Against Pop Culture (Brad East)

See Brad East’s recent piece, Against Pop Culture.

The author’s language is a bit strong, and he probably extends his argument too far at times. For example, I’m not against engaging or doing analysis of pop culture. But notwithstanding those things, I think this is a thoughtful, challenging, and relevant piece. His argument reminds me a bit of James K.A. Smith’s anthropology and work on the “cultural liturgies” that shape our loves.

The below quote captures the gist of his case:

My argument here is not against the liceity of ever streaming a show or otherwise engaging pop culture; it is against the ostensibly positive reasons [emphasis mine] in favor of its being a good thing Christians ought to do, indeed, ought to care about doing, with eagerness and energy. …

Any and all libertarian (in the sense of a philosophy of the will’s freedom) Christian accounts of pop culture, Netflix, social media, etc., fail at just this point, because they view individuals as choosers who operate neutrally with options arrayed before them, one of which in our day happens to be flipping Netflix on (or not) and “deciding” to watch a meaty, substantive Film instead of binging bite-size candy-bar TV. But that is not an accurate depiction of the situation. Netflix—and here again I’m using Netflix as a stand-in for all digital and social media today—is a principality and a power, as is the enormous flat-screen television set, situated like a beloved household god in every living room in every home across the country. It calls for attention. It demands your love. It wants you. And its desire for you elicits desire in you for it.

It is, therefore, a power to be resisted, at least for Christians. Such resistance requires ascesis. And ascesis means discipline, denial, and sometimes extreme measures. It might mean you suffer boredom and lethargy on a given evening. It might mean you have to read a book, or use your hands. It might even mean you won’t catch the quippy allusions in a shallow conversation at work. So be it.


Portions of this piece reflect a decent bit of my own sentiments towards pop-culture.

If you know me, you know I’m not exactly “up to date” and “in the know” on most things pop culture.[1] People often express shock or will give you slight grief if you show your lack of awareness of these things. They will also predictably try to convince you that should really be giving more of your attention to them (as if they somehow matter). In other words, there’s a good deal of social pressure in our society to care and know about these things. No one wants to be weird. But pop culture is so, well, popular, that not knowing about it inevitably makes one weird.

And so, my lack of pop-cultural awareness sometimes becomes something of a joke among my friends. But my friends also know I’m not bothered by this at all. I’m fine being weird on this front. I don’t feel the pressure. I guess I’m immune to it, because I just I don’t care to conform at this point.

But, to be clear, my lack of attention to much of pop culture isn’t just coincidental (i.e., I just don’t care about it or like it — although that’s true); it’s also a bit principled, which hopefully is also why I don’t care (i.e., I don’t want to care about it; I find it a bit unvirtuous [ducks head], unprioritzed, disproportioned, and hence a bit intemperate to care so much about it). So good luck trying pressure me to care about something I kind of feel like is a waste of time at best, and an existential opiate at worst. 😉


[1] At this point, I want to make sure we draw a distinction between being knowledgeable about pop culture and being knowledge of, discerning about, and able to analyze culture. For instance, Andy Crouch doesn’t have a TV in his living room, and John Piper doesn’t own a TV at all, although many hold them up as some of the most astute and observant theological, cultural analysts.

So to be clear, I think cultural engagement is good, and the ability to do cultural analysis is important and valuable. I also acknowledge that pop culture provides a good portion of the subject matter, trends, and (at times) “cultural artifacts” for such engagement and reflection — no denials there. I’m just not convinced I need to know about all the latest songs, movies, TV shows, or celebrity gossip (what happens on the “surface level,” if you will) in order to do that sort of discerning analytical work on the more foundational “deep level.”

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