The Sacred Revealed
in Radiohead, The
Simpsons, and Other
Pop Culture Icons
by David Dark
Brazos Press, 2002
160 pp.; $13.95, paper
David Dark's Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons is not only a model for enjoyment and discernment of the most thoughtful popular culture (which turns out not to be an oxymoron, after all). It is also an inspiring call to live in the world with what Walter Brueggemann would call "exilic consciousness"—the realization that we're exiled in a culture whose worldview we must not tolerate, even as we must coexist with it. So numbed are we by our social norms and institutions, Dark writes, that we forget we are living in a pseudo-world, one "founded upon the reduction of nature, creativity, and human life itself to whatever will benefit and perpetuate 'market forces.'"
Dark invokes The Truman Show, whose creepy sovereign, executive producer Christof, says, "We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented." Truly, we need the apocalyptic genre to awaken us to "question the reigning takes on reality." We usually interpret "apocalypse" as suggesting dramatic destruction, Dark says, but the word actually means revelation and epiphany. Apocalyptic art "testifies concerning a world both beyond and presently among the world of appearances."
Such testimony can be found in wildly diverse sources: Flannery O'Connor, The Simpsons, the music of Radiohead, the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, makers of Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? Dark's commentary on these and others satisfies the reader with both the knowledgeable command of the English teacher he is at Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville and the contagious pleasure of a lover of illuminating storytelling. To pull this off requires a rejection of the most familiar religious impulse toward popular culture, which Dark identifies as a pious condescension. "It's as if such religious faith has no greater calling than counting bad words, spotting the sexual innuendo, and walking away in a loud, well-publicized huff."
Dark hints at the dark irony in this professed fear of popular culture: all too often, even as they are protesting against the latest outrage—a dung-smeared painting of the Virgin Mary!—Christians uncritically accept the generic values of mainstream culture, while supposedly godless artists are genuinely sounding the alarm. He would agree with William Romanowski, who writes in Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture that North American Christians "tend to privatize their faith, confining religion to family and local congregations, while conducting their affairs in business, politics, education, social life, and the arts much like everyone else."
Dark points out that although Christians are to be culturally subversive, "a political-economic order has nothing to fear from a sentimental, fully 'spiritualized' faith." He sees the stubborn rebels in The Matrix as a metaphor for our mission: "[The world] is under siege. But there is a resistance movement. … This mobile, beleaguered city functions in the world, seeking to free creation from its momentary bondage to decay." How odd, Dark notes, that at a time "when the self-proclaimed representatives of 'the gospel' have reduced the good news to 'how to get to heaven when you die,' it's profoundly ironic that a science fiction action film would serve to bring the reality-altering significance of the Jewish and Christian revelations up on the cultural radar."
Taken that far, Dark's book is a welcome wake-up call. But what Dark does not resolve is just how far to carry this cry. How fine a line is there between "alternative consciousness" and dysfunctional cynicism? We must live, he writes, with a fundamental discomfort with "the way things are," which "the powers that be" have, in Orwellian fashion, trained us to consider synonymous with "the way things ought to be" and "the only way things could have gone." But is there not an appropriate level of acceptance of our cultural norms, and is this not necessary for fruitful cultural engagement—to work, as Jeremiah calls us, for the shalom of the city in which we find ourselves exiled? Dark's analysis almost leaves you with the feeling that if you have any fondness whatsoever for capitalism, you've sold out to the dark side. Meanwhile, as he ruefully acknowledges, the "alternative rock" of Radiohead makes millions for a huge corporation.
