Happenings

The coarsening of culture

Nov 2002    

THE devil came up with an unsolicited and tempting suggestion. He urged Jesus to climb to the highest point of the temple and throw Himself down (Mt. 4:5-6).

According to his devilishly shrewd logic, if Jesus was the Son of God, then God will surely command His angels to make sure that Jesus was not hurt. In fact, the devil simply quoted scripture, without much distracting commentary. How much more scriptural can one get?

The problem is that the devil loves to twist scripture out of context. He used a piece of poetry from the book of Psalms (91:11-12), wrongly made it to sound literally true, took it out of its proper context and applied it wrongly. We have to be careful when the devil starts quoting scripture.

Many of you may have noticed a phenomenon which has been described by former US Secretary of State for Education William Bennett as the “coarsening of culture”. Bennett has written a series of books on virtue. What he has observed can perhaps be best explained in terms of two realities of our modern age.

Firstly we live in the midst of a growing avalanche of information that threatens to bury us in a sea of trivia. Secondly we have an increasing number of choices in almost any area of life you can think of. This means that certain people are trying to get our attention and getting us to make choices and buy whatever is on sale, whether it is a car or a lifestyle.

Because there is an information overload, there is a pressure for those who want to communicate with us to present a particular piece of information in a way that would catch our attention. How can a generation of television viewers who keep switching a multiplicity of channels be made to “stay tuned” to a particular channel?

It is this challenge that produces what writer David Shenk has described as “a culture awash in histrionics”. His argument goes something like this. There is too much information around. How do you ensure that your piece of information stands out in the crowd? Because there is a competition to be heard, there is a pressure to “talk louder”. The communicator uses louder colour, shows more flesh, and says shocking things in order to be heard. This produces a society that has become more crude and crass in its expressions and communication. This can be seen on television, advertisements, radio, films, drama, and the like. Hate radio, crude song lyrics and so on are but part of what communication scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson has observed as the “normalisation of hyperbole”.

This means that almost daily we encounter that which is shocking, as those who deal with communication, the arts, media, and popular culture continue to test the limits of what is acceptable. In an endless series of small changes, the levels of decency and common courtesy have become lowered to what would have been grossly unacceptable only yesterday. Many people feel helpless as their social and physical environments become littered with crude culture created by those who want to get our attention.

The increasing crudeness and the loss of respect, politeness, and courtesy in the world are causes for great concern. As Christians, our calling is to be salt in the world and we are to preserve common decency and whatever is good and valuable in our cultures. The danger to the church, though, is that instead of being preserving salt in the world, the church might unwittingly embrace the same coarsening of culture that is taking place in the world.

Earlier we saw how the devil tempted Jesus to jump from a height to produce a spectacular event. Notice that the place of temptation was the temple where God was worshipped. How tempting it is to change the place of worship into a circus, to try to catch the attention of the worshippers with a spectacular magic show. The Lord Jesus refused to walk on such a path and shows us the way to handle the temptations we face from a coarsening culture.

We can be tempted to speak louder and use whatever seems to be effective in getting people’s attention. But in so doing we would be going against what the Gospel is all about. Instead we should display the beauty of godliness, the characteristics of which the Bible describes as the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These characteristics will prevent us from being recruited by the crude and rude subcultures we are seeing emerging all around us. Our speech and conversations will be seasoned with God’s love and depth.

So what can we do about the coarsening of culture? Personally, we must be filled with the Holy Spirit and submit ourselves to God. Then we would exhibit godliness and the fruit of the Spirit. We can then help society to gain and retain depth and civility. As a church, we must avoid joining the bandwagons outside which promote increasing levels of superficiality and coarseness.

I once saw a worship leader conduct a service in a rather unrefined way. He made the service sound like a game show. My heart is troubled whenever I see crudeness seep into the church. I think people like this well-meaning worship leader confuse meaningful and vibrant worship in the Spirit (which we are challenged to rediscover and retain in the church) with the crass showmanship of coarse popular culture. And we must be extra vigilant especially in the church.

The Lord Jesus refused to turn the temple where God is worshipped with depth and beauty, trembling and fear into a crude circus. We must do the same. In our communication, publicity, expressions and sharing of our faith, we must not import crude loudness and superficiality. Instead we must retain whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable (Phil. 4:8). For only then would the medium fit the message.


FRUIT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

‘We can be tempted to speak louder and use whatever seems to be effective in getting people’s attention. But in so doing we would be going against what the Gospel is all about. Instead we should display the beauty of godliness, the characteristics of which the Bible describes as the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These characteristics will prevent us from being recruited by the crude and rude subcultures we are seeing emerging all around us.’

REACH OUT

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