THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS

Julian raises an interesting point – is it even meaningful to talk about a “culture war” in the internet age, when the idea of a common mass culture seems as dead as Betamax? This was Terry Teachout’s point, too, in a recent Commentary essay that’s unfortunately in their for-pay archives (bastards!), but that I tried to summarize and respond to here. Essentially, Teachout’s thesis is that “the common culture of widely shared values and knowledge that once helped to unite Americans of all creeds, colors, and classes no longer exists,” and that instead “we now have a ‘balkanized’ group of subcultures whose members pursue their separate, unshared interests in an unprecedented variety of ways.”

I think this is true, up a point – nobody who’s wandered through Comcast’s 300-odd channels or wasted a day online would deny that American culture is in certain ways more fragmented than ever before. But I think there’s still something of a common culture, broadly construed – or more accurately, I think there are two cultures, one highbrow and one lowbrow, which interact in various ways but which are increasingly distinct from one another. These two common cultures aren’t necessarily defined in terms of a single television show that everyone watches, but each one has a set of shared values, assumptions, interests and habits – all of which may manifest themselves in a wide variety of shows and books and movies and websites, but which are held in “common” nonetheless. So for instance, one set of highbrow types might spend their spare time reading literary bloggers, while another set spends theirs downloading Arcade Fire or British Sea Power from iTunes. But both of these sets probably consider the New Yorker the last word in highbrow journalism, read the Sunday Times regularly, aspire to send their kids to elite universities, laugh along with Jon Stewart (even if they don’t watch The Daily Show every night) and so on and so forth. They don’t share all the same tastes, in other words, but they speak the same cultural language.

And this is even more true in the lowbrow realm, where people are more likely to have their tastes in music, film and books – and their attitudes and mores – shaped by an increasingly homogenized and consolidated culture industry. The front table at Barnes and Noble narrows the options for readers; the book tables at Wal-Mart even more so. Local radio stations are owned by national behemoths; the movie industry is dependent for its profits on 15 or 20 blockbuster movies every year; and there are 300 channels, sure – but the fact that one person watches “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” while another watches “Trading Spaces” and a third favors “Live with Regis and Kelly” doesn’t mean that they aren’t partaking of a common culture.

WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, REINHOLD NIEBUHR?: So, returning to the original question, what does this mean for Christianity? Simply, this: that America has a lowbrow culture that’s still pretty religious, but whose religiosity tends to be, well, lowbrow – a lowest-common-denominator mix of self-help spirituality and New Age mush. And the highbrow culture, meanwhile, isn’t religious at all: it’s not anti-religion, exactly, but it definitely considers religious belief an oddity and an anachronism, and orthodox Christian belief dangerously close to fanaticism. Which is one of the reasons that most religiosity in America is so lowbrow – because the highly intelligent people who might elevate the level of religious discourse have their faith leeched out of them by their immersion in the highbrow, in its assumptions and its prejudices. And the people who complain about this – about how we don’t have any more Reinhold Niebuhrs, and isn’t it a tragedy? – tend to be exactly the people who in an earlier era would have been the Niebuhrs, but who now partake of what Richard John Neuhaus once called “the pleasures of regretful unbelief.”

What we need, then – and by “we” I mean Christians, though I obviously think there would be benefits to non-Christians as well – is a more highbrow Christianity, and one that doesn’t prostrate itself on the altar of political correctness, as token highbrow Catholics like Garry Wills are wont to do. Perhaps “culture war” is the wrong word to use in this context, since we don’t necessarily need more Christians making the case against same-sex marriage, or pushing all their chips into the battle over courthouse displays in Alabama. We need more Christians writing good novels and essays and doctoral theses, and television shows and movies and music – all of which might inter alia make the case for a Christian understanding of, say, sexuality, but which would be primarily works of art and intellect and not polemics, creating a cultural space rather than just a political movement.

We can’t expect any favors: The doors of highbrow American culture have been closed against that sort of thing for decades now, and you can’t expect the New Yorker or the New York Times to just throw them open – why should they? They’re content with the world they’ve made, in which Philip Pullman is a hero, C.S. Lewis is a sad “prisoner” of his religious belief, science is always under assault from fundamentalism and monotheism is an easy whipping boy for all of history’s ills. Christians keep insisting that this world has it all wrong, of course, but it’s not enough to say it – we need to show them.

But there’s no reason to be discouraged – after all, we’ve done it before . . .

– posted by Ross

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