Suburbia and the stock backdrop

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Since moving to Washington, D.C. almost two years ago, I’ve been trying to figure out why I can no longer stand suburbia. Every time I go back out to the suburbs, I want to leave after 24 hours – if that.

At the end of last summer, I was driving back from a camping trip in West Virginia with a few friends, and we stopped at a Chick-fil-A in the suburbs on the way back. One of them made a comment about how the shopping center we were in comforted her because it made her feel like she was at home, with its plaza full of nice chain restaurants like Pei Wei and Chipotle and stores like Office Max and Best Buy.

I agreed. It reminded me of my own home in California. You can find plenty of shopping centers like that in Bakersfield or Santa Clarita.

My friend was from Texas, though. And we were in Virginia. You could have swapped out one for the other and no one would know any better.

A week or two later, while listening to an obscure Switchfoot song called C’mon C’mon, it hit me. The first verse goes like this:

You’ve been living life like it’s a sequel

And you’re already bored with the plot

As if the cast and the score

Are more money than before

But the script and the backdrops are stock

The backdrops are stock.

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That’s it. Songwriter Jon Foreman is speaking about life in a much more holistic, poetic sense than the place you happen to live, but in the chain-restaurant-stocked malls of America, gleaming with affluence, we see the “real life” embodiment of the stock backdrop. It’s like those internet stock photos that make blog posts look like a dime a dozen. The pictures are framed correctly and well-lit, the models are attractive, the scenarios they communicate are clear, but my goodness they’re boring. They’re so ubiquitous these days that we can spot a stock photo in a second. They’re better than no image at all, of course, but they carry the stale whiff of banality.

It’s colorful and pretty, but excessively pastiche, the suburban scene. How can Virginia, Texas, and California all look the same? Why the hundred-store-chains?

More money than before.

There’s something remarkable about how a person can drive 2,500 miles from coast to coast of the United States and eat at the same restaurant every stop of the way. It’s one of those unprecedented facets of our era of late-capitalism. I can understand why postmodern thinkers and urban hipsters feel like the wealth of the suburbs is just a façade of marketing tricks obscuring reality. I can understand how people worry that the suburbs turns our experience of community into a series of isolated dots on a map rather than warm circles of neighbors.

At this point I suppose some readers will conclude I’m saying corporate chains are dehumanizing. Maybe I am. “Dehumanizing” is probably a little too strong though.

As a middle-class consumer, I’m glad that Walmart exists and appreciate how it frees up my budget, but it doesn’t make the world a more interesting place. There are better sights to take in than shopping malls full of Foot Lockers and American Eagles and Forever 21s. There’s more to savor than Starbucks and TGI Fridays. There’s more to do on the weekends than catching a flick at your local AMC Theater.

I love how Switchfoot’s song ends:

So C’mon C’mon C’mon

Let’s abandon this darkness

Oh C’mon C’mon C’mon

Let’s follow this through

Yeah so C’mon C’mon C’mon

Everything’s waiting

We will live like fire and gold

When everything’s new

When everything’s new.

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“Variety is the spice of life,” goes the old cliche, but it speaks to something intrinsic in human nature: the drive to find newness. I have found the true wealth of cities to lie not in dollars or possessions, but in their trove of experiences: the bars and coffee shops; the parks and museums; the neighborhoods and architecture; the surrounding rivers, beaches, and forests; the people from so many tongues, tribes, and nations. Yes, there lies the city, living, pulsating, breathing all around you, an inexhaustible well of newness – flawed and wretched of course – but still a taste of life as it was meant to be.

ADDENDUM: Tyler Castle has a wonderful piece at Values & Capitalism entitled “How the Hipster Ethic Is Revitalizing the American Economy.” It takes a much less subjective and much more clearly articulated angle on the idea I’m trying to get across here.