There is a functionality to some level of cultural conformity. It is difficult, if not downright depressing, to endure the cognitive dissonance that comes from a continuous rejection of the values of one's cultural context. And we need not. For example, those sensations of patriotism we felt after September 11 were legitimate—provided we did not cultivate them to the point of an idolatrous Manifest Destiny, or accept the media's rightly inspiring tales of altruism at Ground Zero as grounds for a belief in inherent human goodness and a denial of our depravity. We are called to be both prophets and priests—lone voices of an alternative consciousness and leaders who confirm the ideals of a community. When Dark, paraphrasing Kafka, suggests that "if reading a literary text doesn't facilitate a skull-hammering awakening, we're wasting our time," I wonder: who can endure such a steady delivery of blows to the head?
While Dark's passionate prose inspires us to find a new framework for daily living, he offers little in the way of what such a framework might be. He praises apocalyptic's function of "unmasking the fictions we inhabit," but says little about apocalyptic's ability to enlighten us as to what is not fictitious, or how to tell the difference. He especially praises O'Connor and The Simpsons for satirizing our ideals, revealing our absurdities, and questioning our assumptions. But after such a demolition, what do we have left? To counter the dangers of my fondness for the stuffy New York Times, for example, I read that bastion of irony, The Onion, which masterfully deconstructs the mythology of the establishment media. But The Onion is decidedly incapable of helping me form a coherent worldview. "Everybody's lookin' for answers," Dark quotes George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Can the enlightened soul, awakened by apocalyptic, offer any? "As a Coen film ends," writes Dark, "I have the distinct pleasure of knowing I've seen something good without knowing exactly why." Can we hope to do no better?
Dark cautions against invoking words like "God, truth, glory, good, life, humanity" with much certainty, at the risk of believing we've "gotten to the bottom of what we're talking about." But this admonition may lead us to abandon many useful questions: What is good? What is quality? Why are joy and suffering worth knowing? Where are we going? The beauty of art is its ability to edify as well as erode, to aggressively articulate what is real as well as what is a lie.
Take two examples which Dark applauds in passing but which warrant more treatment in his book. Baz Luhrmann's film musical, Moulin Rouge, is a vivid spectacle that enriches our appreciation of the four virtues its Bohemians repeatedly profess: "truth, beauty, freedom, and love." These potential religious buzzwords are given inventive flair in the captivating love story of Christian and Satine, which pivots on the question of what is true and beautiful behind the glamorous façade, and contrasts freedom and love with the cruel bondage of the Duke. Likewise, while Shrek is deconstructive—its primary inspiration seems to be the chance to thumb its nose at Disney—it also reconstructs, twisting the standard Cinderella narrative and bending it into a more authentic tale of soul-deep beauty and unglamorous love. The real power of art, of which these movies suggest popular culture is capable, is not only to awaken us to an alternative consciousness, but to help us define what our alternative reality is.
Dark's analysis of the truly apocalyptic The Matrix brings to mind another blind spot, a confusion that arises from my aspirations to be a good Calvinist. Calvinism firmly directs our gaze to the inherent evil in humanity, and yet we must simultaneously have universal compassion, finding Christ in the faces we see around us. As Dark writes, "When we look at the face of a human being, we're gazing upon a living mystery of infinite worth." But can our view of humanity's total depravity, and our apocalyptic awareness that we are resisting a system others are captive to, lead us to be somewhat misanthropic—to generally disdain humankind—and sinfully proud of our own superior discernment?
Such a dilemma tugs at Neo in The Matrix. The people he sees on the streets are in the fixed grip of the system, and he must be prepared to shoot them. They are, Morpheus, tells him, "the very people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of the system and that makes them our enemy." How does Neo balance his empathy for humankind with his knowledge that the crowds he walks among are all deceived by their minds? And if we as Christians adopt The Matrix as a metaphor for our exilic consciousness, how do we reconcile our awareness of total depravity with what Richard Mouw calls our "empathy mandate"? Perhaps this will be a theme of the two sequels to be released next summer, when Neo must enter the Matrix and pluck more lost souls. But to have explored this contradiction would have made the original Matrix an even better movie, easing its reliance on the standard cowboy-shoots-bad-guys narrative, and would have made Everyday Apocalypse an even better book.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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