This revelation occurred not in the classroom, but the concert hall. Now, being able to attend the concerts at the festival was incredibly rewarding in itself, but it also reminded me that pop culture is also to be enjoyed for its own sake.

I know it sounds rather obvious, but the pleasure of just listening to an album, or reading an elegant story, or watching a great movie for its own sake is something I somehow avoided with my work. That’s not to say analysis of pop culture stops this type of engagement (if anything, it can enhance it), but analysis is certainly not the only option. Instead of working with the art only to distill its meaning, I realized that I needed to let the art work with me and present its meaning as well.

If anything, my mode of analysis became my “posture” rather than a “gesture,” which are terms coined by Andy Crouch describing how humans approach culture. My stance toward pop culture had become solely analytical, and didn’t allow for much else — a habitually formed posture. Instead, thinking deeply about pop culture should be a gesture, one of many options when encountering pop culture, but not the only one. There’s room for pleasurable enjoyment of pop culture as well.

In addition to taking delight in popular art from the audience, the concerts reminded me of another thing. When students clambered up on stage to join Vienna Teng for an encore song, I remembered the importance of creating culture as well. I was moved by what occurred on stage, and it made me desire to create something of my own, not just stay on the sidelines. Obviously, this isn’t a shockingly new idea. (Crouch wrote a little book called Culture Making — maybe you’ve heard of it?) But for me, the idea that pop culture can move and inspire us to be creational and artistic was a revelation. Those concerts moved me to create music, and helped me appreciate my involvement with the campus orchestra much more. If anything, the creation of art cultivates a flourishing of ideas and inspiration, something in which we’re privileged to participate.

Perhaps we can never fully appreciate art until we’ve made it ourselves. I can say from ten years of orchestra that making music isn’t all that easy. Knowing all the effort that goes into creating a song can make listening all the more rewarding. Making art, despite our level of talent, allows us to enjoy our work and the work of others more deeply than a mere bystander.

We often excuse ourselves from making art because of our lack of technical expertise, but even simple acts can generate pleasure. At the Festival of Faith and Music, musician Shara Worden recommended humming while making salad. Dancing to your favorite song is another way to respond joyfully to popular art. I’d even argue that doodling can be a pleasurable creational experience (though I’m curious to know how my professors would react to that). After all, art isn’t just for art majors; it’s for everyone, both in creation and consumption.

Pop culture contains a wealth of art to be explored and enjoyed — art that also proves to be incredibly valuable in inspiring us create as well. So to those who say pop culture is meaningless and even worthless, I completely disagree. We need pop culture for creating a world rich with meaning. Pop culture isn’t like space beyond earth, a great void empty of meaning. Instead, pop culture is like air, essential for life.

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