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Step Back Sometimes and Remember that it’s All Fake and Pointless

Meet the latest cultural artifact and YouTube sensation from mix master Daniel Kim. For the past several years, Kim has been creating pop music mashups of the past year’s hits. His 2012 mix is easily his best yet, and the collective internet audience has rewarded it with more than seven million views after being out for only a week. It’s worth the eight minute watch:

I confess I’m enough of a Philistine to enjoy a good pop tune once in a while. Some I enjoy quite frequently (like Owl City’s “Good Time,” which I listened to daily all last summer). I try to at least know of the top music stars right now. A compilation like this thus brings back many memories from the past year. It’s skillfully mixed together and a lot of fun to watch.

These songs have a certain nostalgic value because I associate them with people or times in my life. That’s fine, but it really just obscures their true nature. When you think about the songs themselves, there’s almost nothing there. They are nothing but sticky-sweet ear candy stretched over a gaping void. Some of these songs are uplifting and anthemic, but most are also overwhelmingly narcissistic.

If this is representative of our cultural consciousness for the past year (not an entirely unfair claim), it raises some scary questions. The songs in this anthology are utterly detached from anything real, significant, lasting or valuable. It’s a load of fakeness, fool’s gold, glam and glitter, lights, pretty faces, too-perfect bodies, fleeting feelings. It’s kitsch that has little reason for existing other than to make money. Out of the Pop Danthology’s 55 songs, I could probably count on one hand the ones that aren’t about “love.” Continue reading →

Book Review: “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World”

It was with great eagerness that I picked up James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.” As the title suggests, Hunter tries to tackle the contentious topic of culture changing as it’s understood and practiced by Christians. Given that Hunter is both a Christian and prominent sociologist at the University of Virginia, he seems to be a good man for the job.

Any talk of transforming culture inevitably involves politics, and that’s the thing about “To Change the World” that piqued my interest. My understanding of the intersection of Christianity and politics has evolved quite a bit over the past several years (along with my convictions about what that intersection ought to look like). Given that I just graduated from a Christian college and started a fledgling career in politics, I could hardly have chosen something more relevant to my life.

That’s because Hunter sets out to answer the big question: how do Christians go about changing the culture in which they live? Or more generally: how ought we to go about living out our faith and engaging with the world? It’s a timeless subject that Christianity has wrestled through since it’s inception, starting at least with St. Augustine and continuing until today with organizations like Focus on the Family.

Hunter responds to this question in three parts. He first explores the substance of the question: What is culture? How and why does it change? What is it like today and what kind of influence do Christians currently wield? This part of the book is mainly analysis that lays the groundwork for the rest of the book, clears up some misconceptions about world-changing, and defines key terms—what exactly is “culture,” for instance. How do ideas have consequences? Why doesn’t society always reflect the beliefs of the majority?

Whether or not you’ve thought through these questions, it’s well worth the read. Some of Hunter’s answers may surprise you. For instance, changing culture isn’t as simple as “changing the hearts and minds, one person at a time.” Rather, those at the top of elite power structures have far more sway in the movement of our ideas and beliefs than whatever the masses say. Only 15% of America at the most is secular, yet our society–the public square, our classrooms, and so on–is intensely secular.

The second part of the book explains and critiques, in a self-admittedly very broad fashion, the three main movements or “models” that American Christians have adopted over the past several decades in their mission to change the world—the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptists. He sums them up in the terms “defensive against”, “relevance to”, and “purity from”, respectively.

In the third part, Hunter goes on the offensive, offering a new model for cultural engagement that he terms “faithful presence.” Continue reading →

Music Co-Review: A Conversation About “Cold Hard Want” by House of Heroes

It’s my pleasure to introduce my first guest blogger of sorts, Austin Mitzel. Austin and I were roommates for a year in college, and one of the many affinities we shared was a love for art, philosophy, and the intersection of the two. As one clear example of this, when I discovered the band House of Heroes’ (HoH) sophomore album, “The End Is Not The End,” and showed it to my roommates, Austin fell in love with the band just as much–if not more–than I had. When House of Heroes’ newest album, “Cold Hard Want,” came out earlier this summer, I made a point to ask his opinion via Facebook message. Here is our exchange (with minor edits for grammar and flow):

So your request lit reviewer flame in my soul. here goes.

