Quick recap: we were just talking (in Part I) about some recent works of art that deal with the complexities of faith in ways that were honest AND commercially/critically successful, which begs the question: what the heck? There can be a bit of an expectation among Christian artists to not be taken seriously because of untrendy beliefs in things like, you know, absolute truth and all that. I know I’ve met quite a few writers who expect major backlash to the themes in their work – a backlash that, though sometimes exaggerated, still sometimes seems very, very real.
Then, on a generous tangent, the topic turned to nature and how pop culture opinions about it changed over the past three hundred years: until industrialization, nature was widely seen as a force to wage war against rather than the soft, gentle, rejuvenating force of spiritual revival that the Romantics later painted it to be. What was the change? People, because of mass urbanization, stopped needing to fight nature to survive – and so could start appreciating it for what it had to offer their newly urban selves.
Same thing with cultural relationships: Native populations in North America were painted as savages until they were conquered – only afterwards could they be perceived by the White-European-descended culture as misunderstood recipients of undeserved tragedy.*
And looking back at war propaganda will provide lots of other examples of demonizing the folks who are seen as the threats de jour.
An equally ridiculous example is the campy Catholic monarch who plays foil to England’s queen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. In everything from the maliciously chanting monks to his reluctance to step fully from the shadows, King Philip is presented as little more than a goblin against which Cate Blanchett will say something awesome while basking in a meticulously engineered morning glow. I’m not even joking – you can pretty much all but hear him croaking “gollum, gollum” in the background. Not that Catholics are immune to this kind of simplifying criticism.
When cultures and worldviews are in conflict it’s pretty easy for “debate” to amount to a round of “let’s see who can yell the loudest [with funny memes!],” and for a while in the mid-twentieth century there was some pretty hefty anti-Christian sentiment in the pop-culture and intellectual spheres. I don’t want to say there were no influential voices of faith (there were definitely the Waughs and O’Connors among plenty of others), but the fabric of cultural modernism was kinda set against Christianity in a couple of ways, for a few different reasons.
The modernists, to simplify, were finding the older Victorian and Georgian ways of life too stuffy, petty and ultimately restrictive for the full expression of the breadth and soul of human dignity, and so were searching for another way to live. Enter institutional experimentation (in lifestyle, literature, sexuality, whatevs). One of the problems of the time was that Christianity was sometimes overwhelmingly tied up in the public consciousness (of the English-speaking world, anyways) with notions of cleanliness and respectability rather than the earthy, dirty work of redemption; this “respectable” Christianity wasn’t much more than a hollow shell, a culture dressing up its manners and pretensions in a spiritual tuxedo in order to gain a bit of extra legitimacy. The moderns saw clearly enough to call out the bluff. But not far enough to realize Christianity was the baby thrown out with the bathwater.
A personal suspicion of mine is that each major cultural movement, nearing the end of its shelf-life, eventually ends up mass-producing parodies of their trademark rebellion – leading everyone else to quickly get annoyed with them and paving way for the Next Big Thing. Chesterton constantly complained about the inconsistent groups of would-be anarchists who didn’t seem to have either the conviction or courage of the bolder revolutionaries and anti-monarchists of the mid-to-late nineteenth century.
While real anarchism was always felt a genuine threat, Chesterton found the guys still hanging around in his day, threatening dynamite and all, to be impostors of the original, dangerous challenge to civilization (or something). But then-popular ideas of revolution were watered-down, mass-marketed and picked up by folks genuinely looking for something to fight for, and so were maybe more interested in the fight than in the cause behind it. Cue Chestertonian eye-rolling. But the ideological lovechildren of the pre-and-inter-war moderns would have to wait until the marches of the sixties to fully bloom in this sense.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m under the impression that there were a lot of core groups in the hippie/flower-child movements who were genuinely convicted about peace, love and sexual expression as a means of achieving freedom and dignity and such. But I’m also pretty sure there were lots of folks who jumped on the wagon cause it felt good, provided an easy feeling of cultural righteousness and got them on TV. Cue the quick decline of hippies from force-to-be-reckoned-with to day-time sitcom parodies.
Cue postmodernism. After the moderns were done fighting/tearing down the old systems so the new, truer morality (not that they’d use the word) could take root, their children quickly realized no new order was forthcoming. Older systems of making sense of the world seemed outdated, refuted and irrelevant, making the search for meaning itself become suspect. Enter Pynchon, Delilo and Vonnegut with their constant (and often painfully humanizing) struggles against the seeming meaninglessness of the world at large. Or, less intensely, enter punk with its global-scale sense of scepticism (ie, flipping the bird) towards any kind of meaning in hand-me-down worldviews. Or, thirty to forty years after the heyday of literary postmodernism in the 70’s/80’s, enter the mass-produced bearers of uncritical irony, detachment and cultural skepticism: hipsterdom.**
So here we are at the tail end of a number of massive, twentieth-century cultural movements trying to break free from a stuffy, Victorian set of manners perceived to be “Christian” in nature. While the conflict was going on, Christians were seen as the epitome of uncool. But now, as modernism is declawed by postmodernism, which is in turn deflated by irony-for-irony’s-sake (not to mention our persistent habit of finding meaning in situations anyway), we might be far enough removed from the image of the “evil authoritarian Churchman(/marm)” that people may kinda-sorta be able to start appreciating the nuances/subtleties of the struggle of faith. It’s not as threatening, and therefore palatable.*****
One one hand, we can interpret this as confirmation that we are pretty much living in a Post-Christian world where the influence of Christendom is a distant memory of the past. We can lament the lack of Christian influence in public affairs, government, the arts and popular media. We can groan about having to compete for attention along with all the other paradigms in the intellectual marketplace.
Or we can acknowledge that there’s a great moment of opportunity here – less and less people are growing up with the knee-jerk anti-Christian tendencies common to Christian cultures (the most powerful anti-Catholic ballads in the Anglosphere, for example, come from Ireland), and so people across the board (Christian and otherwise) are able to look at each other from the cultural divide not as entrenched soldiers, but as mutual inhabitants of a strange world who, maybe, have something to teach each other.
Maybe Christian artists have the duty now of creating art not so much for use in a cultural battlefield as a way of being true to the Good, True and Beautiful as personally experienced in Christ. At the moment, the degree of being cool might well depend on the depth of our self-expression as artists of such. And that means being true to the doubt, loneliness and frustrations of faith as well as to the high-points – as “The Antenna,” “Noah” and “Modern Vampires of the City” (uuuggh) seem to imply, people may be more willing to listen if you speak just as much about the shit as the sunshine.
**When I decided on this title I totally promised myself that the essay would have nothing to do with hipsters***
***That was a total lie****
****After finishing, I found out someone already beat me to the punch and came to the same conclusions in a fantastic 2009 article called “The Death of the Hipster”
*****There are two ways this can go, though – non-threatening doesn’t just have to be interpreted as “humbled,” but “compromised” too. There is no justification for substituting the visceral experience of faith for something watered down, just for the sake of being “non-threatening.” That was the problem with Victorian pseudo-religion – which was, in the first place, part of the reason why the moderns rebelled****** at all. Who really wants to set off the whole cycle again?
******And, really, wouldn’t you? It’s good to remember that things started with a whole heck of a lotta good intentions that, if not honoured, will come back to bite us all in the collective ass.
Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.