I’ve always appreciated the band’s work for its originality and thought-provoking material. Besides the album “Cold Hard Want,” I’ve only heard “The End is Not the End” and “Suburba.” Both of those were strong albums–particularly, in my view, in terms of thematic unity. “Cold Hard Want” isn’t an exception. In fact, “Cold Hard Want” is arguably more unified, especially in formal, musical terms. I’ll get to that later on, but you can know, for now, that I think it’s their best work yet.

In strictly musical terms, I think “Cold Hard Want” is features some of their most diverse work, and it seems to consistently get better. They’ve started to move away from the classic rock of “The End is Not the End,” but what’s not to like about “Remember the Empire,” or “Angels of Night”? Frontman Tim Skipper is considerably more adventurous on this album, and his vocal talent shows. “Cold Hard Want” feels much more weighty than HoH’s earlier work, but I think the heavier punch suits them.

Isn’t the title fascinating? It struck me as odd even before I took my first listen. I’m convinced now that that is how it’s supposed to be. The title is taken from the chorus in “Out of my Way”:

“It took a whole lot of blood and sweat to get what I got,
It took a whole lot of cold hard want to get what I got,
It took a whole lot of nights like these to get what I got,
Yeah it took cold hard want to get what I got yeah!”

Of course a whole host of questions come up: What did he get? Was it worth it? Quintessential HoH here; it’s never answered. Or, actually, the whole album is the answer. One of the stand out tracks for me at this point is “Comfort Trap.” It’s a blood chilling caricature of the materialistic man if ever there was one. “Cop” is another one of my favorites, and one that was (I think) deliberately placed before “Comfort Trap” to depict the characters in contrast to each other. It’s easy enough to see the album as a resounding condemnation of materialism (“Comfort Trap” is, after all, the centerpiece of the work) but the questions it asks are more universal.

Back to the musical form. If you’ve listened to the album, you’ve probably noticed that two of the tracks are a capella. Their positions in the album at the very beginning at near the end would seem to make them book ends–and would make the last song a coda of sorts. The opening a capella track sets the tone for the whole album. Time, racing on before us while we stare helplessly as it passes. And a dream of a man, a man who’s not afraid of life and death. The second a capella section asks us to look into our souls-time passes us by, but we can still get home. Or can we? Continue reading →

Book Review: Meaning at the Movies

I’m sure many of my readers will agree that Christian books about movies–and culture in general–are a dime a dozen. Especially now, with all of the blog posts and sermons that evangelical Christians have delivered on the subject over the years, few bring much to the table. Professor Grant Horner of The Master’s College, with his humble contribution, “Meaning at the Movies,” realizes this. He takes a different tack toward movies by trying mainly to help readers understand and appreciate films in light of what the Bible says about being human.

And he succeeds.

“Meaning at the Movies” stands out because of a simple, yet powerful, thesis. Horner builds his book on the notion that culture, and especially the arts, are fundamentally a result of mankind suppressing the truth of God. As he says, “We all know, deep down, certain things, and we all, deep down, have certain expectations about the world and the ways we think things ought to be.” Some things, Horner would say, we know and refuse to disbelieve, other things we know and refuse to believe, but in either case, certain truths about ourselves, as image bearers of God, tends to come up in the movies we make.

This happens because mankind was made to be in relationship with God and worship Him, Horner says, yet we have sinned and fallen away from God. The result is that we are left seeking to fill a void in our souls. His key support for this comes from the first chapter of the book of Romans. Verses 16 through 23 in particular are worth quoting here, where St. Paul writes:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

This is a direct, open, evangelical approach rooted in the Bible. Horner believes that the Bible is God’s word and therefore the only pure truth we have. As divine revelation, we can trust what it says about God and about humanity. Therefore, it ought to shape the very fabric of how we think about and analyze film.

As “common” as this approach may be–pretty much every Christian book on movies would purport to go by “biblical principles”–the idea of suppressed truth that Horner appeals to over and over again throughout his book strikes me as pretty unique. Horner isn’t out to say which movies are good and which ones are bad. He’s not out to give us a guide to what we should and shouldn’t watch, even though he does have a sizable section on discernment. Rather, he’s out to teach us a radical theory about human nature and cultural production.

Continue reading →